I’m a sophomore with three pre-med suitemates, which means that I’m hearing a lot about how much Organic Chemistry sucks right now. I sympathize with them halfway: Orgo is awful, but it’s not nearly as bad as many pre-meds at Yale make it out to be.
Like many a Yalie, I got to campus intent on following the pre-med course of study. Halfway through the semester, I dropped these plans and made the abrupt but welcoming switch to a humanities focus. However, because I was taking “Freshman Organic Chemistry,” concerned pre-meds assumed that I had been thrown off the path by that fearsome demon called Orgo. But that was the farthest thing from the truth.
I’ll be upfront: I got an A in “Freshman Organic Chemistry.” Most students in my class did — our professor told us. While most of us were busy worrying ourselves sick throughout the semester (I had my fair share of panicky moments), we failed to recognize that the Organic Chemistry method and curriculum at Yale was designed to reduce student stress and promote success.
What makes Organic Chemistry difficult as a subject (especially in its first semester) is that, unlike most other science disciplines, it isn’t entirely memorization-based. Once you commit a handful of reactions to memory, you have to figure out how to apply them to many different mind-bending situations on your exams. The spatial intelligence required of this task is not something that most of us can immediately call upon, which is why it has to be trained through all those late nights in the library.
To help us, all of the Orgo syllabi actually provide students with a lot of leeway. At first glance, it seems like a lot — problem sets, three or four quizzes (depending on the professor) and three midterms. But it isn’t so bad. All of the syllabi that I examined allowed students to drop the midterm that they did most poorly on. Some professors didn’t collect problem sets, assigning them solely for students who wished to practice the concepts in time with the lectures. All classes offered sections and review sessions that provided students with personal attention and the opportunity to clarify any sources of confusion.
If I had taken Orgo at one of our peer institutions and put in the same amount of effort, I may not even have passed the class. My professor, Jonathan Ellman, never collected a single problem set. For me, that meant that I never had to do them. The night before each quiz or exam, I would do a handful of problems, often getting them wrong without knowing why, and I’d march in the next day praying for the best. Things turned out fine. The ability to drop my worst quiz and midterm grades (five out of 20 and 83 out of 225, respectively) helped a lot. So did the generous upward curve and high similarity between the practice problems and actual exams.
Of course, I am only speaking from personal experience. Freshman Orgo students are a self-selecting group, which may explain the high grades — although most of us were not award-winning prodigies, just students that had dedicated themselves to the sciences in high school and were therefore slightly ahead of the game. I also know that other professors and versions of the class may be stricter with grading. I can’t even pretend to comprehend how a student coming from a weaker science background might feel learning these advanced concepts without a solid foundation.
What I can say, however, is that we always need to put things into perspective. While we sob in our rooms over exams that were, at worst, probably still doable, my pre-med friends at some other schools — Northwestern, Washington University — power through longer problem sets, tests that are impossible to finish in the allotted time slot and — worst of all — grade deflation. Organic Chemistry at Yale is not a weed-out class, and we need not continue to treat it as such. Nor do we have to allow that negativity to taint the rest of the pre-med experience.
And it’s not just Orgo and the pre-meds. It’s the Intro Programmers. DSers. These classes and programs are difficult, but so is mostly everything at Yale. Recognize them as a challenge rather than an ordeal and move toward realizing success — rather than just preventing failure.
Wesley Yiin is a sophomore in Pierson College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.