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How to Survive Chemistry in College

Updated on December 29, 2019
Hilary Hsieh profile image

Hilary is a sophomore at the University of Georgia. She is majoring in Pharmaceutical Sciences and has succeeded in chemistry courses.


This article was written specifically with the challenges of chemistry class in mind. However, most, if not all, of these tips can be applied for other subjects as well. I hope this is helpful, and thank you for reading!

Chemistry is extremely difficult, but succeeding is possible!
Chemistry is extremely difficult, but succeeding is possible! | Source

1) Do Pre-Lecture Reading!

Though this is a very effective way to learn new information, most college students avoid doing it out of sheer laziness. I would know... I used to be one of them. Reading up on new material before the lecture is much more beneficial than you would expect.

When you first encounter new information, you need time to digest and process the material. Though some concepts may be easier to grasp than others, they all take time to absorb. During lecture, you will not have the luxury to fully comprehend the information presented. Take it from me; I was so lost that I could not ask questions about the topic since I have not even understood what I did not understand.

It is much better to learn the material beforehand, take ample time to digest it, then ask questions during lecture. Additionally, hearing a professor discuss the subject can help you reinforce your knowledge and form connections between topics.


I recommend taking notes or making an outline during the pre-lecture reading. During the lecture, make necessary additions and highlight the areas that the professor emphasized.

Reading the material before the lecture is very helpful.
Reading the material before the lecture is very helpful. | Source

2) Sit in the Front and Center

Most freshman chemistry classes are in large lecture halls with several hundred students. Trust me, it's as terrifying as it sounds. If you're unlucky, you'll be assigned a professor who mumbles incomprehensibly. Sitting closer to the front and center can help you hear better.

It also has the added benefit of keeping you in the professor's line of sight. You may think the idea sounds absolutely nerve-wracking and horrible...and you're correct. In fact, that's exactly my point, as you're less likely to fall asleep or play phone games when the guy controlling your grades is eyeing you like a hawk.

The seats in the back are wonderful if you're interested in taking a nap and watching your grades plummet. I personally spent my time back there playing Pokemon Go. Don't be like me...sit in the middle and avoid temptation.


It can be difficult to secure the coveted seats in the front. Don't worry; aim for the ones in the middle and try to get as close as you can to the professor. One day in the back won't decimate your grades...I think.

Sitting close to the front can keep your attention from wandering.
Sitting close to the front can keep your attention from wandering. | Source

3) Practice, Practice, Practice!

Chemistry exams are difficult, and they make up most of your grade (if not all of it). How is any student expected to survive, let alone pass?

From my experience, the tests consist mostly of problems, which are rarely discussed during lecture. Most professors prefer to lecture on concepts that are difficult to learn on your own rather than discussing how to plug numbers into an equation. This may vary from professor to professor, but most chemistry exams are quite similar, consisting of a mixture of conceptual and problem-solving questions.

The best way to tackle these exams is to do the practice problems in your chemistry textbook or workbook. Some good places to start are the example problems within the chapter, which are usually already worked out for you. Practice those until you are confident that you can do one on your own, then do the problems at the end of the chapter.

Also, be prepared to explain concepts in case of concept-based problems. I recommend that you look over anything mentioned in lecture that can not be found in the textbook, as any information could be fair game on the test.


If you need help, email your professor, go to office hours, or explore your university's tutoring resources. As long as you put the work in, you'll do well. Good luck!

Practicing homework problems will be very helpful for exams.
Practicing homework problems will be very helpful for exams.

4) Review and Organize Notes After Lecture

During lecture, the professor will wait for no one, and your notes will be quite disorganized and messy. In fact, my lecture notes are a confused jumble of words, random abbreviations, and unfinished sentences. I recommend you use your time during lecture to scribble down tidbits that don't show up in the PowerPoint or textbook. After the lecture, organize your lecture notes by adding the professor's words to your pre-lecture notes. Once your notes are organized, look over them and make sure you understand the concepts.

If you want to review your notes in-depth, you could work on practice problems or draw charts and tables to organize concepts. The diagrams you draw can be an excellent study tool once you have to study for finals. If you still have questions, ask your professor via email or office hours. By reviewing this way, you retain more information for a longer period of time, so do this instead of going on a Netflix marathon.


To study your notes, try reading them aloud. This forces you to actually think about what you're looking at by verbalizing your thoughts. For maximum effectiveness, grab a friend and explain concepts to them. This will help you better remember the information you're studying.

Organizing notes after lecture can help make them easier to study and remember.
Organizing notes after lecture can help make them easier to study and remember. | Source

5) Go To Office Hours!

Office hours are incredibly important for succeeding in difficult classes, especially those that are essential for your major. By going to them, you set yourself up for a great relationship with your professor, which is quite important if you need recommendation letters later on.

In addition, you have the opportunity to talk to your professor with few students around, giving you more one on one help and personalized assistance. If you're lucky, you may even be able to weasel out some information about the upcoming test.

From my experience, office hours are only helpful if you go there with a goal or specific questions in mind. Don't show up expecting your professor to give a generic lecture about what he already covered in class. Instead, ask him/her to elaborate on difficult concepts or how to work certain types of problems.

Build a relationship with your professor by going to office hours.
Build a relationship with your professor by going to office hours. | Source

Don't Cram For Exams

We all know not to cram for exams, but we do anyway, crying tears that taste like caffeine and regret. Your course grade will most likely be made up of only four to five exams, including the final. This gives you very little room to recover from mistakes.

Cramming for a test is bad in multiple ways, as you may already know. For one, pulling an all-nighter results in a groggy, grumpy, and sleep-deprived mental state, which isn't exactly optimal for exams. Additionally, sleep is necessary for your brain to process all of the information you studied and store it in your long-term memory. Without enough time to absorb the course material, you lose a significant amount of the concepts you just read.

Instead, I recommend that you start studying and compiling your study guide from the first day of lecture. Not only does it give you a head start for the inevitable cram before finals, it also helps with information retention. Rather than desperately trying to re-learn a semester's worth of information, a couple of hours and a few practice problems should be enough to refresh yourself on a topic.

Studying a little every day is better than cramming!
Studying a little every day is better than cramming! | Source

Final Thoughts

Yes, chemistry is difficult. However, you will do wonderfully as long as you put in the work, time, and organization. Study smart, not hard, and good luck!

You got this! Happy studying!
You got this! Happy studying! | Source

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