top of page
  • Henry Liu

General Chemistry Survival Guide

If you are studying the life sciences in college, firstly, welcome! You are about to embark on a journey of discovery that will rival anything you have done before. However, chances are that you have heard of the dreaded horrors of Organic Chemistry (among other things). While that much is true, one should not ignore the gauntlet that typically comes before orgo, general chemistry. If orgo is like the final exam that you study days for because you know the teacher is going to make it supremely difficult, then gen chem is like the pop quiz that no one knew was coming until it was far too late. But fear not, for this handy guide should get you started on your chemistry journey with the at least the most basic of tools (the rest is up to the mercy of your professors).

Disclaimer: This is a very brief overview intended to give panicking college freshmen a chance to reassure themselves a few days before school starts. In no way is this a comprehensive guide. If you are a panicking freshman, relax. Breathe. It’ll be ok. Many have survived before you, and many will survive after you. Just read on.


Typically, in a college general chemistry sequence, there are two traditional freshman year courses, General Chemistry 1 and 2 (not very creative, I know). Within these two classes, the material ranges from basic introductions of molarity all the way to quantum mechanics, depending on your school and professor. Generally though, the core curriculum is similar. You will definitely see such wonders as Lewis diagrams, VSEPR Theory, Thermodynamics, Acid/Bases, Gas laws, and Reaction rates/mechanisms. All this is standard fare, and depending on your background in science, some will come relatively easily. However, there will be topics in which you encounter difficulty, and to understand these, a basic knowledge of chemistry fundamentals will help a lot. You see, the hard part of general chemistry is not always the material itself, but rather the pace in which the material is taught. Professors move at lightening pace (mine certainly did), and if you do not keep up, you will soon find yourself too far behind.

The Basics:

If you are prestudying for your chemistry classes, I cannot stress the importance of getting the basics down. A good rule of thumb is to know the first two chapters in the textbook your professor will be using. This will give you the necessary head start to settle into the class in the beginning. Typically, the first two chapters dive into basic dimensional analysis (changing units), molarity, periodic table trends, and the numbers associated with elements (atomic number, atomic mass, etc.). It is very important to get these down, as this will greatly assist problem solving in the future. The topics in chemistry nearly always build upon one another, and it is very important to know each individual piece before you move on. Another helpful hint: know your terminology! A lot of the vocabulary used in chemistry is highly technical, and it is really helpful to know what the professor is talking about while he or she is lecturing. Knowing basic math is also important. Let’s face it, we’re choosing life sciences not only because it is really interesting, but because we really don’t have to do a lot of math. I don’t blame you, but it really helps if you just brush up on high school algebra and precalculus. Understanding some basic chemistry topics, vocabulary, and math will have you well on your way to a successful start.

Problem Solving:

This is really the meat and potatoes of college chemistry. It doesn’t matter if you know all the theory in the world, if you cannot effectively apply them, you will still fail. The most important part of this is to know what the problem is asking you in the first place. A typical gen chem word problem will give you a group of known values such as atmospheric pressure, molarity, etc., and then ask you to find a certain value that relates back to what is given. I find it helpful to work backwards from what you need to find until you can find the formulas which help relate what you are given to what you need to find. Another tip: be careful of extraneous information. Some problems may contain an entire paragraph of text will numbers everywhere, but in reality, there are many times when you do not need all of them. Do not overthink this! I can remember all the times I have tried to relate everything together when in reality all I needed was a fraction of what was given.

Office Hours:

Go to them. That is all you need to know. This is the best time to ask questions in a semi-private environment (you can also ask in the middle of lecture, although if you are brave enough to do this, I would suggest a career in politics for you). Professors are there to help you, as are the teaching assistants. They exist during office hours for the sole purpose of helping you. Use this resource, even if you think you have got everything down, because I assure you, there will always be something new that you will learn outside of class (this ranges from interesting new research topics to the professor’s favorite ice cream place). This same idea applies to peer tutoring, supplemental instruction, and any other help the school offers. You don’t have to go to all of them, but I would suggest you go to a few, at least before the exams.

Final thoughts:

Enjoy your freshman year. Try not to stress too much, even though I know you will. Feel free to use the resources that the school offers you. Study hard, and you will be just fine.

30 views0 comments


bottom of page