My idea of fun doesn’t even come close to including Chemistry. Yet, I have spent hours of my free time studying Chemistry. All so I can become a dietitian (the things we do for our goals).
I do not consider myself good at science. I don’t even like it. So, getting through Chemistry was a long, unpleasant journey. But I passed with a B. For being smack-dab in the middle of a pandemic, and working on building my freelancing business (a full-time job in itself), I consider that impressive.
This post breaks down how I passed general Chemistry with a B while working full-time, and gives you tips so you can do even better.
Check Your Feelings About General Chemistry At The Door and Make a Goal
The number one way to fail at anything is to believe you will fail. Or, go into something knowing you hate it. All this will do is make studying a grind. And resistance is futile because your options are to quit (and don’t become a dietitian or nutrition professional) or open that textbook.
Like you, I chose to grin and bear it.
There were a few times I seriously considered giving up on becoming a registered dietitian. I mean, there are people who wake up, decide they are nutrition experts, open an Instagram account and make bank. While they do that, I’m glued to my computer watching Khan Academy videos. Was becoming a dietitian worth it? But, that mindset was a one-way ticket to dropping out of my program. And I’m no quitter.
So, to be successful (knowing I hate Chemistry), I had to check my feelings and insecurities at the door. The biggest issue I have with Chemistry is that it requires so much math. And I hate math. I repel math. Show me a page of algebraic equations and I go blank.
That didn’t matter anymore. For the 32-weeks I spent in general Chemistry (1 and 2), I told myself:
- I liked math and word problems (a small white lie)
- I would learn the concepts well enough to pass the class.
- I would make time to study every week.
Tell yourself whatever you’ve got to. Write it down. Then set a goal. My goal was to get a B. Why a B, and not an A?
Manage Your Expectations and Set a Realistic Goal
I believe in myself (and the power of the Internet), but I’m also realistic. I had to manage my expectations for myself. General Chemistry was the first class I took as a returning student. And I didn’t return as a full-time student.
Undergraduate courses are not designed for people with full-time jobs. That’s why I decided to take only Chemistry for a semester and see how I would adjust. Being a student is a skill as much as any other.
I thank myself for making that decision because starting with 2-3 classes would have been a nightmare. I had other commitments–like work–, I hadn’t studied any science since 2012, and my math skills are rustier than the titanic at the bottom of the ocean. The amount of time I would have to invest to get an A was more than I was willing to put in. I care about doing well, but I had to manage my expectations. Was I really going to study everyday? No.
The C was my safety net, and my goal was a B. In hindsight, this was a good goal to have. I didn’t get discouraged when I did poorly on a quiz because a B was still within reach.
Now, a B still requires a significant amount of study time. Which brings me to the next point.
Make Time to Study (Quality Time)
An obvious statement that’s worth repeating. There are subjects you can breeze through. If you have strong algebra skills, you could probably breeze through Chem.
I–who lacks these strong skills–spent Sunday and Monday studying for the lecture part of my course. Wednesday and Saturday were designated lab days.
Originally, I planned to spend 2 hours every day studying Chemistry. Every Monday when I submitted my weekly assignments, I would feel a huge weight off my shoulders…until it was Friday. And I realised I had not spent 2 hours a day studying, so now I had to cram.
I am a master procrastinator. Instead of an MA in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, I should have a master’s degree in procrastination. I got away with this in my first bachelor’s and in my MA program because I’m a good writer and researcher. 3000+ word essays? No problem. Plus, the concepts were topics I enjoyed and I had friends I could study with.
Fast forward to the present, I’m in an online nutrition degree program, my class is asynchronous and nutritional science is a brand-new discipline. It’s up to me to do the readings, and all questions go through email.
There were lecture notes and links to helpful videos (Khan Academy was a staple) to clarify some confusion. But, motivating myself to read my textbook was a challenge. And studying was so easy to put off until it was Sunday night and I had homework due the next day. A few times, I crammed the whole unit into one day. It was not a pretty picture. I could get away with this early on in gen Chem 1. I tried doing this once in gen Chem 2…it was an absolute nightmare.
Know How Much Time You Need
If you have limited time to study, this is the best thing you can do for yourself. Figure out how much time you need to interact with your course material. And find out when you are willing to sit down and study.
Eventually, I worked out that I needed 2 days minimum to study effectively. And the two days I was willing to focus on Chemistry were Sunday and Monday. If the unit was longer than usual, I added in an hour or two on Friday or Saturday (when I was doing other school work).
I assign each class a day (or two) for study/homework time. This helps me manage my tasks without overwhelming me. I tried the “do a little bit each day” approach, but I would look at my planner and freak out. Seeing a ton of tasks everyday stressed me out more, so I quit that method. Now, even though I know Chemistry will take me all day, having one task on my planner makes me feel better.
And during my designated study time, I try hard to only focus on Chemistry (or whatever other subject I’m on). I often use the pomodoro method and set a timer for 25 minutes intervals. Although saying I was hyper-focused would be a lie, I knew what I should have been doing. And this was enough to get me through my “half-hearted” study sessions.
This time management system worked for me because I could get into a “work” or “school” mindset for the day.
Sharpen Your Math Skills
Math is the foundation. Of everything. There is no escaping it. In all of Chemistry, I think the unit on batteries and molecular geometry were the only two that weren’t math heavy. So, break open that math book, sharpen a pencil and dust off your calculator.
I don’t know why algebra is not a prerequisite for gen Chem 1. In my program, you need algebra before you take biology…but not chem. I will never understand why.
At first I rejoiced that I didn’t have to take math (At that time, I planned to CLEP out of math at some point. Turns out you can’t take CLEP outside of the US and I live and work in China).
Anyway, I was glad I could take Chemistry without algebra first because I hate math. Later, I realised why this was a mistake. I probably doubled my study time because I had to learn both the math and the concepts. And I needed more than the math in the course. Simple things would confuse me because I was out of practice. Fractions were a nightmare. And when logs and natural logs came in…oof. No thank you. Moving the equations around was a huge struggle because I wasn’t sure how to move the elements correctly.
The examples in the book would skip over some steps (like cross multiplying) because it’s assumed you have a foundation in math. Somewhere in the depths of my mind, there is a relic of my math education. Too deep to help me. So, I had to review basic math and watch tutorials that went step-by-step to fill in the gaps in my knowledge.
Placing into a Math Class
Most universities will make you take a placement test as an undergrad. I took one (after I took gen Chem 1) and placed into intermediate algebra. However, I skipped over this and enrolled in college algebra anyway with a community college. I did this because they waived the placement test if you have a degree already.
While it would have been better to take intermediate algebra, I’m not made of money and I don’t want to be a student forever. So, skipping into college algebra (even though I wasn’t ready), was a logistic and financial decision.
Plus, my take on asynchronous classes is this: your teacher/university curates the resources you need and you essentially teach yourself. I can spend a few more hours per week relearning the basics to save myself $1000 and 7-14 weeks.
If I had to go back and do it all again, I would:
- Review intermediate algebra on my own
- Take college algebra (because nutrition majors have to take it anyway)
- Then take gen Chemistry 1 and 2.
Math skills are crucial. But, do you know what other skills are also vital to your success? Your reading skills. That’s because Chemistry and word problems go together.
Do Word Problems Like There is No Tomorrow
Chemistry is full of word problems. You practice your scanning skills as much as math. Doing a lot of word problems will help you pass Chemistry.
Do all of the chapter practice problems and redo old quizzes and tests. My cousin (who is a math wizard and halfway through PA school) told me to group the equations with question types. Otherwise, you would get lost in the sea of possibilities. She was right. I took gen Chem 1 and 2 over 16 weeks each. Come the midterm or final, I forgot what equation went with what kind of problem.
If I had spent more time reviewing and made myself a nice study guide before my tests, I probably would have done better. But, I passed. That was enough for me. I earned my Bs.
And I have the Khan Academy and the Organic Chemistry Tutor to thank for those Bs.
Use Your Resources Wisely
I am thankful that I decided to study nutrition in an age where we have the Internet. I can’t imagine doing math and Chemistry without the power of video. Video is the most useful resource I use because I’m a visual learner.
Khan Academy is a phenomenal resource (and free!). I’m convinced they are single-handedly teaching the world Chemistry. Even my class links to Khan Academy.
Some of their videos confuse me more than clarify, but for the most part, they cover Chemistry topics well. They break concepts so they are digestible with relevant examples. Acid-base equilibria and buffer solutions are still concepts that confuses me in application, but the Khan Academy videos helped me go from a 2 to a 5 in understanding.
Understanding and applying are two different beasts though. Some people are die-hard Khan Academy fans, and I see why. But, I don’t feel like I see enough problems with their videos. So, once I have an understanding of the concepts, I turn to the Organic Chemistry Tutor.
The Organic Chemistry Tutor
The Organic Chemistry Tutor is a hero on Youtube who does practice problem videos for general Chemistry, math and organic chem. I think his videos cover a wider range of word problems than Khan Academy, so I like watching his videos.
This guy clearly has experience tutoring because he concisely explains the concepts, the formulas you need to solve problems and what to look for in the problem. And he walks you through problems step-by-step. He also has a great 2-hour review of every topic covered in General Chemistry 1 and 2.
Bookmark these two resources because they are grade-savers. Chemistry textbooks are useful…for someone anyway. But, it’s hard to explain Chemistry in words alone. It’s like telling someone how to solve a math problem. You can talk about the steps or show someone. Showing is a million times easier for everyone involved.
I’ve mentioned quality study time is vital to your success. You can dedicate more quality time if you have a flexible class schedule.
Take Courses at a Local Community College
This tip is less about passing General Chemistry and more flexibility. Time is limited–you feel that when you study and work at the same time. Your university’s semester may not offer the flexibility you need. What can you do?
Turn to your local community college.
I didn’t plan to study with both the University of Arizona and a community college at first. I enrolled with the UofA specifically because they offered nutritional science online. Except for 5 classes (pre-Covid), which I found out after I got accepted.
My advisor told me that one of the community colleges that feeds into UofA offered those 5 classes online. So, I could take my science classes there, and transfer them to UofA.
Each term, I take two classes with UofA and one with the community college. And since doing this, I realised that the community college’s classes are flexible.
- You can choose between an 8-week or 16-week calendar.
- The community college offers more start dates.
I took the lecture part of chem over 16 weeks and did the labs over 8. And I start my community college classes between the UofA semesters. I do this to give myself time to concentrate on one class and minimize the time I have 3 active classes at once. Sure, I have shorter breaks, but I also don’t have the stress of fitting 3 classes into my schedule for a full 16 weeks.
And an added bonus–transfer credits don’t affect your GPA. You can take your class without the worry of a C tanking your GPA looming over your head.
You can succeed in Chem if you put in the work and make the time. Even with a full-time job.
Looking back on my experience, I could have gotten an A if I spent more time doing practice problems. But I regret nothing. I’m happy with a B.
So, to get a B or better in general Chemistry (1 and 2):
- Get in the right mindset
- Make quality time to study
- Sharpen your math skills
- Do (a lot) of practice problems
- Use the video resources out there
- Take classes at a community college to give you flexibility.