Some Tips on Taking Organic Chemistry Exams

Here are some tips on exam taking which may add a few points to your exam scores, and avoid an academic misconduct charge.

Before the Exam   |  During the Exam   |  How to Handle Briefly Explain Questions

When You've Completed the Exam   |   Learning From Your Mistakes

Before the Exam

During the Exam

Perhaps the most important piece of advice is:

Think before you write!

Much precious time can be saved by spending a few seconds contemplating your answer before you spend the time to write it out.  Your brain generally works much faster than your pen or pencil.

Some other advice:  

  • Examine all the problems first before you begin any of them. Do the problems you know first, saving the problems that will require more work for later. You have a limited period of time in which to earn your points, so do first the problems on which you will get the most points.
  • Avoid suspicious behavior during the exam. Don't stare at other exams, fidget with your eraser, etc.
  • A grader will assume you know material covered in a previous course or exam, but not a concept covered by the current exam.
  • Never leave a question blank, unless you are told guessing will result in lost points.
  • Always read instructions very, very, very carefully. Make sure you know what the question is asking.
  • Make sure that your answer is in the format that the question asks for. For example, if the questions says "circle and label," then circle AND label. When in doubt, ask a TA, or better yet, the person who wrote the exam.
  • If you don't quite understand what a question is asking, ask a TA or better yet the person who wrote the exam. You shouldn't lose points because the question is poorly worded. However, never bother to ask "is this right?" during an exam. The answer will be "I cannot tell you," and you have wasted your valuable exam time.
  • Draw structures neatly.  Communicating your thoughts with structural drawings is critical in chemistry.  Sloppy drawings imply sloppy thinking.
  • Write neatly. If your words cannot be understood, you will not get credit for them. If your name cannot be read, your exam score cannot be recorded, so you get no credit for it!
  • Erase a wrong answer instead of scribbling it out.  This leaves you with more space to write your corrected answer.  Use a pen with easily erasable ink if you use a pen at all.
  • Avoid non-sequitur answers. That is, avoid adding details which don't answer the question directly. The time spent writing the non-sequitur could be used for other answers. In addition, if the non-sequitur information is wrong, you may lose points for it, whether or not it's relevant to the question.
  • Avoid pentavalent carbons (carbons with 5 full bonds). Hexavalent carbons are even worse.
  • If you make any assumptions about a question, write them down and clearly label them. Example: "I assumed the following for question 3...."  If your assumption is reasonable for a student with an equivalent level of experience, your exam answer will be graded with this assumption in mind.
  • If you continue an answer on the back of the page, include a clear notation such as "answer to this question continued on back of previous page." It is not the job of the graders to hunt for your answers.
  • Spell chemical words correctly. Although this is not an English course, part of learning an subject is a mastery of it's vocabulary. In addition, be careful with your choice of words. Chemistry vocabulary is large because there are so many words that have very specific meanings. Perhaps the most common mistake is the use of "molecule" to refer to a fraction of a molecule, or a group of atoms which do not make up a whole molecule. Refer to such a fraction as "molecular fragment" or "group" or something like that.
  • Make sure you use the right kinds of arrows! Review the meaning of various chemistry arrows via the Arrows entry at the Illustrated Glossary of Organic Chemistry.

  • This arrow means resonance, not equilibrium.

    This arrow means equilibrium, not resonance.
  • Consider the fact that your exam answers must stand for themselves. Use clear sentences! You cannot explain your answer after the exam and expect to regain any lost points.
  • Quit when time is called, regardless of what you are writing or thinking.  Continuing to write after the exam time is over is cheating, and there are penalties for cheating.

  • How to Handle Briefly Explain Questions
    Briefly explain questions are designed to probe your knowledge of fundamental concepts, and your ability to articulate scientific ideas.  Here are some thoughts about how to approach these questions, from the minds of the TAs and Dr Hardinger.

    When You've Completed the Exam

    Learning From Your Mistakes