Why do students fear or dislike Chemistry so much?
The fear/dislike of Chemistry

Chemistry has an unfortunate reputation with students who often see it as intimidating and something that they might want to avoid. This is understandable since they usually aren't told enough about the connections between Chemistry, Biology, Forensics, Engineering, Medicine, etc. in a coherent way that helps them see the chemical subjects in a positive light. In the United States at least, students are then likely to be herded through very large classes at the freshman and sophomore levels in which it's very difficult to connect, with peers and professors alike. This makes it challenging to get individual support and mentoring during what is often a difficult time over the first two years of a college degree.  

Do you need to be a genius to do well in Chemistry? Of course not, but you do need to be "smart" (whatever that is) and you do need to be willing to work hard and accept that not everything will come easily. The fear factor, and the associated anxiety, might be because of fearing failure. This is natural, but the acceptance that something is going to be difficult, and then working to overcome that situation, is a powerful way to grow in confidence, not just in Chemistry. While many people choose their major, and future career path, based on their high school aptitudes ("I was good at science and mathematics so I want to be an Engineer" for example), and while this is understandable, many students don't appreciate early on how they will have to adapt in college and broaden their skill set. 

Below is the Chemistry course sequence that most non-Chemistry majors follow in the United States as foundation for their major classes. Chemists and Biochemists obviously do a lot more, but any Biology, Forensics, Pre-professional, or Chemical Engineering major is going to have to do at least two years of Chemistry. Chemists can get their degree by taking zero Biology, Forensics, or Engineering classes. Any pre-Med student is going to have to study Biochemistry and any Chemical engineer needs at least one semester of Physical Chemistry to fulfill their requirements.


A big misunderstanding is that each of these classes is separate and unrelated to the others. This leads many students to go back to square one, for example when moving from General to Organic Chemistry. While General Chemistry is certainly more mathematical (and possibly more mechanical) than Organic, the same ideas from the Periodic Table are used throughout and Organic builds on the previous course. Keeping this in mind, and possibly having a heads-up about the basic topics that will be needed in Organic, might allow new students to stay focused and then transition better to the next course(s).  

So what are the common threads that tie these subjects together and what should you keep an eye on as you tackle each course?

  • General Chemistry - a survey of the elements and the organization of the Periodic Table; group and row trends; atomic and electronic structure; chemical bonding; and stoichiometry; chemical reactivity; acid-base chemistry; basics of chemical kinetics and thermodynamics.

  • Organic Chemistry - detailed look at carbon-based chemistry; hybridization and the structures that carbon can express; conformation and configuration; stereoisomerism in cycles and chiral structures; acid-base chemistry; possibilities in mechanism (concerted or stepwise); kinetics and thermodynamics of processes; chemistry of functional groups; chemical synthesis; spectroscopic analysis.

  • Biochemistry - the application of Organic molecules in life processes; synthesis and function of macromolecules (proteins, nucleic acids, polysaccharides); transfer of information from macromolecules to produce compounds; templating of processes to catalyze biochemical synthesis or breakdown (enzyme kinetics, transition state structures).

  • Physical Chemistry - the study of chemical theory; atomic structure and interactions in molecules; chemical reactivity; chemical kinetics and transition state theory; chemical thermodynamics and equilibria; acids and bases; quantum theory; molecular dynamics.

While it is practically impossible for the beginner to look so far forward into the future and see the bigger picture, it helps to take a broader view of these Chemistry classes to see how they are connected and how each builds on their predecessors. For Biochemistry you need to know what leads to Organic chemical structures reacting (strain, acid/base functions, electron-rich/poor areas, etc.) and then apply those ideas to bigger molecules such as enzymes and DNA. In the Physical Chemistry courses you will be testing your ability to apply mathematical models to the ideas that you met in the earlier courses. Throughout this sequence you will build should try to build a deep knowledge of chemical structure, reactivity, and what governs reaction pathways - kinetics and thermodynamics

In the next post we will discuss what to expect from General Chemistry and how it sets up the Organic sequence.