- Aug 1, 2009
"Science writer and 42-year old pre-med student Barbara Moran writes in the NY Times that organic chemistry has been haunting pre-meds since 1910, when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a landmark report calling for tougher admission standards to medical school and for medical training based on science. "The organic chemistry on the MCAT is chemistry that students need to know to succeed in medical school," says Karen Mitchell, senior director of the MCAT Program. Basically, orgo examines how molecules containing carbon interact, but it doesn't require equations or math, as in physics. Instead, you learn how electrons flow around and between molecules, and you draw little curved arrows showing where they go. This "arrow pushing" is the heart and soul of orgo. "Learning how to interpret the hieroglyphics is pretty easy. The hard part is learning where to draw the little arrows," writes Moran. "After you draw oxygen donating electrons to a positive carbon a zillion times, it becomes second nature." But the rules have many exceptions, which students find maddening. The same molecule will behave differently in acid or base, in dark or sunlight, in heat or cold, or "if you sprinkle magic orgo dust on it and turn around three times." You can't memorize all the possible answers — you have to rely on intuition, generalizing from specific examples. This skill, far more than the details of every reaction, may actually be useful for medicine. "It seems a lot like diagnosis," says Logan McCarty. "That cognitive skill — inductive generalization from specific cases to something you've never seen before — that's something you learn in orgo." This takes a huge amount of time, for me 20 to 30 hours a week writes Moran. This is one thing that orgo is testing: whether you have the time and desire to do the work. "Sometimes, if a student has really good math skills, they can slide through physics, but you can't do that in orgo," says McCarty ."