How to Ace your
By now you’ve probably figured out that college chemistry exams are different from exams in your other courses. Bright students who ace sociology midterms or biology lab practicals are sometimes left befuddled by a
challenging chemistry test.
An examination in any subject is a reflection of the professor who
designed it. This means that each assessment instrument is unique
in design and difficulty. However, despite the inevitable differences,
there are some general characteristics most chemistry tests share.
By understanding these characteristics, you’ll know how to better prepare for future exams.
The challenge factor
Many chemistry professors write exams to challenge the top
25% of the class and to really challenge the middle 50% of the
class. They aim for a difficulty level that will help them
differentiate the very well prepared and talented students from those
who are less prepared. While many tests are designed to produce a particular average grade, chemistry professors often aim
for a particular spread in grades, from very low to very high scores.
There is less emphasis on an average, and the end result is that “good”
(and even “great”) students need to study smarter to score at the upper
end of the spread.
Beyond rote memorization
Chemistry tests rarely reward memorization. Frequently, a professor
will provide a list of useful equations and constants so that you will not
waste time memorizing. While most professors would agree that memorizing a few key facts is useful (e.g., names and structures of amino
acids, a list of strong acids), they are more interested in testing your
ability to think critically.
Questions in chemistry courses will rarely be asked in the same way
twice. If a problem was worked in a lecture or assigned on a homework
set, expect to see similar “tweaked” questions on the test. This is another
way to ensure that an ill-prepared student who simply memorized a process will stand out and not receive full credit.
Consider electron density — arguably the most
important concept in all of chemical reactivity. It is possible to label any electron-poor species an acid and every
electron-rich species a base. However, you will achieve
much more success by learning to recognize the general
characteristics of electron-rich (filled orbitals, nonbonded
electron pairs, negative charge) and electron-poor (empty
orbitals, positive charge) species than by trying to memorize and categorize every single chemical species as acidic
inChemistry • www.acs.org/undergrad