In partnership with the Princeton Perspectives Project (PPP), we’re back for Part 2 of our interview with Organic Chemistry TA Tom Silldorff ’23. While organic chemistry, or “Orgo,” may have earned its notoriety for its exceeding complexity, demanding exams, and time-intensive study, this does not mean that students have to struggle the whole way through. In our first interview, we discussed how Tom found his passion for Orgo and some of his key takeaways from tutoring on how students can grow throughout the course. This time, we’re tackling some of the deepest challenges students face while taking Orgo: What actually gives Orgo its difficult reputation? What can prospective Orgo students do now to prepare for the course? How did Tom face his own struggles with the demand for effortless perfection? If you’ve ever wondered how you can maximize your growth from Orgo or even academics more generally, then read on for one final reflection on fear, failure, and the beauty of Organic Chemistry with graduating senior, Tom Silldorff.
Responses below have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Amaya Dressler (A): Organic Chemistry is infamously one of the hardest courses that many students ever take. What makes Orgo so different from other branches of chemistry?
Tom Silldorff (T): It’s very qualitative. It’s a lot of recognizing trends and patterns and kind of when you start to get into the heavier synthesis stuff—like being able to look at a molecule or a product and selectively break it down into manageable pieces that you know how to combine into this larger thing. So you can’t just memorize your reactions and be fine because you could see a [memorized] substrate or a molecule and you’ll have no clue how to approach it. In reality, the way you manipulate it is just that simple reaction you learned, but in a way that you never could have imagined if all you did was learn the most basic form of it. And you know, there’s almost no math or calculation to be done for it. No formulas to remember. It’s tough for people to shift into that mindset in a STEM class.
A: Is there a time where you’ve experienced the feeling of failure in a chemistry course?
T: The best example I can think of is either MOL214 or, subsequently, biochemistry. I was not good at either of these classes. Particularly biochemistry, I was well below one standard deviation of the course average. I was lost in lecture, I was lost in psets. With each pset my friends were practically dragging me across the finish line to get them done. As far as dealing with that, it was just a matter of realizing that, in the short term, “I just gotta do the best I can to get through this class.” But long term, you know, coming out of that class and having done so poorly, and in something that was actually very much rooted in organic chemistry—that was kind of tough to process. But, again, ultimately, it was just like, “Okay, I wasn’t meant to be a biological chemist … organic chemistry is really where I feel at home.”
I had similar challenges in the physical chemistry courses. Chemistry core lab was really rough. I had a few all nighters and a few lab reports that got turned in literally under 50% completed, but it always turned out okay. Still, in that moment, it was really hard to feel such a lack of understanding, but I also think, in the long run, that that’s one of the most rewarding experiences. If you understood everything you were ever told, I think that would be pretty boring. Sometimes it’s nice to not understand.
A: On that note, what is one piece of advice you might give to students who are nervous about taking Orgo next year?
T: The biggest piece of advice I would give students who are nervous about it is that it will be okay. I know this sounds like the worst advice to give to somebody who’s nervous, but it will be. The course is difficult. It is going to make you think in ways that you have never had to before but I know a lot of people who were so nervous about the class, and then they end up loving it—like they really, really love it. You never know, it might actually be something that you can succeed at. So it’s absolutely like something to go with an open mind. This could actually be where you find success and even comfort. There’s a lot of beauty and symmetry and a kind of resolution with organic chemistry. Being able to find that resolution when you do synthesis or something like that—it feels fantastic.
I wish they had an option where you could not take the lab portion of the course because I think it would be so much more accessible to non-STEM students. I would definitely encourage all students to take the class. As far as being nervous goes: again, the professors and the TAs want you to succeed, and they will do as much as they can to provide you with understanding, really. Granted, there is still a great degree of autonomy with understanding the material. But I think that’s an important part of it.
If I was talking to one of my Zees [a term for the first-year students assigned to an RCA] who was nervous about it, what I would tell them is that it will ultimately be okay. And you know, even if you do not succeed to the extent you want, success in organic chemistry doesn’t define your success in the real world. So it’s not something to take personally or to be discouraged about. It will be okay.
A: Thank you for the reminder! Where can students find you if they have more questions, need help with Orgo, or just want to learn more about chemistry?
T: Students are always welcome to send me an email if they have any questions about Orgo or chemistry in general. Students currently enrolled in Orgo know that they can find my phone number and my email on the undergraduate course assistant list—there’s the sheet where we have all our office hours posted during the exam weeks. I always have my phone number up there so students can reach out. If you want to find me in person, you can look for me in the NCW dining hall. I essentially bounce between NCW and my bench at Frick non-stop these days. So if I’m not at Frick, I’m probably in the NCW dhall, and I’m probably eating.
As Tom gears up for his final few 50-hour weekly Orgo study sessions, remember that it’s never too late to overcome your course fears, change up bad habits, or reach out for help when you need it. Whether you’re a seasoned pro in your last few weeks of Orgo or a prospective student gearing up for next semester, know that your exams in Orgo do not define you. As Tom mentioned, sometimes our greatest periods of growth come when we know the least. Orgo is much more about the process than the outcome. At the end of the day, it’s how you grow from the course, as a person and a student, that really matters. Once again, a big THANK YOU to Tom Silldorff ’23 and the Princeton Perspectives Project (PPP) for reminding us that progress, not perfection, is what opens up new opportunities. To all present and future Orgo students, know that Tom’s help is always only an email away, and that it’s never too late to shake up your perspective on Orgo. It might just make all the difference.
–Amaya Dressler ’25, Social Sciences Correspondent