Reflections on Fear, “Failure,” & the Beauty of Organic Chemistry Part 1: Thank You ORGO LEGEND Tom Silldorff

Organic Chemistry TA and Princeton Senior Tom Silldorff poses in front of a chalkboard after a long night of tutoring at the NCW dining hall.
Princeton Senior and Orgo TA Tom Silldorff offers numerous tutoring sessions in Choi Dining Hall (Yeh/NCW) for all students in Organic Chemistry.

As part of our collaboration with the Princeton Perspectives Project (PPP), we’re exploring how the idealized notion of “effortless perfection”—the idea that a path to success must be free of failure—obscures the reality of both the research process and mastering a new subject. For many students, there are few better examples of this phenomenon than the Organic Chemistry course. Almost regardless of who is teaching or how it is taught, “Orgo” has earned near-universal notoriety for its complicated labs, unconventional approach, and the immense, complex breadth of material that students must learn to conceptualize and then apply. Orgo students must learn to think in an entirely new way, and this process can be uncomfortable. Challenges, mistakes, and “failure” are bound to occur along the way. Yet, often, it is through confronting these very challenges that students grow not only as future academics, engineers, or doctors—but as people. 

With the right guidance and mindset, Orgo can be both one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of a student’s life. For hundreds of students, that guidance comes through none other than graduating senior and Orgo TA Tom Silldorff. He’s a research assistant at the Sorenson Lab, an RCA at New College West (NCW), and, for the past three years, he has been the go-to tutor for any and all students enrolled in Organic Chemistry. On exam weeks, he’ll host tutoring sessions for upwards of 50(!) hours per week in the Choi Dining Hall (Yeh/NCW). Along the way, he’s acquired a range of perspectives about what students can do to make the most of their time in Orgo. As he prepares for graduation, I sat down with him one last time to discuss some of the concerns most students express in Orgo. This blog post is Part 1 of a 2-part interview series with Tom where we discuss how Tom first found his passion for Orgo, his key takeaways from tutoring Orgo students, and how students can learn to master and grow from the stress they may feel throughout the course. 

Amaya Dressler (A): How did you first become interested in Orgo?

 Tom Silldorff (T):… in a lot of ways it’s much more qualitative and quantitative, which was something totally new for me, particularly in a STEM class. It unlocked so many new pathways of thinking and, from week one, I kind of fell in love with the subject—even more so when I took the second semester Chem 304 with Professor Sorenson. He had so much passion and energy, and I absorbed a lot of that … the subject just became so much more wonderful, in part because of him teaching me.

A: You dedicate A LOT of hours each week to tutoring other students in Orgo. What motivates you to help teach other students, and what’s the biggest takeaway you’ve had from tutoring?

T: Initially, I took the job as an undergraduate course assistant. I took it because I thought, “Oh, I want to go into organic chemistry for my independent work. It would be good for me to kind of solidify this foundation.” I also wanted to teach so I knew it would be good practice. So I started with a very practical mindset. But pretty early on in my junior year when I was first working this job, I realized the biggest thing I can do: I can help people with their mindset and how they approach the class. You know, I get a lot of students who come in, really stressed about a test or panicking about a topic that just hasn’t clicked yet. And just by creating a space within my office hours where people can just breathe and slowly approach understanding … I think that helps people to regain some confidence in themselves and their ability … I think people get that and it’s like a breath of fresh air like ‘Oh, like here’s a place to learn and to engage with the material. I don’t have to feel this intense pressure.’

A: How can students currently struggling with ‘the pressure’ to do well in orgo or the fear of failure make the best of their experience?

T: I think right off the bat, you know, organic chemistry here. I’m not going to tell anybody it’s an easy class. Orgo is designed to put students through the wringer. But the professors who run it—Professor Sorenson, Professor Semmelhack, Dr. Martinez—they know that it’s tough. You know? They do but they don’t grade brutally … There’s a really progressive grading policy. So that’s something that I encourage students to remember: they ultimately want to see you succeed, they’re not maliciously trying to undercut you and ruin your GPA because you had two semesters of a very difficult class. But also, you know, this struggle in organic chemistry is very normal—and to not succeed is normal. 

To the students that continue to struggle with it and who might not really meet their own goals for the class … I think I would tell them the same thing that I would tell anyone not succeeding: it will be okay. It happens to everyone. Despite the fact that I’m a chem major, I’m actually not very good at other chemistry classes beyond Organic Chemistry. And that’s something that I’m okay with. Working within your skillset is something that’s totally fine, but it’s also good to push yourself and venture outside your comfort zone. And I think a lot of pre-med courses can do that for you. 

But yeah, you know, I’ve experienced the idea of failure in a lot of courses here. And it’s kind of refreshing, you know? It’s like it almost is something that’s keeping me in check, like, “yeah, okay, I wasn’t destined to be a physical chemist.” It’s almost affirming that the path I’m on in organic chemistry or in teaching chemistry rather than doing, you know, research, like that is the right path for me. So, sometimes, rather than seeing it as failure, it can be better to realize it’s just something that might not be for you, but that doesn’t mean it can’t help you get to a better place.

On that note, when it comes to overcoming academic pressure, oftentimes the best thing we can do is reframe our mindset and understand that everyone struggles. Rather than seeing our challenges as failures, we can see them as affirmations of our current path or even an opportunity to reshape our futures. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll dive into what exactly makes Orgo so difficult, how future students can prepare for the course, as well as Tom’s personal experience grappling with effortless perfection as a chemistry major. Until then, best of luck to all current Orgo students—know that Tom’s expertise is only a walk to NCW away. 

–Amaya Dressler ’25, Social Sciences Correspondent