Is Chemistry Hard in College?
Reviewed by Jacob Imm
Dec 31, 2021
Is Chemistry Hard?
If you’ve been researching what to study after graduating high school, you may have come across various articles that list chemistry as one of the hardest majors.
While it’s true that chemistry is a demanding field of study, it’s incorrect to assume that it’s objectively harder than any other degree. In reality, the answer to the question—”Is chemistry hard?”—depends on the person asking it. Chemistry is a challenge, but there’s nothing wrong with pushing your boundaries, and the rewards for pursuing chemistry make it worth the challenge.
Let’s explore some of the reasons why chemistry is known as a difficult major, as well as ways to succeed as a chemistry student.
Why is Chemistry Perceived as Difficult?
You may have heard that chemistry is harder than other majors. While it’s true that chemistry can be challenging, where does this label of one of the hardest majors come from?
First, the jump from high school chemistry to first-year college chem courses can be overwhelming for some students, as topics immediately become more specialized. High school chemistry typically provides a broad overview of relevant subjects, so the deep dive of a college class can be shocking. This surprise may contribute to the perception by college students that chemistry is particularly hard.
Second, the first-year introductory chemistry course has historically been thought of as a "gatekeeper course," meaning that it’s designed to be hard so that those who are not serious about chemistry are discouraged from making it their major. Past failure or withdrawal rates for General Chemistry I have been reported as high as 50% at some institutions according to RSC; estimates of these rates for Organic Chemistry I have reached 40% or more for some schools according to an article by Elbulok-Charcape et al.
However, the idea of general chemistry courses “weeding” students out has evolved in recent years. Chemistry courses might still be demanding, but teaching methods are improving, and the concept of a "gateway" to STEM courses is now outdated.
Hard Work Pays Off
Even though a chemistry degree requires plenty of effort to complete, the results are worthwhile, as the job prospects and salaries in the chemistry field are excellent.
A bachelor of science (BS) in chemistry is often a path toward graduate school, as well. Depending on your interests, in graduate school you can specialize in organic chemistry, inorganic chemistry, physical chemistry, analytical chemistry, biochemistry or other subfields. From there, you'll unlock career opportunities in fields as diverse as:
- Environmental science
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median salary for a chemist is $80,680 per year, and employment is expected to grow six6 percent over the next 10 years. Chemical engineers can earn more than $100,000 per year with a bachelor's degree, also according to BLS. And because chemistry is such a broad field, salaries can potentially be even higher, especially once you have a master's, Ph.D. or work experience under your belt.
In addition to the financial rewards, chemists in many fields help to make a positive impact on people’s lives. Researchers develop life-saving drugs and vaccines, while government employees draft regulations designed to keep people safe from dangerous chemical exposure.
Overall, chemistry is a gratifying choice. It may be hard work, but if it were easy, it wouldn’t be so rewarding.
Challenges to Expect When Studying Chemistry
Chemistry is far from impossible, but its reputation as a difficult major is not entirely undeserved. Below are some of the challenges commonly cited by students.
Note that the intention here is not to scare you away from chemistry. Instead, the goal is to prepare (and excite) you for what’s ahead.
Be Prepared to Read
Chemistry students may find themselves with more reading than they are used to from other science classes. Especially when taking a full semester course, you may be assigned several hours of readings each week, often about unfamiliar subjects. Sources include textbooks, handouts, academic journals and research papers.
Learning to read actively and efficiently in your first-year will pay dividends later. Take notes, highlight important passages and re-read sections you may not understand—don’t skim over complicated topics.
Learning Chemistry is Like Learning a Language
So, what do you learn in chemistry? As a specialized field, chemistry has a “language” of its own. From the names of elements to various laws and processes, there’s a whole new set of terms to learn and understand.
Some terms come from Greek and Latin words, which some students may find harder to remember. While you don’t need to start your first-year fluent in these languages, the ability to recognize common prefixes and suffixes can help you understand the meaning of new words.
Abstract Concepts Take Time to Understand
Explosive chemical reactions and state changes are easy to see, but there are also a lot of theoretical concepts at play in chemistry. Submicroscopic particles collide with one another, unseen electrons orbit a nucleus—if you’re a visual learner, some of these ideas might seem hard to understand.
Even other fields of science, like biology, are more tangible and, therefore, may be easier to grasp. With that said, technological advances are making chemical processes more observable than ever, and detailed diagrams and models help fill in the rest of the blanks.
Chemistry Involves Math
On top of handling chemistry concepts, students will also need to learn (or re-learn) mathematics. Calculus, statistics and math-heavy physics are all part of the curriculum, as many different branches of chemistry rely on complex equations and data analysis.
This combination of advanced math and the memorization of new chemistry concepts can intimidate new students. Even so, if you’re a prospective chemistry student who struggles with math, you don’t have to steer clear of chemistry as a major. With consistent practice, you can thrive alongside your peers. Plus, math is only part of the puzzle.
How to Improve Your Chances of Success
Is college chemistry hard? Not for the college student that comes prepared. Apart from practicing math and effective reading, here are some other ways to stay on top of your coursework as a chemistry student. These are great tips for students in any major, so be sure to remember them.
Attend Class and Take Notes Regularly
As tempting as it may be to sleep in, skipping class is a surefire way to fall behind. If you don’t attend a lecture, you might miss essential details that could appear on an upcoming test (or in your career as a chemist). And if your professor counts attendance as part of your grade, your GPA could suffer, too.
Just showing up to class isn’t enough to guarantee a good grade, either. Be sure to pay attention and take detailed, organized notes that are easy to reference later. If you struggle with typing and listening at the same time, try asking your chemistry teacher for permission to record the lecture.
Build a Study Routine
Collegevine places the average weekly study time for a chemistry major at 18.5 hours. While this number may not be the same for everyone, what’s important is building a study routine. Whether you find yourself needing 10 hours a week or 20, you can’t fit all of that into one evening. Instead, spend a little time each day, with a longer review session before tests and lectures.
The saying “work smarter, not harder” applies to studying, too. It’s not about how many hours you spend on chemistry each week—it’s about how you use that time effectively. Experiment with study tips or techniques and capitalize on what works for you; use flashcards, invent mnemonic devices or rewrite your notes three times after class.
Ultimately, consistency is key. Falling behind early on will come back to bite you, so start forming study habits at the beginning of your college career.
Ask for Help
No one expects you to complete a chemistry major all on your own, so ask for help when you need it. After all, the sciences are a collaborative discipline.
Throughout your time in college, take advantage of the brilliant minds that surround you. If one of the day’s lecture topics was unclear, go to your professor’s office hours to ask questions. If you need more practice with something tricky like stoichiometry, attend study sessions with teaching assistants.
Lastly, don’t forget about your fellow students. They may excel in areas that you struggle with, and vice versa. Work and study together, and you can all succeed.
Take Care of Yourself
A chemistry degree program takes roughly four years of diligent study. It’s a marathon, not a sprint—so take care of your mind and body. Your studies may be your priority, but don’t forget to:
- Eat a healthy diet
- Follow a regular sleep schedule
- Stay hydrated
- Rest when you need it
Avoid all-night study sessions before an exam, as a lack of sleep can cause “a negative mood, low energy, difficulty concentrating and a general inability to function as usual” according to Medical News Today.
Take the Next Step Towards a Chemistry Major
So, is chemistry a hard major? Ultimately, some students might find chemistry harder than others. It’s a field that combines many hard and soft skills, and a strong work ethic is a must-have.
With that said, chemistry doesn’t have to be impossible. If you make a solid plan and take advantage of all available resources, you can succeed in chemistry—just as you would in any other major.
When you study chemistry at North Central College, you’re already setting yourself up for success. North Central's ACS-certified chemistry program helps prepare you for an exciting career after college, and the experienced North Central faculty is there to assist you every step of the way. Learn more about the North Central chemistry program today.
Jacob Imm is a communications specialist in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 11 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.
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