For most medical students, the USMLE Step 1 exam will play a large role in deciding their future career. In almost every field, the board exams rank extremely high in consideration for residency applications. So how does one maximize their study time for the USMLE Step 1 to make sure they’re prepared for Test Day?
Establish a strong foundation for the USMLE Step 1
The USMLE Step 1 Exam is a culmination of two pre-clinical years of education, covering massive amounts of material and countless hours of studying. In order to do well, you cannot cram for the exam last-minute, as you might a college or medical school test. Start early and make sure you fully understand the material as you are being taught—this is key to rapid recall when revisiting the subjects during your study period. Save your textbooks and class notes in case you need to reference them for more detail later.
Resources such as Kaplan’s USMLE QBank Integrated Plan are excellent guides for ensuring you understand the material through review and repeated problem solving. They can be paired along with your school courses to maximize your coverage and emphasize relevant testing material. Remember, the more QBank questions you go over during your classes, the less you will need to review later on.
Alexis Peedin, USMLE Step 1 Pathology Instructor “Make a schedule! No matter how much time you have- 1 week or 1 year- make a plan and stick to it. Plan for every day which chapter you will read, which video you will watch, how many questions you will do. Don’t forget to plan catch-up and rest days!”
Alexis Peedin, USMLE Step 1 Pathology Instructor
“Make a schedule! No matter how much time you have- 1 week or 1 year- make a plan and stick to it. Plan for every day which chapter you will read, which video you will watch, how many questions you will do. Don’t forget to plan catch-up and rest days!”
Utilize your school’s dedicated study time
Many schools have a built-in ‘dedicated study period’ after 2nd year that students can use to prepare for the USMLE Step 1 exam. Other schools may have the option of using vacation months instead to form a dedicated study period. The amount of time each student needs varies depending on the overall level of preparation, study speed, and standardized test-taking skills. For most students, an average schedule would include increased study time alongside classes beginning in the 2nd semester of MS2 year and roughly a month of dedicated study time.
A general study plan starts with a review of all testable subjects, with an emphasis on weak sections and high-yield material. At this point, you should not be afraid to seek help for anything you do not understand, as there will be no one to explain it to you on Test Day. This is the time to shore up your weak points and work on linking basic sciences with the clinical picture.
You should be doing relevant QBank questions while you study, but as your confidence in your knowledge bank increases, a larger proportion of your time should be spent working through problems. This will allow you to understand how the test questions are written and how to answer them correctly. You will also be able to highlight any deficiencies in your knowledge that require further review. Check out our suggested 3 month study plan for how to best utilize your study time.
The importance of taking practice exams
It is extremely important to take practice exams during your study period, both to gauge your test performance but also to build up stamina and experience for Test Day. An NBME self-assessment or Kaplan-simulated exam can set a baseline before your dedicated study time. Another practice exam halfway through can provide an estimation of progress and final trajectory. And finally, an exam a week or two before Test Day can provide you some final data on your performance thus far and give you the final green light to take the USMLE Step 1.
Take the practice exams in the same setting as the real USMLE Step 1. Begin at the same scheduled time with the same breaks and restrictions. Afterwards, if possible, use your results to determine which areas you need to refocus your studying and Qbank efforts.
DO students must take the COMLEX Level 1, though many will opt to take the USMLE Step 1. The two exams contain similar content with the exception of Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine (OMM) on the COMLEX. For resources on OMM, the faculty at your school should know specific books and guides that will prove useful. Focus on the basics such as Counterstrain, Viscerosomatic Reflexes (VSR), Chapman’s Points, Fryette’s Laws, Cranial patterns, and Sacrum/Innominate diagnoses.