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Five Tips for Taking Step 1 (USMLE)

Student gets study help from a professorEditors’ Note: Before physicians with M.D. degrees can practice medicine in the U.S., they must pass a multipart professional exam called the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). Preparation for the challenging three-part exam can provoke anxiety. In this blog post, we look at best practices for preparing for Step 1—the eight-hour, 300-plus-question first portion of the exam that assesses whether a student has a proper command of the basic science concepts needed to practice medicine. Passing Step 1 is a requirement at nearly all U.S medical schools in order to continue into third year medical school curriculum.

by Kristina Petersen, Ph.D.

Not looking forward to locking yourself away in a room to study for Step 1? Almost every med student has to undergo the grueling experience of studying for and passing Step 1. Is it simply a rite of passage? An unpleasant experience everyone must survive? Not necessarily. There are a few things you can do to help yourself thrive on Step 1 from the time you
arrive at medical school…. Interested? Read on!

1.     Identify weak areas as early as possible; that’s where you should start your review. This helps avoid procrastination. Be honest: who wants to study a topic that seems boring? Or an area you feel you aren’t great at (yet)? If you don’t start with your weak areas, it will be easy for them to stay at the bottom of your to-do list. By starting with these areas, you give yourself the necessary time to master topics where you have the most room to improve. Remember: topics where you have the most room to improve = areas where you have the most points to earn. Therefore, increased study in these areas = increased score overall!

2.     Identify “time sinks” and change habits surrounding them. Do you get distracted by Facebook, email, texts, friend drama and the like? We all have time-wasting distractions, but you are your own boss during med school, and it is up to you to maximize your time. This is a direct investment in your future. Quickly identify your time sinks and reinvest that “lost” time into more-productive activities. This does not mean you should cut out balance activities! In fact, by reducing distractions and maximizing study efficiency, you should find yourself with more time to schedule things you enjoy. These balance activities can be incredibly motivating and are an important part of a good Step 1 study plan.

3.     Learn the material thoroughly in your courses. You want your Step 1 study time to be review. If you are not learning the material in depth first, your Step 1 studying will likely be much less efficient and much more frustrating. It’s kind of like reading the CliffsNotes of a Shakespeare play and expecting to know, understand and be able to apply the small amount you read to difficult questions. Shortcuts just don’t work if you want to thrive on Step 1. Success begins your first day in med school—if you fully apply yourself in the classroom and during your study time.

4.     Your courses are your first priority. Do not allow Step 1 studying to overshadow your primary goal during the first and second years: passing your courses! The last thing you want to do is waste time studying for makeup exams. This will  distract from your other coursework and, as the Step 1 study period approaches, take time away from your Step 1 studying.

5.     Align your coursework with a first pass through the review materials. As you study for your courses, use some of the Step 1 review materials. Maybe even try a few questions along the way. BEWARE: Step 1 review books do not cover the material in as much depth as your courses, so you must use such books only to supplement your coursework. During the second half of your second year, as Step 1 approaches, you may want to increase the number of practice questions you attempt. Remember not to overdo it. You will have adedicated study period to focus exclusively on Step 1 studying. The structure of this dedicated study time will be important.

Okay, that is all great. But HOW do I study for Step 1? See my next blog post later in the month for specific suggestions.

Learn More About Getting Into and Surviving Med School

Kristina Petersen, Ph.D.

Kristina Petersen, Ph.D.

Kristina Petersen, Ph.D., is a former assistant professor, Department of Microbiology & Immunology and former co-director, Office of Academic Support and Counseling at Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

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