Why the Step I Exam Should Matter to You 

Posted by Mac S. on 8/26/16 8:00 PM



There’s a reason I wrote it all in capital letters: because it’s the greatest fear of all kinds of medical students. This test engenders a huge amount of anxiety, because of its importance for residency. To get to medical school, you’ve overcome a huge number of academic challenges -- the USMLE exam is no different. As a tutor, I’ve realized a key to success is adopting the proper mindset for the test and for test preparation.

I’m here to provide some perspective and tips from a student who has been through it  to keep things sane. I hope that this blog post serves as a good mental base for you as we work through the next parts of your test preparation.

Shifting Your Perspective: Barrier vs. Stage

Every extremely successful student I’ve ever tutored has undergone the same mental gymnastics, and I’m asking you to perform them for the USMLE. When many students begin, they see the test as a wall standing in front of them blocking them from seeing patients and getting the residency that they want. Instead, see the USMLE exam as a stage where you can demonstrate what you know. The test is challenging, but the writers don’t have anything personally against you, or any other student. All they want to do is give you an opportunity to demonstrate what you know. Think about each question as a little challenge, just like a patient, that is fun to unpick and understand. Medical students love brainteasers, in many ways, it is why we do medicine. Focus on that aspect of the test, and take joy in mental gymnastics ably performed.

How the Step I Exam Can Help You

The Step exam can also serve as a fantastic tool for learning illness scripts, clinical knowledge, and scientific fundamentals. At some level, the things on the step exam are just trivia, but taken more seriously, they can be very important. Out of all the possible things that could be tested, they chose this small set of facts. The “trivia” actually represents either important clinical knowledge that you don’t yet have, or captures some important experiment that serves as a model for further research. an important way of thinking.

Example 1: Diagnosis

As you go through clinical training, you’ll become familiar with the idea of illness scripts, the “classic” presentations of a disease, along with the group most commonly affected by the disease. The “patients” on Step I are the most classic illness scripts, and starting to think about these now can be a useful tool for the most common disease presentations. Step I is mostly about diagnosis, so being able to make these classic diagnoses is very important to doing well on the test, but will also help you in a clinical setting.

Example 2: Research

For students interested in research, preparation for the test is very useful in clearly defining terms. One of the major problems I’ve encountered in research is that many of the terms are somewhat squirrelly; with definitions rarely exact. My studying forced me to be very precise in my language and definitions. As an MD/PhD, I’m currently working in a genetics lab doing research. I’m much more comfortable with the lingo because I worked so hard during my Step preparation to get the precise terms into my head. Without Step, I wouldn’t have done this!

Parting thoughts

At the end of the day, it’s really just a number. When I started taking the test, it was surprisingly anticlimactic. Getting the score back was the same way. My heart got a little flurry before I opened the e-mail, I gave a little whoop when I checked my score it, and then that was it. You’ll get a number, that starts with a two followed by a digit between zero and 7. That number isn’t a reflection of how good of a doctor you are, or how well you’ll handle patients, or even how much you know. If you’ve studied your hardest for the test, then things will go well for you!

Are you interested in learning more about ways to prepare for the Step I exam?

Contact us!

Check out the introduction to this blog post by following the link below, and stay tuned for additional chapters on the Step I exam from Mac!

USMLE Step I Exam: Introduction


Tags: medical school admissions