The Most Essential Study Habits for USMLE Step I Exam

Posted by Mac S. on 10/19/16 5:37 PM


In this blog post, I’ll be talking about some of the study habits that I used both during the year and during my intensive study period (the time that BU had designated for exclusive Step I preparation). The most important piece of advice I could have for someone preparing for the step exam is to start early. Also, every week or so, designate some time to reflect on how things are going. Ask yourself “What’s working? What’s not working? How do I reduce the second column and augment the first?”

During the Year

Depending on the way that your school structures its curriculum, carving out time to prepare for the step exam can be difficult. The major problem for me was in balancing clinical duties and what specific lecturers wanted me to know against the time required to study for Step I. So, I’ll present some strategies that worked well for me.

1. Using Step-oriented resources to guide your study

Oftentimes, I found that presenters actually ended up making material more confusing. A classic example of this at BU was in the antiarrythmic drugs. With so many indications for each drug, I found myself paralyzed by the amount of information that I needed to know. Instead, I turned to tools like sketchypharm and the pharmacology section of first aid. There, people had already selected out what was the most important pieces of information about a drug. That baseline of organization gave me a firm foundation of information that I could then complement with course material. In general, if you’re having trouble with a concept from class, try looking for another simpler source. You’ll get the basics, which will help you understand the flourishes provided by your medical school.

2. Build sequentially

One major difficulty with classes is that they present things in a sometimes random-seeming order. Medical school curriculums are fairly standardized (thank the Flexner report), so they are going to cover everything that is on the exam, just maybe not in the best order. Start a module by watching something like Pathoma. Then, when you get a hard question, you won’t be totally blown out of the water because of the novelty. Medical school is about seeing information over and over again. Why not get a jump on things? Eventually, as you’re doing questions, you can use your question log to write down what you have learned and what you still need to know. I found it extremely useful to try to have all of USMLE world finished before I completed second year.

3. Immerse yourself in the clinical application of the material

The main goal of second year is to prepare you for actually being a doctor. If you’re at an academic medical center (as most medical schools actually are), then take the time to go to case conferences. Those oriented towards residents can be extremely helpful. These conferences often discuss important clinical questions (which tend to turn up as high-yield topics on tests) and how to manage them. The presenter will often give a great review of a disease. Also, it’s incredibly exciting to start to hear and understand the thing that you’ll be doing for the rest of your professional life. I found that attending case conferences kept me increasingly interested in Step and prevented any burnout, because I could see the utility of my learning.

The Most Essential Habits

Many medical schools have a designated period of time where they’ll allow students to exclusively study for Step I. In this section, I’ll talk about some of the habits that I used to close out my preparation 

1. Budget time to take practice tests

Take practice tests in realistic settings. There are several practice tests with answer keys from the NBME; There are practice tests from Uworld. You can make your own practice tests from USMLErx by combining lots of practice questions together in blocks. Use any and all of these. Start practicing your test-taking strategies (discussed in the next post). Use scratch paper off to the side to write down things you don’t know and want to study. After the test, go through those sheets and learn about what you didn’t know. Also, USE YOUR QUESTION LOG. It’ll help you identify the errors you’re making and think about strategies to fix them. You can view mine here. By the time you actually take your step exam, it should be the 5th or 6th USMLE that you've actually taken.

2. Stay stable

Continue to do the things that you’ve done that have kept you healthy and sane throughout medical school. Get the sleep, exercise, and friend/family/partner time that you need to do well. Make sure to be at your study space (I chose the library) by a designated time, and then leave when the studying is done. Work when you’re working and relax when when you’re not working. Don’t stress about your score; just keep working.

3. Make your learning as active as possible

There are lots of good sources of information out there. But, make sure that you’re not just sitting there watching them. Rematch Pathoma or listen to Goljan again, but write down what new thing you’re learning. If you’re continually struggling with a concept, go look for another video to find another way to think about a topic.

While talking about study strategies is a huge topic, I hope that this gives you some ideas for strategies that can help you during your step I preparation. If you want to talk about this anymore, feel free to shoot me an e-mail at! Best of luck. In the next post, I’ll be talking about strategies that I use in the test to help keep your performance as sharp as it can be.

Are you interested in learning more about ways to prepare for the Step I exam? Reach out to get connected to one of our incredible test prep tutors!

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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, one of our Cambridge tutors!

USMLE Step I Exam: Introduction

Why the Step I Exam Should Matter to You 

The Tools for Success on the USMLE Step I Exam

Tags: study skills, USMLE