8 reasons why every non-US medical student should study for the USMLE

If the title wasn’t self-explanatory enough, this blog is basically an open letter to my fellow FMGs about why studying for the USMLE is a great idea, even if you don’t currently have plans to do your residency in the US. As someone who can’t fathom leaving Australia as an intern (great working conditions, guaranteed employment, higher pay) to go to the US, I still found the knowledge and additional skills I gained by studying for the US board exams to be invaluable, as they helped make my life in medical school easier. Here are some of the reasons why:

Retaining knowledge

It’s always helpful to reinforce your knowledge from multiple different learning scenarios. It’s the whole basis of spaced repetition and it explains the popularity of apps like Anki. You learn a concept, and then repeat that concept until you understand it. Studying for the USMLE is a great way to revise concepts in a slightly different light than what you may have encountered in your medical school. Tackling the same concept multiple times, in slightly different manners, is sure to really reinforce that understanding in your mind and help you retain that knowledge for longer. Also, most USMLE preparation content, such as Physeo’s, is delivered in the form of short (10-15 minutes or less), condensed lectures, which means if you ever need to revise a particular concept, you can simply pop up the relevant video and cover that content in minutes.

Opening doors

Maybe you’re not currently planning to go practice medicine in the US. But what if you decide that you’d like to in the end? Particularly if you’re already studying medicine in a foreign country, it’s always best to keep as many options available to you as possible. It’s very difficult to take the board exams (particularly Step 1) after medical school, because by that stage, you’ll have forgotten much of the basic sciences material that that exam revolves around. Chances are, you probably won’t be able to remember the mechanism of the second-line drug to treat that bizarre, super-rare metabolism defect when you haven’t touched biochemistry since your first year of medical school. So if you can afford it, taking the USMLE exams can help keep doors open further down the track.

Identifying your weaknesses

Medical students have trouble identifying their weaknesses, because there’s just so little way to know what you don’t know. Fortunately, many learning resources such as Physeo contain USMLE-style questions that can help you measure your performance. The Physeo questions also label which discipline and topic (e.g. endocrinology/pathology or cardiology/pharmacology) every question is, so you can identify exactly where your weaknesses are, and work on them. Alternatively, you can also invest in a questionbank (we particularly like Amboss and UWorld), which will do the same thing.

Making sure you’re on track

Similar to the point above, studying for the USMLE can help you not just identify your weaknesses, but also track your progress. Maybe you have an exam or quiz coming up, and want to see if you’ve improved your knowledge base after your week of revision. By checking your performance in a particular topic before and after your revision, you can see exactly how effective that week of revision was, and whether you need more revision or can move on to the next topic. More broadly, you can also track your progress over time, to see whether you’re improving your knowledge base or whether you’ve forgotten some things and need to brush up on some old concepts.

Extending yourself and learning new things

The USMLE covers more content than most medical schools cover in lectures, even in medical schools in the US. As such, board exam resources such as Physeo are likely to go into more concepts and in greater depth than your medical school lectures will as well. For example, medical schools in Australia have less of a focus on the basic sciences, particularly things like anatomy, because the assumption is if you’re going into fields that require that knowledge, you’ll learn those just before or during your specialized training, so Australians keen on surgery might do a masters in surgery or an anatomical dissection course before training to be a surgeon. This means if you’re keen on extending your knowledge beyond what is expected of you at your medical school, studying for the USMLE is a great idea. It can help you stand out in classes with your extra depth of knowledge and can make exams just that little bit easier.

Studying on your own terms

Studying on your own terms and your own schedule is incredibly liberating. If I want to cover concepts before my medical school does, I can. For more difficult concepts, such as eye physiology, I’ve often watched the relevant Physeo video a few days before my scheduled lecture. This allows me to gain a good understanding of the basics before the lecture itself, so that I can have an easier time keeping track of what’s happening in the lecture and therefore get the most out of it. Currently, I often use Physeo, Amboss or First Aid as a super quick revision of some important concepts before heading off for my rotation, which allows me to integrate basic sciences knowledge with clinical skills, and also allows me to not look like a fool when my attending asks me questions.

Exposing yourself to a different line of thinking

In most medical schools in Australia and the UK, and even in the US, we learn medicine quite differently than what gets tested in the USMLE. I can’t speak to how medical schools are run in other countries, but certainly for these three, most learning revolves around systems and case-based learning. So a typical tutorial might involve a brief discussion of symptoms and treatment plans of a few common presentations, followed by an in-depth discussion of one particular case, tracking it from the very beginning (probable history and examination findings based on the presenting symptom) right til the very end (list of 5+ differentials, followed by treatment and discharge plans). Very rarely do we ever get a rapid-fire sequence of presentations and have to identify a single detail in that patient’s singular most likely diagnosis or their management, which is quite typical of most USMLE-style questions. Being able to think quickly and focus on minutiae is also an important part of medicine, so to improve those types of skills that aren’t so commonly assessed in your medical school’s curriculum, studying for the USMLE would be a great idea.

Knowing more than your friends

This might be the most important reason of all for some, but studying for the USMLE will certainly give you an edge over your friends who haven’t studied content outside of your medical school’s curriculum. One time, a professor asked a question to the team, and once the answers started drying up, I butted in with an “orotic aciduria”, and the number of dirty looks my friends shot me gave me a level of satisfaction I literally cannot even put into word s. So if that’s your jam, start studying for the USMLE.

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