USMLE Step 1: Planning for Success

At best, medical school is rough. There’s really nothing else like it. The amount of information that you are expected to be able to master and cram into your brain, especially during your first two years, is absolutely staggering (third year is its own kind of monster, but we’ll talk about that some other time). To make things more difficult, the cherry on top of those first two years is the USMLE Step 1, which is without doubt the most difficult and demanding exam in all of academia, medical or otherwise. One of the things that makes the USMLE Step 1 so daunting is the fact that even though it’s just one test, it will in large part determine your future as a physician. So, not only is Step 1 one of the most comprehensive and intense exams ever created, but it is also largely what is going to decide the long term fate of your medical career. With all of that in mind, we have some insights that may be able to help ease the pain as you begin preparing for the seven-part, 8-hour, 280 question behemoth that is the USMLE Step 1.


Set goals early on.

What each individual expects out of medical school and their medical career is personal and varying. Whatever it is that you are expecting to accomplish, however, you should determine it early on so that you can make realistic goals with a clear understanding of what you need to do to accomplish them. This may be a little bit difficult, because in many cases, students don’t really know what they want to do until they have spent some hands-on time in rotations during their third year. That’s fine. Just keep in mind while determining your goals that most competitive specialties are generally going to have average scores ranging from 240 and up. Whatever it is that you hope to accomplish, set goals early and keep them in mind with everything that you do leading up to Step 1. As you set your goals, it helps to find things that motivate you. You are obviously going to be motivated by a certain specialty or your career in general, but try to find things outside medicine that motivate you as a person. It might be family or exercise. It could even be gaming or travel. People are motivated by all kinds of things. Find those things that motivate you and use them as tools to help you reach your goals.


Figure out what works for you.

It’s cliche, but everybody is in fact different. One of the best things that you can do for yourself as a medical student preparing for Step 1 is to take the time to figure out what works for you. You may decide that your best course of action is to start studying and preparing for Step 1 throughout your first year. You may decide that flashcards don’t work for you. You might be an audio/visual learner that most benefits from those kinds of resources. You may decide that your dedicated study period is more than enough time for you to reach your Step 1 goal, so you don’t need to lose any sleep over it until then. I could go on like this indefinitely. The point is, the single biggest favor that you can do yourself is to take the time early on in your medical school experience to figure out exactly what works for you, then apply it. There are going to be lots of people making lots of suggestions about how you should and shouldn’t prepare for Step 1, but ultimately, you need to shut out the noise and do what works for you.


Find some balance.

That may sound ridiculous to anybody preparing for Step 1, but you need to be able to find some way to relax and unwind. Although extremely important, Step 1 is just one exam. Now, I certainly don’t want to downplay its importance and you should understand the reality that you are probably going to be to be studying between 12 and 14 hours per day during dedicated, but keep in mind that you need to survive in order to make it to third year! Seriously though, even if your schedule is as simple as making sure that you have Sundays completely free, at least that’s something. Whatever it is, find a way to equalize and keep things in perspective. Believe it or not, this may actually be one of the hardest things that you have to do while studying for Step 1. It’s extremely easy to get completely consumed by Step 1, but it’s important to give yourself some time to feel like a person and remember who you are and why you are doing this in the first place.


Nothing can fully prepare you for the reality of medical school or Step 1, but hopefully that helps shed some light on it. Now, dominate Step 1, become doctors and go make the world a better place. Good luck!

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