5 Tips for Developing a USMLE Step 1 Study Plan

By Cassie Kosarek

Step 1 of the United States Medical Licensing Examination (or USMLE) covers all preclinical topics taught in medical school, from DNA replication to the details of disorders like ulcerative colitis and diabetes. Depending on your school’s curriculum, you may take this test anywhere between completion of your preclinical requirements and graduation, with the majority of schools offering a “dedicated” study period in which to review after wrapping up preclinical classes. No matter when you plan to take Step 1, however, one thing is clear: there is a lot to go over, and you probably do not feel like you have enough time to cover everything. Developing a reasonable study plan as you head into your dedicated study period can help reduce Step 1 preparation from an impossible task to one that seems difficult, yet doable. Studying for Step 1 will never be easy, but these five tips can make it more manageable:

1. Identify your resources based on how you learn best

There are a number of Step 1 review resources available to students. Flashcards, question banks, review books, and videos abound—so how do you decide which ones to use? First, acknowledge that it is impossible to use each study resource to its fullest potential in your few weeks of dedicated study. To best utilize your limited time, choose three to four resources that mirror your learning style in your preclinical classes. Did you like attending lectures? Consider using review sources that include videos. Are you a textbook learner? Invest in a solid review book. The only universal resource to use during your dedicated study period is a question bank of USMLE-style questions. All other resource choices should be suited to you.

2. Identify the subject areas that you will need to review most

Take a practice test at the beginning of your dedicated study period to highlight those areas where you will need to focus most in the coming weeks. Going over material you already know is a waste of time during dedicated study, and those hours are better allotted to topics you do not remember well or concepts you did not fully understand the first time around. Use your wrong answers and questions with which you struggled on practice tests and blocks to guide your study plan.

3. Plot out when you will take your practice tests

It is easy to put off taking practice tests if you do not already have them scheduled into your study plan. After all, why would you want to take an all-day practice test, missing out on hours of review, if you do not feel prepared for it? Taking full-length practice tests is as much about testing your knowledge as it is about building your stamina for test day and teaching you to deal with any testing anxiety you might have. Plan the days on which you will take practice tests at the beginning of your dedicated study so that you do not skip out on this crucial preparation step.

4. Build a day-by-day study calendar for your dedicated period, keeping in mind your own limits

While the length of your dedicated study period might seem short, studying for twelve hours per day, seven days per week, for two months is not the best way to cope with your perceived limited time. Be reasonable about how many hours per day you are able to study and how much time you need to spend away from your books to recharge. Burning out from exhaustion halfway through your dedicated period will not help you score well on the test. Be smart and create a day-by-day calendar that allows for days off, “low-volume” days, and breaks throughout studying.

5. Remember that your study schedule does not have to be the same as all of your friends’

With all of the Step 1 anxiety that percolates through medical school classes as the dedicated study period approaches, the impetus to compare your study schedule, scores, and progress to your classmates’ may present itself. Save yourself the panic—and the time—cultivated by comparing your progress to others’ by remembering that everyone has different strengths, weaknesses, and learning styles moving into this exam. Just because one resource got your friend’s friend a high score does not mean that that resource is right for you. Similarly, time you spend away from the books is also individualized. Others may seemingly plow through without taking time to breathe, but you may find that scheduling a day off from studying every so often boosts your energy. Your studying is not better or worse than anyone else’s—it just fits you.

About the Author

Cassie Kosarek is a professional tutor with Varsity Tutors, a live learning platform that connects students with personalized instruction to accelerate academic achievement. She earned her Bachelor of Arts from Bryn Mawr College and is a member of the Class of 2020 at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.