Attention M2s: Guide to Studying for USMLE® Step 1

Medical School BlogIt’s that time of year – now that we’re back in winter semester, M2s are starting to think about boards studying. Some of my M2 friends have been asking me for recommendations as to which textbooks and resources are the most useful. Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert, but I was satisfied with my USMLE® Step 1 score, and I can tell you what was helpful for me. This excludes commercial review courses, which I also used, but I’ll let you sort out on your own what’s best for you if you choose to purchase one.

1.     The bible of boards studying: First Aid for the USMLE® Step 1. This is an absolute must. By the end of your studying, you will be able to picture each in your mind. I was skeptical of this, but turns out that it’s true. If someone asks me a question about cardiology, I may not know the answer, but I can picture the table that the information is located on in First Aid. I read through each section 2-3 times: the first time, I read through it during the semester, and read very slowly. If I didn’t understand a concept, I looked up more details about it and took notes in the margins. The second time around was much easier, and I did it during my one month of studying prior to the test. The third time around was reserved for subjects I struggled with.

I took mine to a printing shop and had it spiral-bound so that it was easier to open and mark up. I promptly spilled tea all over it, but if you can avoid getting every single page stuck together, binding it can be very helpful. It was around ten dollars, and it saved me a lot of hassle by having the pages fall open to whatever I was reading.

2.     Practice questions: buy a question bank. I found doing questions to be the most helpful part of studying. Set a goal of finishing the question bank, and then re-doing all the questions you marked or got wrong. Read the answers as you go – I took notes on the most relevant parts of each answer bank. And when your first rounds of questions go horribly, depressingly badly – don’t despair. I got a whopping 25% correct on my first round of practice tests. And my scores gradually improved. Think of it this way: every time you get a question wrong, you pay more attention to the answer. Eventually, the questions start to repeat themselves, and you get more and more right. By the time you finish the question bank, things are looking up. I did hit a plateau about halfway through my studying – this is totally normal. Just keep studying, and if your scores don’t improve, consider changing things up a bit. Do more questions, do some flashcards, read more about the topics that are giving you trouble – and your scores will start to get better.

My point in writing about this is that it’s important not to panic – everyone has poor scores when they start. (And if you have awesome scores the first time around, please don’t tell me about it, because that will only depress me.)

3.     Quizlet.com – there are a huge number of boards flashcards that have already been made by other students. And these flashcards are good. Search USMLE® Step 1, and then find the flashcards that are usually straight from First Aid. I found this especially useful for Pharmacology, Immunology, and Pathology – the subjects that are straight-up memorization, rather than concepts.

4.     Extra textbooks – I used some of the Board Review Series. I thought they were especially helpful for physiology, which is a subject I struggled with. However, I would emphasize that you should target your weak areas when you use supplemental textbooks. It’s easy to get bogged down in the details and spend too much time studying low-yield facts. I would avoid using them during your last month of studying – instead, focus on subjects that you have difficulty with as you move through First Aid the first time around, and supplement your reading appropriately.

5.     Score estimators – if you google “USMLE® Step 1 score estimator,” you can find a number of websites that will let you plug in your scores from various question banks or practice tests, and it will estimate your score. Don’t do this too early, but it’s useful to guesstimate where you’ll be. Word of caution: this website overestimated my score by about 15 points. I think this was likely because of nerves on test day, but if you’re borderline passing when it comes time to your test, consider taking some extra time to study and delaying your test.

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Katy Miller

About Katy Miller

Third year medical student at the University of Iowa.