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3 Mistakes to Avoid When Working with a USMLE Study Buddy

Updated 11/2019:

My, how time flies.  A few years ago, I was just your average third year medical student reflecting on my experience with using a Tutor for Step 1 studying. It’s so incredible to sit here as an attending and reflect on how different my perspective is now on Step studying and really the whole medical school experience.  As it happens, I am no longer looking at this as a student, but as a tutor and mentor, myself.

So what, if anything, has changed? I suppose everything and nothing has! Despite being done with literally ALL of the most difficult, dreaded parts of medical school, I still need and seek support and guidance, I still need someone to tell me I’m making the right decisions for my future, and I still need someone from time to time to just give it to me straight’.

What is fascinating to me, however, is that I never thought that as a tutor I would actually derive this support somehow from my students, but I absolutely do!  What I didn’t realize is how collaborative this relationship feels not just from the student’s viewpoint, but from the standpoint of the tutor, as well. I guess what I’m getting at, is that one year later, I can update this article in saying as a tutor, we get just as much from this intense and rigorous process as you do as a student! So without further ado, let’s dive into my original post about working with study buddies:

It can be very lonely while studying for the USMLE, and ultimately, a study buddy is likely one of the only types of people who could possibly understand what you are going through. That said, it is nearly impossible for two individuals to have the exact same academic strengths, sleep requirements, attention spans, or resource preferences.

If you compromise your study needs and become codependent with your buddy, you both WILL compromise your ability to reach your maximum potential. So, if you are teaming up with someone to tackle your exam, here are 3 very common mistakes to avoid (and some tips on how to steer clear of them) with your study buddy:

1. You make a study schedule together based on both of your needs.


You both decide “Monday through Thursday, we’ll study renal, then we’ll begin cardio on Friday”.


Share strategies on how to plan a schedule and bounce ideas off each other. It would be best sit down for an afternoon before you begin studying to figure out your respective schedules, but keep in mind that your schedules may (and SHOULD) be very different; that they will undoubtedly change as you progress through your studying.

2. You take breaks at the same time


You both decide, “Let’s take a break after we finish the question set.” You finish the set, review it extensively, but don’t feel confident about a specific topic and decide dig deeper. Your buddy has also finished the set, and is ready for a break, so she waits for you to finish before taking her break. Why is this bad?  Your buddy is now wasting time waiting for you to finish and you now feel rushed to finish your module. Now both of you have compromised your study efficiency and quality.


Tell each other what you want to accomplish before you take a break, and follow through. If your buddy finishes first, she should get up and go take her break for a pre-determined amount of time, and when you finish, you can join her for the rest of her break (if you can). Lay out this expectation ahead of time to ensure maximum study efficiency without hurting your buddy’s feelings. This concept can and should also be applied to deciding when to quit for the night!

3. You give in to both pro- and anti-study peer pressure


Pro-Study Peer Pressure
Your buddy asks, “Wow, are you already done for the night?” You feel self-conscious now, and continue to study to save face despite your exhaustion and distraction.

Anti-Study Peer Pressure
Buddy says: “Everyone is going to dinner. C’mon, you can take a night off!” Fearing that you will ‘miss out’, you end your study night early when you actually had a lot of energy and motivation left to continue for the night!


Be firm and straightforward with yourself and your buddy. Learn to block out all external input and follow your instincts and what YOU need to do. If you are done for the night, instead of feeling guilty and staying with your buddy to no benefit, say, “Yep, I’m done for the night. I’d rather go home and get a good night’s sleep and start fresh. Good luck! I’ll see you tomorrow!” And similarly, tell your buddy, “You’re right, I can take a night off, but I’m going to save that for when I have no motivation! Have fun!” when you wish to keep studying.

3 Simple Study Buddy Rules

I hope above tips were helpful! To summarize, if you ultimately follow three simple principles when working with a study buddy, you can maximize positivity and support while minimizing distraction and inefficiency:

1. Keep each other motivated and organized by sharing strategies and tips
2. Establish expectations up front for your study ritual (particularly addressing these common mistakes)
3. Remain firm and honest with yourself and your buddy and always follow your instincts!