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Get the Strongest Start for Your Dedicated USMLE Step 1 Study Period

USMLE GandalfI remember the time, about halfway through my second year of medical school, when all I could focus on was Step 1 looming over me.

It felt like my entire academic career had been building towards this point. I was at a loss for how to appropriately prepare for it. Not just the studying, but also how I should structure my days. I didn’t know how long to study for, what materials to use, or the order I should tackle subjects.

Now, as I look forward to starting my residency in only a couple weeks, I’ve been reflecting on my medical school career and the paths I’ve taken to success. I truly believe that how I prepared for my dedicated study period put me ahead of other students and on the right track to crushing Step 1.

“Wait, Eli, you’re telling me that we should PLAN our dedicated study period before it even begins?”

YES. That’s exactly what I’m saying.

Most students waste 1-2 weeks of their dedicated study periods just getting into a good studying groove. Many  don’t even hit their peak studying stride until just a couple weeks before the big exam.

Successful Step 1 students are raring to go on Dedicated Study Day 1 and hit the ground running. They’re running at peak efficiency much sooner than the average student, and it shows in their scores.

Here are some of the things that these successful students do before their dedicated study periods even start:

Pick your study materials and stick with them!

One of the biggest mistakes students make while studying for Step 1 is spreading themselves too thinly by using too many resources. Studying this way is inefficient and ineffective because each resource approaches topics slightly differently. Instead of giving a more “well-rounded” view on material, this can actually lead to retaining less information in the long run.

It’s much better to pick one question bank (preferrably UWorld), one video delivery platform, one main review textbook, and perhaps a flashcards program. More than this is overkill and will not help you! Also make sure to familiarize yourself with your materials ahead of time. Avoiding the “new textbook growing pains” could literally save you days of studying! (Here are some tips for how to do this with First Aid, for example.)

Make a studying “roadmap.

There’s no one correct way to choose which topics to study each day. The only wrong way is to not plan out your studying “roadmap” before your dedicated study period. A successful study roadmap hits every topic/chapter in a student’s chosen resources (often twice!) and emphasizes weaker areas.

Students often feel the need to spread large topics (cardiology, pulmonary, etc.) over three days. Try to fit it into two days. Qbank questions, a textbook chapter, and some videos should not take three days and it allows students to get to other topics sooner. For the BIG THREE topics that every student struggles with — biochem, micro, pharm — try to hit those early and then get back to them twice more before your test to make sure you see the material enough times.

Students should also pepper planned half days off throughout their schedule; nobody can study 12+ hours a day, 7 days a week for 6+ weeks and not go completely crazy. Schedule some time off!

Find a fellow Step 1 studier to keep you accountable.

It is really easy to get off track and fall behind during an elongated study period with few commitments. Before my dedicated study period started I sat down at my dining room table with my roommate and good friend, and we decided that we were going to keep each other honest with studying. We’d check in with each other at the end of each day and share what we’d done for the day and make sure the other was staying on track.

When the days happened where I wanted to do anything but answer one more question (and these days DO happen!) he’d pick me up and motivate me to keep going. For someone who doesn’t really do well studying with others this was the perfect way to add some accountability into my studying. If you haven’t worked with a study buddy before though, keep these tips in mind so you don’t end up hindering each others’ progress.

Know exactly where you study most efficiently.

So many students don’t find “their” study place until way too late in their dedicated study periods. For many, the place students settle into is often different from where they studied for their classes. Studying for Step 1 is a completely different beast and often requires a change in scenery.

Scope out your favorite local coffee shop, set up your den to be as comfortable as possible, or get away to a family member’s house for six weeks. Whatever it is, I often recommend that students studying for Step 1 avoid each other as much as possible! Comparing study progress or Qbank % corrects in a large group often leads to more stress than it’s worth. Avoid the temptation! Get away from other students if it’s stressing you out!

Knowing where you’re going to be ahead of time and preparing for it eases the transition into dedicated studying.

Be aware of mandatory school or life commitments that are going to happen during your dedicated study period.

Nothing can derail a good study groove like suddenly remembering that you have a morning commitment at the medical school the next day or totally forget about your friend’s birthday party coming up. This leads to added stress because now you have to reshuffle your entire schedule, compress certain topics, and it just eats up good study mojo.

If your school has mandatory sessions during your dedicated study period, first off, someone should tell them what “dedicated” means. Secondly, make sure you put that stuff in your calendar as soon as you know about it. Aunt’s birthday party coming up? Calendar. Dog needs to go to the vet? Calendar!

Make sure that you plan your studying around the stuff you absolutely can’t miss so nothing catches you by surprise and throws you out of whack.

Studying for Step 1 is a daunting task but is in no way impossible.

As one of my colleagues likes to say, Step 1 is a “hard work” test. With the right balance of preparation, discipline, and tenacity, any student can be assured of a score they will be happy with. It’s within reach, so work hard and go out and get it!