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How Studying for the USMLE Step 1 Is Different in 2021

  • by Erica Forrette
  • Feb 04, 2021
  • Reviewed by: Amy Rontal

Changes to Step 1 are coming this year. Here are some trends we’ve noticed so far.

This year, taking Step 1 may seem different than in most recent years for a couple of reasons. To begin with, 2021 marks the final year that medical students taking the USMLE Step 1 exam will receive a score. Starting in January 2022, the exam will move to a simple pass/fail result. For this reason, medical students taking the exam this year may feel particular pressure to get a great score. Some students worry that removing the score will make it more difficult for residency programs to evaluate their candidacy, so they’re striving to get as high a score as possible to help them set themselves apart before the pass/fail change takes effect.

The other complicating factor is coronavirus. Many students’ planned exam dates were cancelled or moved in 2020. Students whose exams were cancelled found it difficult to reschedule their exam date. Generally speaking, most med students take Step 1 sometime in their second year of med school. But in 2020, many students had to deal with multiple Step 1 reschedulings and/or cancellations due to Covid closures as well as social distancing restrictions on testing center capacity. As a result, it seems that some students still hadn’t taken Step 1 even as they headed into their third year of medical school in the fall of 2020.

Here at Cram Fighter, we analyzed our subscriber database to see how this year’s crop of Step 1 test-takers differs from the prior year given these two unusual factors. Here’s what we found:

  • The number of second-year medical students (based on self-reported graduation year) with a Step 1 exam date sometime in 2021 is currently 76% higher than the number of second-year students who had an exam date in 2020.

This increase could be construed to reflect that a greater number of second-year students this year are signing up for Cram Fighter to help increase their chances of attaining a high Step 1 score in this final year of scored results. Based on our annual customer surveys, Cram Fighter customers who stick to their schedule are more likely to hit or beat their target Step 1 score than those who do not.

  • The number of third-year students who have/had a Step 1 exam date sometime in 2021 is currently 163% higher than the third-year students with a Step 1 exam date in 2020.

This figure could indicate that there are probably quite a few third-year students this year, who are scheduled to take their Step 1 exam in 2021. Every year, we do see some third-year students who have a Step 1 exam date in their third year, but in 2021 this number seems exceptionally high. (Even comparing it to 2019, arguably the last “normal” year before covid hit, the number of third-year students with an exam date in 2021 is 221% higher than the number of third-year students with a Step 1 exam date in 2019!)

We also took a look at the resources our customers added to their Step 1 study schedules in Dec 2019-Jan 2020 (“last year”) vs. Dec 2020-Jan 2021 (“this year”) to see if there was any change. While we mostly saw consistency in the resources that appeared in our Top 10 from last year to this year, AMBOSS saw quite a bit of growth this year. Last year, AMBOSS was added as a resource to about 10% of our customers’ Step 1 study schedules, and this year it was added to about 24%. Currently (as of late Jan, 2021) it is ranked #9 on our published list of top Step 1 resources our customers are adding.

(Data is compiled from what resources we saw Cram Fighter customers add to their Step 1 schedule as of Jan. 2021.)

One last note: Many observers of the Step 1 change to pass/fail think that it’s possible other exams, such as Step 2 CK, will gain more importance as part of the evaluation of a med student’s transcript. We are not yet seeing an uptick in subscribers adding a Step 2 CK study schedule to their Cram Fighter plan, but we’ll keep a close eye on it to see if this expected shift occurs.

If you’re one of the second-year med students who wants to get closer to their target Step 1 score, sign up for a 7-day free trial of Cram Fighter today. See just how easy it is to build your custom Step 1 study schedule in minutes, and save hours of time and stress. Sign up here.

About the Author

Erica Forrette is the former Director of Marketing at Cram Fighter.