How This Cram Fighter User Scored 260+ on USMLE Step 1

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • We asked Denis Balaban, a medical student at University of Florida, to share some tips on how he studied for his exam.

    What advice do you have for students who want to score in the range you did?

    I recommend engaging actively with the material from Day 1 of medical school. During the first 2 years, study the lecture slides well, make questions about them yourself, and supplement your studying with Pathoma and First Aid if you can, ideally writing your Pathoma notes in First Aid. I cannot overemphasize how important studying the first 2 years of medical school are. Dedicated, consistent active learning will help you so much more than any amount of cramming during STEP studying. Over the summer between M1 and M2, if you have time, consider reviewing material from the first year.

    Once Step 1 study time approaches, I’d give yourself 6-8 weeks of dedicated study time that is free from major life distractions. Find a study location that you feel focused in, that you enjoy, and that you can reliably use. I studied in my parents’ office at a nice desk with a view of our beautiful yard, which I found very relaxing. If you find yourself going to sleep, play some non-distracting music to keep yourself awake. If you find yourself not caring about certain parts of the material (i.e. I don’t care about ‘topic X’), think of situations where that information would be vital to patient care.

    Set realistic goals for yourself during STEP study time.

    That happened to me when I was learning about treatments for Tourette’s syndrome, which I had never learned in class. I was feeling at capacity for studying that day and just wanted to skip over it so I didn’t need to learn three more drugs. But then I thought, “What if a mom walked into my office and told me about how her son is having such a hard time in school, has no friends, and is getting bullied because of his intractable tics, and is begging me to help her son? Well darn, I better know those drugs.” And my motivation was restored and I learned those drugs.

    As for study schedule, I would spend 8-13 hrs per day studying, with many breaks in between. Don’t go more than 1-4 hours without a break. Go outside, listen to music, talk with a friend, stretch, exercise. I made the schedule in Cram Fighter, and did my best to stick to it. It really helped me organize, and I liked that I could check things off so I felt I accomplished something. I took a “by subject” approach which I was able to customize. Sometimes it assigned me a lot of reading to do in a day (like microbio), which wasn’t realistic for me. So, I looked at what my schedule would be like if it were “by resource” and it assigned me 14-16 pages per day, which was much more doable. Thus, as long as I read that many pages per day, I was good, and went back to the “by subject” schedule.

    Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.

    Set realistic goals for yourself during STEP study time. If you’re falling behind because you’re trying to go back and cement what you’ve previously learned, I wouldn’t feel too concerned about that. That could just be a weak area for you and it rightly deserves more time. Just do your best to make that time up with an area you are stronger in. Ask your upperclassmen for advice too. They are your best resource because they’ve been through it at your institution. Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint.