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How to Find the Best Study Spot for Your USMLE Exams

Studying for the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) can be a demanding and time-consuming task. If you have been following along with my previous blogs about how to find the best med school study planner and how to recover after your study plan begins to falter, I would be remiss to not discuss the wide range of options you have for where to study. Here I will discuss the risks and benefits of studying at home, in coffee shops, in a classroom, or a combination thereof.

Option #1: Coffee Shops

Let’s begin by discussing coffee shops, a popular choice for students looking to study in a public setting. 

One advantage of studying in a coffee shop is the abundance of caffeine, which can help keep you awake and focused during long study sessions. Additionally, some find the ambient noise of a coffee shop can help block out distractions and create a sense of concentration. They are also a great place to get out of the medical school setting and study with a group to keep yourself from being too isolated during this stressful time. 

However, the drawbacks of a coffee shop venue include some finding it impossible to focus with the flow of people and (hopefully quiet) conversations around. Additionally, to achieve a certain aesthetic, some shops may not have optimal lighting causing eye strain in the dim lighting.

Finally, coffee shops can be expensive, as you may need to purchase drinks or food to stay for long periods of time or to access the WiFi. If you are on a budget, the cost of studying in a coffee shop may not be practical. All that being said, I have found coffee shops great for reviewing UWorld questions, going through Anki flashcards, or reviewing the material in Pathoma or First Aid.

Option #2: Classrooms

Classrooms, on the other hand, offer a more structured environment for studying. You will often have access to large tables, whiteboards to write out complex neurology pathways, as well as places to achieve complete silence.  Additionally, you may be able to create a highly productive study group that will hold you accountable and help you learn. I often used classrooms to create the most realistic testing environment for practice tests and Qbank blocks. 

But believe it or not, there are problems with classrooms that may not make them the best place for you to achieve USMLE success. You may be required to reserve the space ahead of time, reducing flexibility in your study schedule. Moreover, classrooms may not always have access to caffeine or food, which can be necessary for long study sessions—so plan to bring your own from home if needed. 

Finally, classrooms tend to be isolated and separate you from your peers or the outside world. Over time, this can have a harsh effect on your mental health, which I stress you all need to keep in mind. 

Option #3: Home, Sweet Home

The final, major location to consider spending your study time in is (of course) your own home. 

Studying at home offers several advantages. First and foremost, it allows you to create a personalized study environment that is tailored to your needs. You can set up your desk and chair in the most comfortable configuration as well as have access to all your study materials and resources. Your favorite study snacks and drinks will also be readily available. Studying from home often makes for a more comfortable and familiar environment which can help those brain cells work.  

While at home, however, it is easy to fall into the trap of doing household chores that you normally would not do: take naps, put on some Netflix, or eat for the purpose of procrastinating. In short, home can have a lot of distractions and activities that can draw you in instead of studying. 

Ultimately, studying at home is great when you have all day to complete a normal amount of relatively light study and it is okay to take a break. Do you have just 2 blocks of UWorld and a bit of reading assigned for that day on Blueprint’s Med School Study Planner? Studying at home may be a perfect option to avoid the commute and get to relaxing as quickly as possible. 

Thousands of medical students use Blueprint's Med School Study Planner to save hours of planning time, see exactly what to do each day, and ace their med school exams. Get unlimited FREE access today!

Thousands of medical students use Blueprint’s Med School Study Planner to save hours of planning time, see exactly what to do each day, and ace their med school exams. Get unlimited FREE access today!

Pro Tip: Don’t Stick to One Spot!

Of course, I would not recommend sticking to one location for the entirety of your studying. Each spot has its own advantages and disadvantages and with a proper balance that works for you, your learning and mental health will be at their maximum during this incredibly difficult process. 

I would suggest getting into the classroom about two to three times per week, if possible, for when you have a “heavy” day scheduled or a practice test. This allows for complete focus without distractions as well as getting you prepared for the environment of the test center. 

For a “normal” day, a combination of studying at home or at a coffee shop may be optimal depending on what you are working on. You may go to the coffee shop to be more relaxed and do Anki with light reading, and then head home to do your UWorld while taking a mental break on your commute. 

For those “light” days, coffee shops are my go-to so that home can be just a place to relax and not worry about studying for the rest of the evening. Of course, staying at home is also totally reasonable based on your own preferences. 

Ultimately, the goal is to maintain your mental health in different settings. This helps to keep your brain from becoming stagnant while using each spot to minimize negatives and maximize each space’s benefits. This process is hard, but finding places where you will be able to complete the tasks of the day to their fullest potential will help you come out on the other side intact. 

Good luck and happy studying!

About the Author

I am a graduate of the Ohio State University with a degree in Neuroscience as well as a minor in clinical Psychology. I am currently a research coordinator at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center prior to beginning residency. I am attending the University of Pittsburgh Medical School for my MD. I am interested in the field of Orthopaedics as well as medical education, healthcare reform, and various advocacy groups. I focus on questions/testing strategy as well as taking what you learn from a book and applying it to test questions. Twitter: @LCluts