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How to Set Up a Timeline for Your USMLE Step 1 Study Plan — Essential Elements Part Two

In the first post of this series, we discussed the essential components of a comprehensive USMLE study plan. In this post, we’ll dive a little deeper into the details of setting up your Step 1 timeline.

If you are like most students thinking about or starting your USMLE preparation, it’s likely you’re already coming face to face with difficult questions: How much time do I need to reach my goal? When will I be ready? How can I arrange my time so I reach my potential—without burning out?


These are questions we’ve all faced. Even the tutors at Med School Tutors, all of whom have scored above 245, faced these questions with some anxiety. What we learned along the way is it’s essential to confront these issues systematically, realistically and honestly. Sometimes things will feel arbitrary (is it really enough to study biochem for just two days?) but the key is to balance the need for review and practice with the need for completing your preparation as quickly as possible before burnout sets in. Let’s start looking at how you can do just that.

How Much Time Do I Need?

As I mentioned in the previous post, every study timeline will be specific to the individual test-taker. For example: If you are a mother of two children under the age of 5, you may have to allot more total study time than your friend who is single and living on his own. The same goes for other things that may compete with your study time, such as a part-time job, medical school rotations, or other obligations you simply cannot push off until after the exam.

No matter how important any of these responsibilities may be in your life, they are still distractions from studying, and it is essential to admit this honestly. Outside responsibilities will slow you down and will make it impossible for you to compare yourself and your plans with others who are studying full-time.

That said, it is possible to balance the ‘rest of life’ with studying—just be honest about what is possible so you don’t set yourself up for heartache and failure. Arrange your schedule to push yourself as hard as reasonably possible—no more, no less.

The other important thing that has to be taken into account is your starting point as determined by your NBME assessment exam performance. The further away you are from your desired score on the actual exam, the more time you will have to allot for exam preparation. There is no way around this. If you are starting with a 160 NBME score, it’s going to take significant effort to bring your score to a 200 or better (that’s almost 2 standard deviations!), and you will likely require more time to build your knowledge base.

As you set up your timeline, be as realistic as possible about the distance between your starting point and goal, and remember that ultimately you can and should strive only for the best you can do within a given timeframe.

Think in Terms of Hours

Although specific USMLE study schedules need to be made for each individual, we generally recommend that the average student studies about 500-600 total hours for the USMLE Step 1. This may sound like a lot, so let me give you some perspective.

For most people, the first two years of medical school will comprise about 35 hours per week of combined class and lab time for about 45 weeks of the year. This amounts to 3,150 hours spent on your studies. If you include the amount of time spent studying for exams, I would estimate conservatively that it took you about 5,000 hours to learn the material presented to you in the first two years. When you look at it this way, you can see how reasonable it is to study for about 10% of that time for a comprehensive exam on that same material.

As a general recommendation, we believe that most students should study for 6-8 weeks for a minimum of 10 hours a day. A quick calculation will show you this brings you to 560 hours of study. The 56-day sample schedule below was made based on the above assumptions. (If you do not see the image, please click on the below link.)

The sample timeline provided here is scheduled so that subjects requiring comprehension are emphasized early on, while those requiring memorization are scheduled closer to the actual exam date. In addition, there are two passes through the material. This ensures repetition, which is key to learning the material for the exam.

If you do not have 8 weeks available for preparation, then it is essential to decrease your focus on certain subjects depending on your particular strengths/weaknesses (if you are strong in respiratory, spend less time there, and more time on a weakness like neuro or renal). These decisions should be made based on empirical evidence from practice tests and question review. Thus, you will notice that the sample schedule also provides for extensive use of NBMEs to gauge your progress as well as show you what you need to work on to improve.

Our next installment in this series discusses how to develop this schedule further by selecting the best resources for each day, including books, videos, question banks and practice tests.