How to Use Your Med School Winter Break to Prepare for USMLE Step 1

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • By the second year of medical school, most students are accustomed to spending the majority of their free time studying. It is therefore no surprise that most students feel the need to spend their fall, winter, or spring vacations preparing for the Step 1 exam. This article provides some tips for using the winter break to prepare for the USMLE.

    1. Consider when you are taking the USMLE step 1 exam.

    With recent changes to many medical school curriculums, it is not uncommon for some students to take Step 1 in February while other students don’t take the exam until June. For those testing in February, winter break may be the start of their dedicated study period and the need to prepare for step 1 is greater. These students may spend most of their break preparing, while students not testing for 3 to 6 months later may only need to spend a few hours a day or a few days a week preparing.

    2. Prepare and gather resources.

    For many students, winter break is the first time they begin seriously preparing for the Step 1 exam. Therefore, before beginning to study, it is important to gather resources and make a game plan. Consider what your goals are for studying over winter break. Write them down and determine how much time you will need to study each day to reach these goals. Depending on when you are testing, your goals will vary. For example, those who are testing in February may set a goal of completing 20% of the Uworld qbank over their winter break while those not testing until June may decide to simply skim first aid chapters that they have covered in their coursework or watch pathoma videos of their weaker subjects on a faster speed. Once a student determines their goals for winter break, I encourage them to consider their goals for the rest of the year up until their test date before proceeding to plan a study schedule.

    3. Plan your study schedule.

    Some students prefer detailed study schedules which list out what they need to review that day or even dictate what they should do hour by hour. Other students prefer broader goal-oriented schedules which set weekly targets such as completing a certain number of uworld questions by the end of the week. While some students can confidently make their own schedule, other students may find it helpful to employ a tutor to help with this process. Even if a student chooses not to have a detailed, written study plan, at minimum all students should have a goal for both what they want to cover with their winter break studying and what they want to accomplish before they sit for the Step 1 exam.

    4. Don’t teach yourself new material.

    Step 1 resources such as First Aid, Pathoma, Uworld, and sketchy are intended to be review resources. They are generally not comprehensive enough to teach students new material that they haven’t yet learned, and students who try to use these resources to “get ahead” prior to their medical lectures often end up wasting their time. The high yield facts and summaries that Step 1 resources supply are great to review material you have already learned but are considerably less effective as a primary source of new information. For this reason, I always encourage students I work with to only spend their breaks studying material they have already learned. If you have not covered the endocrine material, for example, skip this chapter in first aid and work on practice questions covering material you have already learned. The

    5. Remember to relax and enjoy your break!

    Finally, and most importantly, remember to enjoy your winter break! We are afforded very little time off in medical school, and it is easy to become burned out if you never take a break. The weeks preceding Step 1 require hard work and dedication, so it is important to approach the dedicated study period as refreshed and relaxed as possible. If your family celebrates Christmas, take Christmas eve and Christmas day completely off. Or maybe plan a fun night out for New Year’s Eve with friends. It is true that you may feel guilty taking time off, and it may seem like everyone else in your class is studying, but remember the importance of taking breaks. A few years ago, I had a week-long spring vacation a few weeks before my dedicated step 1 study period was set to begin. Most of my classmates choose to stay in town and study. I boarded a plane to Costa Rica and had blast exploring a new country. When I returned to medical school, my mind was clear, my stress was gone, and I crushed my final 10 weeks of studying leading to my Step 1 exam. Never sacrifice your physical or mental health for a few extra days of studying. Take some time off to relax and have fun and you will often be better off in the long run.

    Update 12/17/18: Lauryn Falcone and her sister, Justine Falcone, just hosted a Facebook Live Q&A on this very subject. View below!