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Parallel Studying for the USMLE: Part Two

Between Studying for the USMLE with Friends is Not Evil! and Parallel Studying for the USMLE: Part One, I’ve certainly been spending a lot of time here talking about parallel studying — and the art of working together toward a common goal without being all up in each other’s business. We received a lot of great questions from readers about the idea, so I wanted to take this time to answer them and help guide you on the best ways to work parallel studying into your plans.

Q: How do I select a USMLE study partner?

A: Selecting a study partner is, in some ways, the most important part of parallel studying — and the one that can bring you the most joy and success from the practice. Choosing the wrong classmate can lead to you feeling way behind, obtaining a false sense of security, or just plain having a bad time. When studying for basic science exams and especially for the USMLE, it is imperative to work with someone with a similar level of knowledge. You don’t have to be intellectual twins, but if your baseline NBME is 192 and your classmate’s is 240, you probably won’t be able to offer each other very much value and should seek other partners. Although it should go without saying, you also want someone who you enjoy spending time with! The intensive study periods leading up to Step 1 (and 2) can be isolating: you will likely interact with fewer people than you do during normal coursework, so make sure that you’re sharing time with someone you like and who is supportive of you.

Q: You talk a lot about getting derailed. What do you mean by this, and is there anything we can do to prevent this?

A: Plain and simple, “getting derailed” means falling off of your pre-built study schedule, and ultimately falling behind. In working on subjects together and in teaching one another, you must ensure you stick to your daily schedule.

Something that we at MST stress ad infinitum is having a solid study schedule to employ throughout your preparations. Without a bulletproof schedule, it’s way too easy to fall off track and find yourself cramming for subjects that feel shaky in the 11th hour. Step 1 and 2 are stressful enough, and we definitely want to avoid situations that compound the pressure. Building a study schedule gives you a template to ensure you stay on target. The more detailed your schedule, the smaller chance you have of getting derailed. For instance, say that your schedule tells you that from 9 AM until noon, you will read and annotate the Cardiovascular pathology section of First Aid. If you’re ahead of schedule, feel free to take some time and give a top-notch explanation of HOCM to your partner, with diagrams and provocative maneuvers to accentuate murmurs. If you’re behind, politely tell them a bit of what you know, then explain that you need to get back to your tasks at hand. If you meant to firm up your own knowledge of valvular pathologies today anyway, then be flexible and allow yourself to get sidetracked, hammering out the murmurs together. If you were absolutely rolling through your anti-arrhythmics however, keep on rolling and get back to murmurs when time permits.

Q: Is parallel studying unequivocally better than traditional studying for me?

A: There is no guarantee that parallel studying will outperform any other method. Parallel studying definitely has some advantages over being alone with a book in the library. You not only have the power of a second brain, but the often-overlooked forces of human interaction and accountability. You are less likely to take a nap break or extended lunch or numerous phone calls when working with another person. Planning to meet with someone makes you accountable to show up with a desire to get work done. Also, having a peer/friend to turn to can help calm the delicate Step 1-crazed psyche. Don’t be afraid to spend a little bit of time discussing your successes and fears regarding the test with someone who can absolutely relate. This connection alone can be extremely valuable, and at the very least is definitely a lesser evil than bottling the emotions inside.

That being said, flexibility is important during your study period. If you’re not finding value in the exercise or feel like the process is hampering your own knowledge building, then politely explain this and move on. Nothing says you have to study this way, and if you perform better on your own there is no sense in forcing it. Be ready to roll with the punches and do what works for you.

Q: How does parallel studying fit into my Step 1 study plan?

A: We have found that parallel studying works best as an accompaniment to your regular study plan. Test the waters by peppering your solo preparations with a little bit of parallel studying and see how it feels. If the sessions are more useful than being holed up at home, ramp up the time spent studying with another person. If not, consider it a once-a-week meetup or scratch the plan altogether. For my own Step 1, I spent most of the first run-through of the material on my own. Then, once I had a firm foundation and could speak more intelligently on the topics, I spent the second mostly with a partner.

Keep the parallel studying questions coming. Here’s to your success!