So I Failed Step 3: Now What?

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • If you failed Step 3, you’re probably a bit stunned. How on earth did this happen? After so many years of studying and so many exams passed, you cannot fathom how this is the exam that became the biggest obstacle.

    Well let me assure you, you’re not alone.

    Many people before you have failed Step 3, especially after new changes were made to the exam format and content in recent years.

    At any rate, don’t be too hard on yourself—there’s no doubt you can pass Step 3, though you may need to make some adjustments.

    Here are some tips on what to do if you didn’t pass the first time around. 

    If You Failed Step 3, Here’s What to Do Next

    If you recently failed the exam, take a deep breath and ask yourself these five questions:

    1. Did I underestimate the exam?

    The biggest mistake people who failed Step 3 make is that they underestimate the exam. The old adage “two months for Step 1, two weeks for Step 2, and a Number 2 pencil for Step 3” definitely does not apply, at least not anymore.

    (I don’t know about you, but I also definitely took more than two weeks to study for Step 2! Not to mention that we no longer use Scantrons.)

    In order to ensure a passing score (which is now 200 starting in 2024), Step 3 deserves your full attention and respect. The score may also be more important if you are considering a medical fellowship after residency.

    Remember, just because you passed Steps 1 and 2, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to study to pass Step 3. Step 3 has its own set of challenges, especially the newest version of the exam. If you think you may have underestimated the exam, the good news is that this may have a relatively easy fix (I recommend starting with our Tips for Step 3 Exam Day post).

    2. Did the CCS cases do me in?

    You’ve taken USMLE Step exams before and passed them, but none of them had CCS cases. Approximately 25% of your Step 3 score depends on how you performed on the 12 CCS cases that are part of the exam.

    Typically, 10 of the cases will be straightforward, but even if you know the management of the diseases presented, you may not score well, simply because you’re not familiar with the CCS computer program.

    Pro tip: Take a look at your score report. 

    Examine your score report and if CCS wasn’t a high score, then prepare to address this deficiency head on.

    For more in-depth info, check out our blog post on how to crack the CCS cases!

    Many students may ask, “Is it possible to fail CCS and still pass Step 3?” The jury is still out, and official USMLE sources do not provide firm guidance on the issue.

    I like to encourage examinees to instead focus on the opportunity that the CCS section presents for boosting your overall score! (This means you can worry less about the minutiae on the multiple-choice question portion of the exam).

    Committing to a good review material (such as and going through each case in great detail ensures a fantastic score on this part of the exam. It can really make a difference!

    Looking for more personalized support? Get a free consultation for Step 3 tutoring (+29 average Step 3 score increase)!

     3. Did you time your Step 3 test date appropriately?

    One of the biggest problems about Step 3 is that most people are forced to take it during busy internships or residencies. When you’re doing night float or are trying to survive on one golden weekend per month, it can be extremely hard to find the time or energy to study for Step 3 the right way. 

    Almost every internship/residency will have one or two months of clinic or research or ER, when it may be significantly easier to plan a solid detailed Step 3 study schedule. Plan in advance and pick your new test date with your schedule in mind. Choose the least time-consuming rotations you can before you plan to retake Step 3. That way, you will be able to study effectively.

    Also give some thought as to when you’d like the two test days to occur. Back-to-back days might be easier from a rotation standpoint and certainly gets the test over and done with quickly. However, it can be incredibly draining to sit in a testing center for two days straight. If you’re like me, you may find yourself in a pretty sour mood on day 2 when you left in the afternoon the day before!

    4. What are my biggest weaknesses?

    Again, if you failed Step 3, examine your score report in detail and pay additional attention to the areas in which you scored the lowest. Ultimately, you will have to review everything again, but if you scored extremely poorly in OB/GYN or behavioral sciences/statistics, then you should dedicate more time to those areas when you’re preparing your study plan.

    Don’t neglect prior shelf exams if you run out of Qbank questions for these specific areas. That material is still fair game for Step 3 and can be a great way to freshen up for your retake.

    5. Do I need help with my test-taking skills?

    If you failed Step 3, ask yourself the following: 

    – Was I overly anxious?
    – Did I have difficulty with timing?
    – Were diagnosis or management questions more difficult for me?
    – Did I have difficulty approaching the statistics questions with those long stems?

    If you answered “yes” to several of these questions, completing your Qbank questions several times over (ideally three) in a timed fashion will help. If you’re still having difficulty, finding a USMLE Step 3 tutor to give you advice and discuss questions with you may be the way to go.

    If You Failed Step 3, Don’t Worry. You Can Do This! 

    You are not alone. You have come this far, and you are not about to give up after passing Step 1, Step 2, and finishing 8+ years of schooling/training. Buckle down and prepare adequately to retake Step 3 using all of these tips!