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Studying for the USMLE with Friends is Not Evil!

It was January of MS2 year, and here after Christmas break, excitement for Step 1 was starting up. Within a few weeks, our administration laid out a calendar, involving one-on-one meetings with faculty to discuss our Step 1 study plans. They wanted us to have calendars built with our daily study plan for every day of our 6 week study period. While this seemed intense at the time, in retrospect, it was a necessity. After our last class in April, it was time for everyone to part ways with one another, and work through their calendars day-by-day. It was time to become very well acquainted with our new best friends, First Aid and UWorld.

USMLE Lockdown

The word that comes to mind in describing the study period is “lockdown.” Life’s distractions would have to be swept aside, friendships put on hold, and up to 12 hours per day spent alone studying. Being an advocate of 100% focus when it is required, I spent the better part of my first few weeks in my bedroom at my desk putting the pieces of medicine together. But, it didn’t take long to realize that this is not how a human is supposed to live. I considered studying with others, but I thought that our incongruent knowledge bases would start to hamper one another. And what if you are on a renal day and I’m on GI? What would we even talk about? This would interfere with our water-tight study plans, and we would only drag each other down. What I came to discover was quite the opposite: studying with friends is not evil. 

Parallel Studying (and Coffee)

I met a friend at the cafe with plans for parallel studying, the way that children around age 2 play with one another. We will sit next to each other, drink our coffees, you do your work, I do mine. When we both take a break we can talk about baseball or current events for a few minutes, then back to work. This alone made the bear of a task much more enjoyable. Now there was someone to commiserate with! Someone who was in the same pickle of being married to a book for a month! Plus, getting out is always nice, forces you to shower and dress, and the cafe’s coffee was always better than mine.

Little by little, this parallel studying became more engaging. We started bouncing ideas off of each other, regardless of the study plan for the day. Concepts that didn’t click for one of us could be explained by the other. Eventually, we arrived at the point where we were preparing mini-lessons for one another. For instance, I was feeling very uncomfortable with my knowledge of the classes of antiarrhythmics, so I built a lesson about the concept. Since I wouldn’t be able to teach it unless I myself had a full understanding, I developed an accountability to learn the subject matter inside and out. This led to both of us understanding a difficult concept more thoroughly.

In addition to learning from mini-lessons, we both lived inside this parallel universe, the circumscribed 2,000 question UWorld. Because we were both eventually doing the same huge lot of questions, we could share ideas about particular questions. An example: study partner learns about papillary necrosis and teaches me an interesting fact about this alien concept. When my UWorld question(s) about papillary necrosis comes up, I already have some background knowledge, and this question cements it in further. I share interesting facts that I come across, and together we further affirm our knowledge.

A Caveat: Choose Your Study-Buddy Wisely

Make sure that the partner you choose has a similar fund of knowledge as you. (And also be sure to avoid these three study buddy mistakes.) There is a tendency in medical school to “show off how much one knows.” Some students bolster their pride by making others feel more unsure of themselves. It’s not a beautiful thing, but it happens everywhere. The purpose of wrangling a study partner is to advance both of your knowledges and achieve higher test scores together. Choosing a partner who is way behind you will give you a false sense of security and make him feel worse. Finding someone who is far ahead of you will crush your confidence. I also recommend capping your study group at 2 participants. As numbers grow, organization becomes more difficult, and the chances of transmogrifying into a social outing increase. That said, remember to try and have fun with all this! Fun and brilliance are not mutually exclusive.