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Taking a Step Back: What I Would Do Differently to Prepare (Again) for USMLE Step 1

It’s common to feel a variety of emotions when leaving the testing center after taking the USMLE Step 1 exam. Some students will be overwhelmed with fear that they failed. Others may continuously replay questions over and over again in their head. Some students may feel a sense of elation that the grueling test in behind them. I myself was overwhelmed with emotion. Not necessarily because I thought I failed, as I really didn’t know how I felt about the difficulty of the exam, but rather because I realized that the test really wasn’t that bad. It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to help other students tackle the beast that is step 1. I had spent so many weeks and months obsessing over the exam, losing sleep, almost tearfully dragging myself to the library each day. But the moment I left the testing center, I truly realized this was just an exam. It doesn’t define me or any other test taker as a person, and it’s not worth months of turmoil worrying about.

So, what would I do differently if preparing for Step 1 again?

I would stop worrying so much. Obviously, that is easier said than done. But there are a number of strategies students can use to decrease stress and anxiety. For example, students can reach out to a tutor, mentor, or senior medical student to get some reassurance and guidance. It is helpful to speak with others who have been through the test and successfully passed. Similarly, well before your dedicated study period, consider talking to your family or close friends about the exam and the preparation it requires. Helping those around you to better understand what Step 1 is, why it is important, and how much studying it will entail will help them to better support you during this busy time. Having a solid support system to turn to when you are upset or stressed is important in helping you to relax and remind you that at the end of the day, this is just a test. Students can also practice meditation and positive thinking. Just a few minutes or seconds of positive thoughts each day can help to reset your attitude and allow you to feel better. For example, do you have a 5 minute walk to the library? Consider streaming a meditation on your phone during this time. Some students like to use positive imagery by writing encouraging statements like “You can do this!,” “You were meant to be here,” and “You’re working hard and deserve success.” Posting these notes on your laptop and around your study area can give you that extra boost of positive encouragement when you might be worried or stressed. Don’t believe me? Give it a try!

An important part of preparing for the Step 1 exam is maintaining high productivity and efficiency. Yet one of the biggest ways to lose this efficiency is to worry. Excessive worry will distract you from studying and waste precious time that could be more effectively geared towards studying. If you have yet to sit for your Step 1 exam, consider how you might deal with any fears or worries prior to your dedicated study period. By building a strong support system, seeking out mentors, and practicing positive thinking, you can have a happier and healthier experience preparing for Step 1.