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The Biggest Mistake USMLE Step 1 Students Make: A Tutor’s Perspective

“Dear Sarah,

You’ve been tutoring for a few years and have worked with a lot of students, providing them with the right resources and guidance. However not everyone, I am sure, reached their goal.

“Based on your experience, what’s the biggest mistake your students make that hinder them from surpassing their goal, even after giving them the proper tutoring and help? This way, I could try to avoid those pitfalls and not make the same mistake.”

Dear Student,

Thank you for your thoughtful question. There are many thoughtful questions, in life and in tutoring, to which I do not know the answer. At first I thought this may be one of them, and then I remembered that I do know the answer.

The biggest mistake that students make, without a doubt, is to obsess about outcomes so much that they fail to focus on the process.

I will speak for myself by saying that a great deal of my personal and professional strife in life is derived from spending too much time living in the future and thinking about the way things could be instead of appreciating and accepting the way things are: I worry about the goals that I set and whether I will achieve them. 

Then, when I am lucky enough to achieve them, I worry that they aren’t what I truly wanted in the first place. It amounts to a masochistic form of mental gymnastics and ultimately it will defeat our ability to function effectively and productively.

So what does this mean for you?

It means that you just have to make your schedule and stick to it. It means that even when you notice classmates with different schedules and you’re second guessing yourself because you’re not progressing like you thought you were and you are mentally and physically and emotionally exhausted, you just put one foot in front of the other and just do it. You trust yourself even though it is uncomfortable. You believe in yourself even though it doesn’t always make sense.

A lot of people wonder at my ability to do certain things, such as achieve high scores on tests or publish a paper, and now that I am on the other side of everything, I can say to you in complete truth that I am not a magical human being. I can tell you that I felt insecure and scared the entire time. But I also set goals, pursued them obsessively, and never gave up. In my mind, studying for the USMLE Step 1 was a game — I made the game as fun as possible and then I never stopped playing it.

This is what you have to do.

One foot in front of the other.

Every day.

Even when it sucks.

This is part of living in the moment.

You can do it.

“Life — whatever else it is — is short. Fate is cruel but maybe not random. Nature (meaning death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. Maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it is our task to immerse ourselves anyway: Wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what death doesn’t touch. And that is art.” – Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch