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The Most Essential Elements of a USMLE Study Plan — Part One

This is the first in a series of posts that will give you the tools to create the best USMLE Step 1 study plan for your preparation. Today we will outline the fundamental parts of organizing an effective USMLE study plan which we will then elaborate on in future posts.

So you’re about to embark on your USMLE preparation. The stakes are high, and we know how much pressure you feel, because we’ve all felt it. These exams will cover more material than you’ve ever been tested on at once. How will you prepare for an exam that has the potential to affect the rest of your career?


The good news is that you can excel on the USMLE Step 1… as long as you take the time to create a strong and strategic study plan. This is what separates the good from the great. Our goal is to make sure you design a USMLE study plan that gives you the best chance of success on the exam.

Below is a list of the most essential elements of a USMLE study plan:


A study timeline is the foundation upon which the rest of your USMLE study plan is built. There are a number of factors that will determine your particular USMLE study timeline.

For example:

  • Will you be studying full-time for the exam, or will you be on rotations?
  • Do you have a job?
  • Do you have family obligations that will interfere with your studying?
  • Do you have a deadline for taking the exam that has been imposed on you by your school?
  • How will your test date affect which match cycle you can enter?

Once you’ve answered those questions you can determine how many hours a day you can commit to, and work backwards from there. (We will cover this in greater detail in a subsequent post.)

Your Starting Point

It is extremely important that you start your USMLE preparation with a clear understanding of your needs and a baseline score. If you have relatively few weak points, you may need less time to prepare for the USMLE than if you have more weak points. This is why assessment tests like the NBME self-assessment exams are so important in your USMLE preparation. Your med school grades may not be good indicators of how well you will perform on the USMLE because they are not standardized and do not reflect the more complex clinical style of USMLE Step 1. As we’ve covered in a previous post, NBME tests are designed by the authors of the USMLE to specifically assess your readiness for your boards, and to give you an estimate of how you would score if you were to take the exam today. In addition, they give you a breakdown of your performance that will show you the areas you most need to improve upon.

USMLE Study Resources

A quick search on Amazon will turn up hundreds of results for USMLE study resources. Since your time is limited, you want to pick the materials that will give the best bang for your buck—and stick to them! You do not want to waste time with resources that fail to cover the highest-yield material. You most certainly do not want to waste time jumping from resource to resource looking for the perfect book or Qbank without mastering any of them well enough to do well on your exam. The only three Step 1 resources that every student should use are First Aid for the USMLE Step 1, USMLE World and NBME Self-Assessment Exams. You should determine the rest based on your personal strengths, weaknesses and learning style.

USMLE Study Schedule

With the above ingredients in hand, you can now create a detailed Step 1 study schedule. This is arguably the cornerstone of USMLE preparation and should be detailed enough (preferably hour by hour) not to leave anything to chance. It should include the subject(s) you will be studying each day, the book(s) you will be reading from (along with the specific pages), the number of questions you will do, and the amount of time you will spend reviewing the answers (and even when you will take study breaks). Your study schedule is like the directions at the end of a recipe in a cookbook. If you have all the right ingredients but don’t know how to put them together, your dish will not be very successful.

How to Make Your Plan

As you can see, designing a personalized USMLE study plan is pretty complex. How do you know if your study plan is good for you? You could google “USMLE study plan” or search any one of a number of USMLE forums to see what others have done, but how will you know if your study plan is good for you?

As we delve into these topics further in future posts, we want to hear your experiences and questions, so we can help you determine what is best for your individual needs. Tell us what you’d like us to address, and we’ll incorporate these themes into our next posts. Study smart and stay tuned.

Would you like to view a sample USMLE Study Timeline?  Click here for Part Two.