The Top 7 Keys to a Successful USMLE Study Plan

  • /Reviewed by: Amy Rontal, MD
  • Dr. Ali Elsaadi and Dr. Christopher Carrubba contributed to this post.
    Thinking back to my first med school exam, it is frightening how unprepared I was. With no set study plan, I haphazardly bounced between reviewing notes for gross anatomy, visiting the histology lab, and watching way too many episodes of The Office. The night before my exam was when I had the panicked realization that there was material I was just now covering for the first time.

    Fortunately, my subsequently underwhelming exam scores brought me the realization that a detailed study plan was going to be the key to success as a medical student. In the years that followed, discovering an optimal study plan has helped me to succeed as both a medical student and internal medicine resident.

    Whether you are in your first semester of medical school, preparing for the USMLE, or studying for the latest shelf exam, the advice below can help you develop the ideal study plan that maximizes your time and puts you in the best position for success.

    7 Top Tips for Building Your USMLE Study Plan

    1. The More Detail the Better

    One of the early mistakes I made and frequently observe among students are study plans with far too little structure:

    “Monday – Pathology, Tuesday – Microbiology, Wednesday – Pharmacology…”

    This type of plan leaves far too much variability. How many hours will you study? Which resource will you use? How much material will you cover each day?

    When I develop a study plan for myself or for someone else, I prefer to block out time in hourly increments with notes detailing what time to start studying, which resources to use each day, and plan out the type and number of practice questions to complete.

    This study tactic applies to medical coursework and other standardized tests as well.

    When studying for block exams or finals, start by penciling in your class schedule and planning independent study time during long breaks or at the end of the day.

    If you are studying for a shelf exam, be sure to account for clinical responsibilities (e.g. realizing that you’ll have less time to study on long call days or overnight shifts).

    Finally, account for break time, major personal events and sleep. Personally, I would allot an hour a day for the gym and 30 minutes to an hour for each meal. Doing this gave me something to work toward each day but helped me to avoid prolonging my break time.


    2. Know Yourself

    By this point, you’ve likely discovered which study techniques maximize your learning potential. When developing a plan, account for your individual learning preferences and study habits. Do you prefer focusing on one topic each day or do you prefer variability and covering multiple subjects? When studying for USMLEs or preparing for final exams, think about which courses were strengths and which were weaknesses, and allocate time proportionately. (Make sure you tackle your weaknesses early and often!)

    Ask yourself: Do you perform better learning concepts or with straight memorization? Understand your learning style. Have a realistic understanding of what you require to master specific material. Most students will require multiple passes through a certain subject to achieve true proficiency so it’s important to have a plan that ensures you encounter the material as much as needed.


    3. Quality of Study Over Quantity of Hours

    Planning to study twenty hours a day may seem like a productive study plan, but what happens when you put this into practice?

    Unless you are superhuman, chances are you will quickly become fatigued, and the quality and productivity of those study hours will rapidly diminish.

    This highlights the importance of creating a study plan that can be maintained from start to finish. Focusing on quantity over quality may ultimately decrease the efficiency of your study hours, decrease your retention, and increase the odds of burnout or falling behind.

    Instead, carefully develop your study plan with the understanding of the maximal amount of hours you effectively study each day. Try to realistically account for other responsibilities (family, research, exercise, etc.) if they exist. Finally, no matter how many hours you are able to study, attempt to minimize distractions to maximize your productivity. Find a quiet place, turn off Facebook or other social media, and keep text messages and chit-chat to a minimum. Try utilizing the Pomodoro Method to help stay on track and block out distractions.


    4. Focus on High-Yield Topics

    Let me give you an example of what I mean. The major systems on USMLE Step 1 will be Cardio, Pulm, Renal & GI. The rest of the systems like Endo, Heme, Repro, Biochem, Anatomy, etc. are sprinkled throughout but usually make up a smaller portion of the exam.

    Taking all this into account, you want to make sure that you start with the major topics. The reason why is that there are many ways that they can be tied into multiple questions.

    For example, if you get a GI question relating to vitamin deficiencies, blood supply of the foregut, embryology of the foregut its essentially testing two topics in one. The same can be said for the other major topics. Now that you’ve gotten the basic order of which topics you want to look at, you need to make an actual schedule.

    For high-yield USMLE study guides, check out Brian Radvansky’s Now That’s What I Call High-Yield series!


    5. Plan Your Study Time By Topic

    Using GI as an example, let’s say that you want to look at physiology, pathology, pharm, micro and biochemistry for this system and that you want to use First Aid (for annotation), Boards and Beyond, Pathoma (always use this for Path), Firecracker, and UWorld.

    The first thing you want to do is set a realistic goal for how many days you want to spend on GI. To do this you want to take into account your study stamina, how many hours of video you need to watch, and then how many questions you need to do.

    Let’s say there’s 6 hours of GI videos, 180 UWorld questions, and two special topics (special topics are considered stand-alone subjects that are easier to review separately. These are mostly pharm and micro).

    After outlining what you need to do and how you’re going to do it, all that’s left is determining how long it’ll take.

    This aspect of planning is the most difficult, as it requires basic knowledge of mathematics and as medical people, we hate math.

    You’re going to decide if you want to go slow or fast and then divide everything into 3 or 4 days (in general, the major topics tend to take anywhere from 3-4 days while the minor ones take 2-3). The special topics are basically 30min-1hr at the end of the day and are a nice leisurely cool down.

    Once you have your days effectively planned out, the studying becomes much easier since you don’t need to worry about deciding what you’re going to do. Another good thing about doing things this way is that you can look into the future, in a sense, and see how much time it will take to complete everything you want to complete before your actual test date.


    6. Account for the Unexpected

    What is that famous expression: “Even the best laid plans may go awry”? Whatever the exact words, remember your plans do not always determine the future.

    Illness, family obligations, or other unforeseeable events can cause you to deviate from your daily schedule.

    For that reason, I always schedule one review day each week. This provides flexibility for and offers a built-in cushion to protect you from falling behind.

    And, when you’re on schedule, a review day allows extra time for mastering difficult content or revisiting material for rote memorization. Or maybe that day just becomes a day off to recharge. Just remember: Time off is earned!


    7. Prepare to Adapt to New Challenges

    You will experience setbacks, and you will struggle more than anticipated from time to time. It’s okay!

    Midway through studying for a block exam, I realized that I had much more difficultly with the memorization required for biochemistry compared to the conceptual learning of physiology. Recognizing a weakness, I adjusted the following weeks to allot more time toward biochemistry than I had previously planned.

    When studying for the USMLE, I suggest using your performance on UWorld and NBME tests to guide where you direct your attention most.

    Above all, keep an open mind, assess your progress with practice questions constantly, and modify your plans bravely and decisively.


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    As you progress through medical school, use these habits to further refine your own study skills and study planning. And remember: Your strengths, weaknesses and learning styles are unique. Trust your gut, tailor your plan to what you need, and put in the time and work. You’ll be off to a great start.