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Tutoring for USMLE: Why I became a Med School Tutor


“See one, do one, teach one.”

This is the mantra of medical education. The apprenticeship model of learning that forms the backbone of our institutionalized learning scheme can be traced back hundreds of years. The principles of on-the-job training are quite simple. Humans are experiential learners, which means that solving high volumes of problems in a hands-on manner is the best way in which to turn yourself into an expert in a given subject matter.

While few would argue for passive learning (i.e. reading Harrison’s internal medicine online, chapter-by-chapter… argh!), my experiences as a medical student have taught me how hard it can be to actually slow down and pursue the modes of learning that are proven to be most effective. Perhaps this is because we feel chronically sleep-deprived and overworked. It’s tough to find time to review notes the same day they were taken, or to make flashcards from core concepts with which you struggle, much less teach the material to a partner  that, after all, requires two people to overcome their medical student funk.

At the end of MS3, I applied for a job as a USMLE tutor because it seemed like the perfect way to keep fresh in my mind the material I had worked so hard to learn. I was taking a year off to pursue a research interest within dermatology and global health, and knew that my mind would naturally oust all that I had learned while preparing for the USMLE Step 1 and during third year clerkships unless I made an active effort to keep that material packed away neatly in my cerebral cortex. Moreover, believe it or not, I had actually found the process of studying for the USMLE Step 1 to be, well, fun!

That probably sounds crazy. In fact, I know that it sounds crazy, which is precisely why I thought I could make a difference by trying to make the process fun for others.

Tackling Step 1 is one of the most exhausting exercises that we face in the long journey toward a career in medicine. Depending on the lens through which you process the experience of preparing for the exam, the typical student may wind up feeling demoralized and socially isolated, talking himself or herself into believing that this is easy for everyone else, that there’s something wrong with them because it doesn’t seem to be coming naturally, and maybe even that they shouldn’t have pursued a career in medicine in the first place. That’s the position in which many of my close friends found themselves while studying for Step 1. During the process, several of them shared these feelings with me, and I had the chance to listen to a variety of perspectives from people that scored across the board on the actual exam day.

I remember thinking to myself, “But it really isn’t so bad… at least we don’t have to sit in lecture for hours on end,” and wondering why I wasn’t having the same experience. In retrospect, I think that my ability to maintain a positive attitude stemmed from two sources:

First, I am an active, visuotactile learner, which means that I like to dive my hands deep into the material, use drawings or hand gestures to convey mechanisms of disease, and talk out processes with people. This means that I have trouble learning in a lecture setting. I’d figured out during college that making notecards and drawings was the best way to be successful, and studying for Step 1 gave me plenty of time to do both of those things. I was under no illusion about how to translate my preferred learning modality into a successful study period. I believe that many students try and fail to reinvent the wheel, and waste time comparing themselves to others rather than thinking about what has worked for them in the past. Second, I suppose that I have a life philosophy, of sorts. Recently, I was asked to tersely state the advice I would give to a second grader, given the chance. My response?

“Try to figure out a way to turn everything you have to do into a game.”

  • Making and reviewing flashcards for USMLE Step 1 facts reminded me of the times I used to play the “memory card game” with my mom.
  • Tracing out the spinal cord or basal ganglia pathways onto fresh sheets of paper reminded me of creating chalk masterpieces in the driveway with my brother, or the times I used to memorize atlases on long road trips (okay… maybe that’s not such a universal pastime…)
  • Colored pens and highlighters that each have a unique and consistent meaning, online notecard programs that can be downloaded onto your smartphone for ready use, study walks in the park with First Aid and a friend, reviewing notecards with my favorite soundtracks in the background, taking a break to drink Starbucks iced coffee  these were all ways I tried to keep an otherwise mind-numbing process fun, without ending up in a distracting trap of frequenting Facebook or Netflix  I recommend deleting these during the study period.

I’m sure you all have ways of making things fun, but have you ever actively pursued them for their own sake? If not, I think you’ll be surprised at how much more stamina you’ll have for learning the material.

So, while I became a tutor to keep the material fresh and to fund my research leave of absence, I continue to do so for hours each week because providing psychological and social support to students during one of the most stressful periods of life is a rewarding end in itself. I discovered early on that students struggle often with comparing themselves to others and being unable to make the process as fun as possible, and it’s a true privilege to be able to help.

“Life is for living, not living uptight.” ~ The Prophet, Jay-Z


Do you share Sarah’s passion for tutoring? Apply here