For the last two months, I have been on my dedicated study time for the USMLE Step 1 Exam. For those of you who are unfamiliar with what this is, Step 1 is the first of three exams that must be completed in order to practice as a physician in the United States. As a medical student, I am no stranger to daunting exams. However, I can confidently say that I have never had to prepare for an exam as large and daunting as this one. So, how is someone supposed to prepare for an exam that tests years’ worth of knowledge? Here are some tips that I believe can set anyone up for success.
- Start early.
The single most important piece of advice I have for exam takers is to start studying early. You don’t need to spend eight or more hours a day studying a year in advance, but if you know that your exam is approaching within the next year, it can be helpful to implement some light review into your routine. For me, this looked like watching a video or two each week over the summer. I was able to gradually review high-yield or highly-tested, pathology topics for my exam. Remember, anything is better than nothing, and even 30-60 minutes each day will add up. Plus, your future self will thank you for preventing the study pile-up.
- Practice questions, practice questions, practice questions.
In several classes I have taken, I have learned that we learn best when we continually test ourselves over what we are learning. The best way to do this is through practice questions, which you can even format to look like the real exam. With the abundance of resources available on the internet, it’s not difficult to find question banks that focus on high-yield topics with a high chance of showing up on the real deal. For me, I found a question bank called UWorld in which the website is formatted to look like the real Step 1 exam, and you can even create segments of 40 questions that imitate the segments you will see on the exam. Plus, many of these resources allow you to customize your segments, so you only receive questions about the topics you are studying. This immediate feedback allows you to pick up on your strengths and weaknesses and optimize your studying to review the areas that need the most work.
- Prioritize what you need to know for the exam.
Let’s be honest: unless you have a photographic memory, it is unlikely that you will be able to learn everything for the exam. Additionally, not every single piece of information you have learned in your classes is high-yield for the exam. For example, pathology is much more tested in Step 1 than biochemistry is. So, with a limited amount of time, I have spent more time reviewing pathology concepts and decided to cut my losses over intricate details of biochemistry. Remember, half of the battle is having the proper mindset when approaching these tests. Implementing strategies will help you become a better test-taker, regardless of how much content you are able to cover.
While these are only a few tips, I really do believe that they are the most helpful in preparing for big exams. Whether it be USMLE Step 1, the MCAT, the LSAT or something entirely different, these exams can seem incredibly daunting, and it’s not feasible to be able to remember every possible detail that you could be tested over. That’s why I find it most helpful to take an approach of starting early, identifying clear strengths and weaknesses and adjusting accordingly along the way. With a multitude of internet resources, it’s fairly easy to find what examiners like to go after. By focusing on these high-yield topics, you will handle any large test like a champ.