The Study Schedule That Got Me a 254 on the USMLE Step 1

Every one has a strategy, everyone has advice. The important thing to ask yourself when studying for the USMLE is what study strategies work for you? I stayed very faithful to what works for me. Here are the 5 questions I asked of myself when deciding how to tackle studying.

#1) What kind of a learner am I?

There are visual learners, auditory learners, and kinesthetic learners. A visual learner learns by seeing information in diagrams, charts, graphics, etc. An auditory learner are the annoying people who can just sit through lectures and remember everything. They also learn well in group study sessions, by repeating things aloud, listening to podcasts, etc). The kinesthetic (or tactile) learner likes hands-on learning, practice, teaching someone, performing questions, etc.

While many people are a combination, I knew that I was a visual learner. If I’m trying to get someplace and my GPS in my phone has been dismantled by elves, if someone tells me directions, I’ll get lost (so I’m clearly not an auditory learner). Even if I’ve driven someplace before, I can get lost (so not quite a kinesthetic learner). However, draw me a map and I’ll never forget where I’m going. Never in a million years. Knowing this I knew how to proceed.

#2) Realistically, how much time can I spend in a day studying?

The answer for me was 6 hours. I knew this from medical school. No matter how I cut it, whether doing 6 hours all at once or 2 hours in the morning, afternoon, and evening, my mind would begin to shut down after 6 hours. That was just me.

#3) What are the resources for which I have time?

Time is your most valuable resource before the USMLE. Therefore, I went with one main resource: First aid for the boards. Theoretically, if you know every word of that book, you will do well. I augmented this with two other books. The books were (1) BRS Pathology, and (2) Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple. Some people swear by Guillon audiotapes, but I am not an auditory learner, so I ignored them. Then of course you need a question bank (Qbank or USMLE World).

#4) What strategy will assure memory retention?

There is no sense studying something if you are going to forget it the next day. As a visual learner, the key to my learning is to write stuff down and re-organize it so I could see it visually. So I did my tried and true 3-exposure learning technique which got me through most of M1 year:

Exposure 1: Read & highlight

Exposure 2: Write out charts, graphs, mneumonics, etc.

Learning theory says this step should happen within 24-hours of exposure 1.

Exposure 3: Try questions to test knowledge.

Keep track of persisting mistakes.

Rinse and repeat for the areas in which you continue to test poorly.

#5) What will my schedule be… so when I should I schedule my exam?

The USMLE-study schedule is a gut-wrenching thing to write. I found solice in two things: Math & Flexibility.

Math: After making a list of all the topics (essentially the Table of content in First Aid), I figured out how long each topic would take me. For example: The Cardiology section is 30 pages long.

Exposure 1: Read & highlight will take me about 1 hour at 2 minutes a page.

Exposure 2: Write out, write out, write out will take me twice as long (2 hrs)

Exposure 3: Questions for me was 50 questions = 3 hours to review

I review only a few questions, but in great detail. Therefore, if I wanted to do the reading and at least 150 Cardiology practice question, it would take me two 6-hour days. I repeated this scheduling method for each topic and put it on a calendar. And, yes, time spent organizing is never time wasted.

Flexibility: After 2 NBME practice exams (one at 1.5 weeks and the other at 3 weeks), I adjusted my schedule to allow for more time studying subjects in which I was weak. For those subjects, I would go back to more in-depth resources such as BRS pathology and Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple and would double the number of practice questions (I was usually completing about half of the available questions).

Finally, I always scheduled in 1-2 days a week as pop-off valves for topics that needed more attention.

Schedule your exam based off of the estimated time you calculate that will need. Adjust your schedule based on your weaknesses, but try not to linger too long on a particular subject. If your day for endocrinology runs out, for instance, move on and pencil it in for your “pop-of valve” day. Near the end, a lot of people get burnt out. Eventually your brain reaches its limit and the stuff that goes in, pushes other stuff out. At this point, there is no sense delaying the test. Trust your method and stick to the strategies that work for you.