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

Everyone 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 have stayed very true to what works for me. Here are the 5 questions I asked myself when deciding how to approach studies.

#1) What kind of learner am I?

There are visual learners, auditory learners and kinesthetic learners. A visual learner learns by seeing information in diagrams, charts, graphs, etc. An auditory learner is a boring person who can just sit in class and remember everything. They also learn well in group study sessions, repeating things out loud, listening to podcasts, etc.). The kinesthetic (or tactile) learner enjoys hands-on learning, practice, teaching someone, asking questions, etc.

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

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

The answer for me was 6 hours. I knew that from medical school. No matter how I cut it, whether I do 6 o’clock at once or 2 o’clock in the morning, afternoon and evening, my mind would start to shut down after 6 o’clock. It was just me.

#3) What resources do I have time for?

Time is your most precious resource before the USMLE. Therefore, I went with one main resource: First Aid for Planks. Theoretically, if you know every word in this book, you’ll be fine. I supplemented this with two other books. The books were (1) BRS Pathology and (2) Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple. Some people swear by Guillon’s audio tapes, but I’m not an auditory learner, so I skipped them. Then of course you need a question bank (Qbank or USMLE World).

#4) What strategy will ensure memory retention?

There’s no point in studying something if you’re going to forget it the next day. As a visual learner, the key to my learning is writing things down and rearranging them so I can see them visually. So I did my proven learning technique in 3 exposures which allowed me to spend most of the M1 year:

Exposure 1: Read & Highlight

Exposure 2: Write tables, graphs, mnemonics, etc.

According to learning theory, this stage should occur within 24 hours of exposure 1.

Exposure 3: Try questions to test knowledge.

Keep track of persistent errors.

Rinse and repeat for areas where you continue to test poorly.

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

The USMLE study schedule is a heartbreaking thing to write about. I found the solice in two things: math and flexibility.

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

Exposure 1: Reading and highlighting will take me about 1 hour to 2 minutes per page.

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

Exposure 3: The questions for me were 50 questions = 3 hours to revise

I examine only a few questions, but in great detail. Therefore, if I wanted to do the reading and at least 150 cardiology practice questions, it would take me two 6-hour days. I repeated this planning method for each subject and put it on a schedule. 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 spend more time studying the subjects in which I was weak. For these topics, I would go back to more in-depth resources like BRS Pathology and Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple and double the number of practice questions (I usually completed about half of the available questions).

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

Schedule your exam based on the estimated time you need. Adjust your schedule to suit your weaknesses, but try not to dwell too much on any one topic. If your endocrinology day is running out, for example, move on and sign it up for your pop-of-valve day. Towards the end, a lot of people get exhausted. Eventually, your brain reaches its limits and things that come in push out others. At this point, there is no need to delay the test. Trust your method and stick to the strategies that work for you.

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