USMLE: Step I Study Recommendations

From 3rd year UWSOM medical students, Spring 2011

Link to USMLE Step I

What material did you find helpful in studying for Step I?

Virtually everyone stressed the importance of First Aid, with USMLE World Q Bank being a close second.

  • First Aid Step I: 95% of respondents
  • USMLE World Q bank: 86%
  • Goljian Lectures: 32%
  • Doctors in Training: 22%
  • BRS Path/Phys: 21%
  • Kaplan Q bank: 10%

How long did you study for Step I?

  • 32% studied 21-25 days.
  • 30% studied 26-30 days.
  • 27% studied 30+ days
  • 10% studied 15-20 days

USMLE Step I Study Recommendations


The most frequently mentioned strategies were: Do as many (if not all) of the UWMLE Q Bank questions and take practice tests, both in segments and as an entire test. Start studying early and work hard in your basic science classes. Set up a study schedule and stick with it. Beyond that, there is no one strategy for studying for Step I. Rely on those suggestions which best suit your study style and strengths.

As one student said, “While preparing for Step I, I felt that everybody had the ‘best and only’ way to prepare. Do not compare yourself to your peers! Make a study schedule, pick your study resources (3 to 4 at the most) and stick to it. You can get distracted and feel overwhelmed when you start comparing how you are studying to what others are doing. The most important thing is to get through all the material. If you keep changing your methods, you may not achieve this."

Specific Suggestions and Strategies

Organize your resources and start studying early.
  • “I would have used First Aid during first and second year, although even just using it during 2nd year would have been an improvement.”
  • “I started doing small amounts of questions throughout spring quarter and got familiar with First Aid. Then I took a practice test to see where I needed to focus my studying.”
  • “During 2nd year, listen to Goljan for whatever class you are taking.”
  • “Study hard for your classes. It helps when you begin to review the material.”
  • “Study along with classes. It makes it easier, i.e. read First Aid reproductive section during repro course.”
  • “I would have started to do practice Q Bank questions with year 2 courses.”
  • "Getting familiar with First Aid before you start studying for Step I would put any student at a great advantage.”

Do not overload yourself with too many different study sources.

  • 2 to 3 seem to be an average number.

Do the USMLE Q BANK questions! Do a lot of questions. Do all the questions.

  • “Do the Q bank questions twice! Learn and understand the answers, which are quite detailed. Make charts to memorize and cram at the end.”
  • “Go through 100% of the USMLE World questions.”
  • “By the last two weeks, at least half of study time should involve questions and going through the answers in great detail.”

Make a study schedule and stick to it.

  •  “Treat it like a job, 9 to 5, and stay focused.”
  • “Copy a schedule from Doctors in Training and stick to it.”
  • “I made a study schedule by subject, based on my strengths/weaknesses, and stuck to it.”

Study by taking the test.

  • Do a block of questions equal to the time block on the test. Then set aside time to review the answers.
  • “I practiced doing test blocks. It’s like running a marathon; you have to work up your endurance with a few long runs before the big event.”
  • “I wish that I had done more blocks of random questions to simulate the test more. I did a lot of subject based blocks, which is easier than changing subjects every question like the real test.”

Focus on the areas where you are weakest.

  • “My score was reflective of which classes I had done well in and which I hadn’t.”
  • “Focus on your areas of deficiency. Having trouble with anatomy and don’t want to go into surgery? Still study these areas well."

Focus on the areas where UW students tend to perform under the national average:

  • Microbiology and immunology
  • Histology and cell biology
  • Musculoskeletal, skin and connective tissue
  • Nervous systems/special senses
  • Pathology
  • Pharmacology
  • Renal /Urinary System
  • Biochemistry

Find a partner to study with.

  • “Even if you don’t study out loud together, just having someone to sit with is nice.”
  • “Having a friend to go over quizzes with is super helpful.”

Make your own study materials, eg. flashcards, excel spreadsheets, diagrams.

  • “Memorize the pneumonics in First Aid because they are high yield.”

Listen to Goljan lectures.

  • "At least twice instead of once.”
  • “Listen to Goljan lectures as you go through the year. He really pares down the topics and focuses on key issues for the boards.”
  • "Listen to Goljan lectures when you exercise, ride the bus, etc.”

Make sure that you know basic clinical approaches to diagnoses, for example, how to figure out a urinary diagnosis from the UA.”

  • "Take full day practice tests to prepare for the actual length of Step I, time yourself."
  • "I did weekly practice tests."
  • I had to force myself to take a full practice test 1 week before. I kept putting it off because I thought it would ‘freak me out’ but actually I just needed to study renal a little more. Everything else was excellent.”

Take study breaks!

  • “Get outdoors to recoup and reenergize.”
  • “Have a plan for stress relief and try to do something little each day that is not boards related like going to the gym, walking your dog, calling your Grandma, etc.”

Stay positive.

  • “Don’t freak out. It’s not that bad.”
  • “Consider an SSRI if you have a particularly anxious manner. It helped me focus during studying and when test time came, I had absolutely NO panic! Awesome!”
  • If you struggle with Standardized Tests, the PASS program is extremely helpful. This is a very expensive program but the methods they use are priceless.”

On the Day of Step I

  • “Bring snacks to the actual test and take a short break at each possible break but keep track of your time.”
  • Don’t panic! “Even if you have to guess and move on for what seems to be an unsettling number of questions, it’s still possible to get a great score so just try to stay calm and keep moving without feeling freaked out about what you don’t know!”
  • “It’s a long day so be ready. Just because one question or one set of questions is hard, keep your head up for the next as you can redeem yourself. Take breaks as you need. There should be enough break time. If you know the general facts about each subject, that’s enough. (what each thing is, main symptoms/facts, simple treatments.”

After Step I

  • "Take time off after completing Step I"
  • “I took my elective/vacation time following the test and loved the time off after 2 years of hard work.”
  • “Take the test earlier in the week (like a Tuesday or Wednesday) and give yourself a few more days to relax before starting the wards.”

The Good News!

“Here’s the bright side: In just one month of studying, I integrated everything I learned in the first and second year classes to PRACTICAL, useful medical knowledge. I finally figured out the WHY and HOW of many of the things I had learned. After studying for the USMLE, I was ready to rock the wards. At the beginning, it seems like a waste of a month of your life. In reality, it’s a chance to relearn the most important parts of medicine before you don your white coat and see patients. I was grateful for the forced review.”