The United States Medical Licensing Examinations (USMLE) are one of the most important landmarks in a medical student’s educational career and in their journey to becoming a medical resident. While the USMLE Step 1 was not originally intended to be a determining factor in whether a residency candidate would receive an interview, a recent survey by the National Residency Matching Program showed that an applicant’s Step 1 score was ranked by program directors as one of the most important factors in evaluating an applicant’s credentials. Many programs establish score cut-offs, where a score below a certain threshold, or failed attempts, can disqualify a candidate’s application from being considered.
With the stakes this high, preparing for the USMLE Step 1 can be a daunting task. Medical School is already overwhelming, and a rigorous study schedule that demands hundreds of hours of dedication only adds to the duress of aspiring residents aiming to score high.
As part of our mission as an educational institution, we at Residents Medical are always seeking ways to alleviate the stress caused by the USMLE exams, and to help residency candidates maximize their scoring potential. Here are eight tips that we’ve put together to help you prepare for the most important exams you’ll ever take.
Tip #1 - Use the Bookmark Method to manage your reading schedule
First Aid for the USMLE Step 1, commonly referred to as First aid or simply FA is an industry-standard textbook designed to prepare students for their exams. FA is the cornerstone of a solid study program - we recommend that students read it not once, but up to three times, to gain a comprehensive understanding of the material.
Reading an entire textbook cover-to-cover is an overwhelming task. A technique suggested by our tutors to stay on track with reading without falling behind is called the bookmark method. The method is simple; choose a realistic target for your daily page goal, and use that as the average number of pages you need to read per day. On a bookmark, keep track of how many pages you get through; if your goal number is 20, but on a given day you read 24, then write “+4” on the bookmark. The next day, let’s say the material is particularly dense, or you have other things going on that cut into your study time, and you only get through 16 pages; you’d write “-4” on your bookmark. Your average is still 20! The bookmark method is a simple psychological trick that allows you to stay on target even if your daily page count fluctuates a little.
Tip #2 - Using colored pens to make annotations in First Aid
Everybody takes notes differently. Some stick to the classic ballpoint pen and notepad, some use the notes app on their laptop, and still, others have complicated color-coding systems with symbols and shorthand. We recommend you stick to whatever works for you, but using three colors - one for each read-through of First Aid - is something our tutors recommend to students to stay organized.
Each time you read through FA, make annotations in your book using a different colored pen. Keep your annotations brief and conservative - this way, as you progress through your study program, the colors will tell you what material you need to brush up on, and what you covered more recently. This is also really helpful when making annotations into your text while going through a question bank; the color-coding system tells you what source you were referencing when you made the note!
Tip #3 - Alternate reads of First Aid with Question Banks
Question banks, or QBanks for short, are one of the most useful tools for putting yourself to the test and exposing yourself to as many questions as possible. Generally speaking, a wise approach to studying for the USMLE Step 1 is to complete a question bank after each read of First Aid. By doing so, you’ll be reinforcing the material you just studied for months and pinpointing material you need to refresh on.
A good question bank to start with after your first read-through of First Aid is the USMLE-Rx Qmax question bank. The Qbank was created by the authors of First Aid, and the questions are designed to directly reinforce the material presented in the textbook. Alternating reading with question banks is a great way to build confidence because it helps you uncover what material you’re well-versed in and what you should keep reviewing.
Tip # 4 - Consider working with a qualified tutor
What is the difference between a good tutor and an excellent tutor?
A good tutor has the experience, expertise, and the qualifications (high scores) to be able to guide students toward achieving good results on their exams.
What sets an excellent tutor apart is their ability to create a unique preparation program for each students’ learning style, schedule, and circumstances. An excellent tutor knows that the approach a student would take a year out from their exam is very different from the approach that one would take two months out, and is able to adjust to that. Each student is different, with different needs, and excellent tutors can accommodate that.
We’ve built a network of highly qualified USMLE specialists who have collective decades of experience guiding medical students and graduates through the stages of USMLE preparation. Through their guidance and unique approaches, we have helped graduates with multiple attempts pass their boards with flying colors.