By Dr. Sean Robert Huff, Physician at AMBOSS
No matter which USMLE® exam you’re preparing for, one thing remains the same: all of them matter. Passing every USMLE® exam is required for graduation and getting your medical license, and how well you perform can influence the details of your future career in medicine.
These important exams have been around for a while now, and over time, some tried and true approaches to succeeding on them have been etched out. However, the same pitfalls still seem to catch us by surprise time and time again. But being aware of them as you go about your USMLE® prep can already help ensure your success.
1. Not Understanding the Role of Practice Questions
Studies show that the strongest predictor of a student’s score is the amount of unique USMLE®-style questions they’ve answered prior to exam day. With Qbank question counts reaching into the thousands, this means starting on them many months before sitting for any of the exams.
However, students who attempt practice questions too early in their prep often get tripped up by still unfamiliar topics, and so, become discouraged by their poor performance. This can feel like a major blow to students accustomed to tying their self-image and confidence to exam scores. This reflex can result in students relying completely on less efficient study methods like lectures or flashcards and, in the end, wasting precious study time.
Remember to view questions as the learning tool that they are. Start incorporating them into your Step study routine at least eight months before exam day, and if you find yourself becoming discouraged, feel free to limit the scope of questions to topics you’ve previously completed or are currently working on as part of your curriculum.
One cliché you’ll often encounter when discussing USMLE® prep is the following: “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” While fundamentally true, this statement neglects just how hard it can be to run a marathon!
Most of us can find the motivation to engage in hardcore studying for a relatively brief amount of time. The challenge often comes in developing a long-term USMLE® study strategy that is not only effective and well-researched, but also sustainable.
A helpful insight in creating such a plan is remembering that people routinely underestimate the time it takes to complete long-term projects, even by as much as 30%. In other words, if your intuition tells you that it will take six weeks to complete a question bank, you can bet on it taking closer to eight weeks.
On top of that, don’t look toward any “dedicated periods” or similar chunks of unstructured time as a saving grace. For one, effective test-taking involves developing good habits, and these are not formed over the course of a month. Rather, getting a feel for USMLE® exams is a slow process that requires long-term consolidation of information and lots (and lots) of practice questions.
Furthermore, remember that you can only be so efficient with a full day of studying. Even if you set aside 12 hours to work through numerous practice questions, your engagement and retention of new information will begin to suffer substantially after the first three or four hours. To the surprise of many, olympic-level athletes often train merely a few hours each day for their respective events. To be a similarly elite test taker, keep this tidbit in mind. Give yourself months to study, settling on a gradual routine that fits your individual style and needs.
No matter how much society holds doctors to the standards of a superhero, those aspiring to become one are better off remaining in touch with their mortal side. Not only will maintaining your health and lifestyle outside of medical school allow you to evolve into a physician with unique skills and perspectives (and remain a decent, well-rounded human), it can also pay dividends on test day.
Consider the pressure that can come from identifying yourself as a medical student: hinging your identity on a three-digit score increases the stakes of each and every question. That not only hinders your reasoning abilities, but it also sets a speed limit on your acquisition of new material and saps your motivation to study in the first place. It can make small setbacks can seem like insurmountable challenges.
Remember that USMLE® exams are not related to your value or merit. Temporarily neglecting your social, emotional, or physical needs won’t contribute to your growth as a more effective and well-adjusted physician.
By keeping these three core pitfalls in mind when approaching the USMLE® exams, you position yourself to overcome the challenge that USMLE® exams pose. You’ll already be a step ahead of success!
And if you’re looking for a powerful study resource that can act as a companion to you during your USMLE® journey, be sure to visit AMBOSS.