Studying for USMLE Step 1 was definitely one of the more challenging periods of my life. Although I did not know what medical specialty I wanted to commit to while I studied, I knew I didn’t want any doors to be closed. I had some interest in going into Urology, which is very competitive, so it was imperative for me to do well. Nevertheless, I didn’t tell myself that I needed a certain number. I just wanted to score as well as possible.
One of my main struggles while studying was resource overload. My test was scheduled for the beginning of June and I decided I wanted to give myself roughly 5-6 months to study, which included 6 weeks of dedicated study time when I would study full time. So when started studying in the beginning of January I wasn’t sure what resources to use. Kaplan, First Aid, UWorld, Firecracker, Pathoma, USMLE Rx, SketchyMicro were all potential options and I’m sure there were many more study tools that I hadn’t even considered. As I started by doing close to 100 flash cards a day, I questioned how fruitful it was. I would ask other classmates and became anxious when they said they were using different resources. Rather than imitate everyone else, I realized that everyone had different study styles. Therefore, I decided to limit the number of resources I used, starting with certain resources before the dedicated study period and save other materials for my dedicated time. Figuring all of this out took time, so starting 5 months prior to my test date was very important to me because it took at least a few months to even figure out how to study and what resources to use.
Another reason why starting early was so important was the sheer amount of content. That was my main struggle number two. Step 1 covers so much material that I was confident that I couldn’t read, let alone understand, all of that content during a 6-week study period. Obviously in retrospect, I am very glad that I started early because it made me much less anxious during my study period. But from January to March, I wondered if I was retaining any information. I just tried to remember that studying for Step 1 is a marathon. I remember feeling super discouraged when I didn’t get the results that I wanted on practice tests, but I kept telling myself that it’s a process and to keep on going! I finally started to see the fruit of my labor about 2 weeks before my test.
My third main struggle was the daily grind of studying. Prior to my dedicated study time, I would study 3-5 hours a day on top of going to class. At a certain point, probably in March, even though I would go to class, I stopped studying for school exams and focused completely on Step 1. I don’t know how I would have survived this study grind without my friends who studied with me. Some people cannot study with other people and I completely understand why. Studying with other people can produce anxiety because you compare yourself to them and can feel inadequate. For me, studying with my friends was so refreshing because they kept me motivated and lifted me up when I was down. I shared in their joys and struggles as they shared in mine. When we studied together, we each did our individual work; we were just in the same room as we studied. Nevertheless, whenever somebody had a question, he would pause his own studying and ask the rest of the group. We were able to teach other concepts and I’m sure that my score improved by like 20 points, just from learning from my friends.
Ultimately, I ended up scoring higher than I could even imagine. After my third year, I decided to go into Urology, now my specialty, and I am so thankful that I made the sacrifice of studying so hard during my second year in order to do well in Step 1. I know that the task is daunting and anxiety-provoking. Nevertheless, every single practicing physician in the U.S. has taken the test and survived. When you struggle while studying, keep in mind that you’re not alone. Fight those moments of loneliness and despair. You can do it!
About Edward Chang, MD
Edward Chang is a Co-founder and Director of Operations of ProspectiveDoctor.com. He is currently a urology resident at University of Washington. He graduated from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. He also attended UCLA as an undergraduate, graduating with a major in Molecular, Cell, and Developmental Biology. He is a die-hard Lakers and Bruins fan and loves Korean food.