When it comes to the USMLE Step 1 examination, the dedicated study period can be a challenging time for many medical students. The sheer volume of knowledge, combined with the intense focus and long hours required to soak it all up, can be daunting. For pre-meds who may be unfamiliar with the process (don’t worry, you don’t need to be familiar with it at this point!), Step 1 is a 7-hour standardized licensing exam that all medical students must take to practice medicine in the U.S. It covers the basic sciences learned in the first years of medical school. Typically, medical students receive dedicated time off without classes for the sole purpose of preparing for the exam. This time frame varies widely with some students taking a couple weeks and some students extending the period to take a couple months. After going through my dedicated period and taking the exam, I’ve reflected on the things that worked well and the things I would have changed about my process and mentality. Below, I’ve gathered my thoughts what I think are the four most important things to getting in the right mindset to conquer the dedicated period.
1. Make it about the learning
Every day, you will be taking practice tests that give you numerical scores. It’s easy to get bogged down in the numbers, particularly if there are fluctuations or if you are hoping to see immediate progress. One pearl I received before my study time was this: the only test that matters is the full-length test on test day. Giving each daily question set less importance will take the pressure off and allow you to focus on learning. If anything, the questions I missed on practice sets are the ones that stuck in my head the most. Think about mistakes as a chance to fill in a knowledge gap, and then, actually fill it. Take the time to read the question explanation and think about where you went wrong, without letting yourself get too bogged down on why you went wrong or how you should have gotten it right. In this way, you’ll maximize your own knowledge fund, so when actual test day comes, you can give your best performance.
2. Find your calm while studying
You’ll likely get a lot of advice about the best ways to do things during dedicated period – how to schedule your day, if you should do timed or tutor mode U World blocks, the best way to annotate First Aid – and some of it will be useful to you. However, I think the key is finding what brings you calm and what you can sustain for weeks on end. For some, maybe sitting in a library wearing noise canceling headphones worked great. For me, sitting outside with a cup of tea and the (sometimes annoying) birds chirping was what I needed. It’s easy to look around and wonder if you should be doing something differently because everyone looks like they have it together. There is no one best way to do this, so try not to spend time wondering if you are doing it right. If you are putting in the time to read, think, and practice, you’re on track.
3. Set aside time to release
Beyond finding calm while studying, it’s critical to find an activity that makes you happy and can be your release after studying. It can be as simple as working out, watching a TV show, calling a friend, or eating your favorite meal (I admittedly indulged in more than a couple Burger King meals). It can be challenging to feel like you’re taking away precious study time to do something that feels “unproductive,” but these activities end up being the most productive of the entire day. So much of studying for Step 1 is a mind game – getting your head right and keeping your cool is important and necessary, so give yourself the chance to do something you enjoy.
4. Trust the process
It’s easy to think about what-ifs when studying. What if I get to the test and can’t remember this piece of information I just learned? What if I don’t do as well as I want? The thing about what ifs and thinking through potential outcomes is that only one of scenarios will actually happen. Instead of dwelling on weak spots, which is an easy tendency to fall into, make a mission out of conquering them. Your Step 1 score is not just a reflection of how you were scoring on practice tests, it will reflect how you responded to these practice scores to learn and maximize your potential. Trust in yourself and trust the process.
About Arianna Yanes
Arianna Yanes is a third year medical student at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. While studying psychology as an undergrad at Northwestern, Arianna became fascinated with the complexities of human beings in the way they interact with each other and the world. She was drawn to medicine for similar complexities of the human body and experience that must be understood to treat each individual patient. During a medical journalism internship, Arianna became passionate about communicating medical news and making health information accessible and digestible. She hopes to incorporate writing and communications into her future career as a physician. She enjoys writing about the unique experience of studying medicine and the triumphs and challenges that come along with it.