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The Study Schedule That Got Me a 254 on the USMLE Step 1
Everyone has a strategy, everyone has advice. The important thing to ask yourself when studying for the USMLE is what study strategies work for you? I stayed very true to what works for me. These are the 5 questions I asked myself when deciding how to approach the study.
#1) What kind of student am I?
There are visual learners, auditory learners and kinesthetic learners. A visual learner learns by seeing information in diagrams, charts, graphs, etc. An auditory learner is the annoying people who can only sit in lectures and remember everything. They also learn well in group study sessions, repeating things out loud, listening to podcasts, etc.). The kinesthetic (or tactile) learner likes hands-on learning, practice, teaching someone, asking questions, etc.
While many people are a combination, I knew I was a visual learner. If I’m trying to get somewhere and my GPS on my phone has been taken apart by the elves, if someone tells me the directions, I’m going to get lost (so I’m clearly not an auditory learner). Even if I’ve driven somewhere before, I can get lost (so I’m not a kinesthetic learner). However, draw me a map and I’ll never forget where I’m going. Never in a million years. Knowing this I knew how to proceed.
#2) How much time can I realistically spend in a day studying?
The answer for me was 6 hours. I knew this from medical school. No matter how I cut it, whether it was doing 6 hours at a time or 2 hours in the morning, afternoon and evening, my mind would start to shut down after 6 hours. That was just me.
#3) What resources do I have time for?
Time is your most valuable resource before the USMLE. So, I went with a primary resource: table first aid. Theoretically, if you know every word in this book, you’ll be fine. I increased it with two more books. The books were (1) BRS Pathology and (2) Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple. Some people swear by Guillon’s audio tapes, but I’m not an auditory learner, so I ignored them. Then of course you need a question bank (Qbank or USMLE World).
#4) Which strategy will ensure memory retention?
There’s no point studying something if you’re going to forget it the next day. As a visual learner, the key to my learning is writing things down and rearranging them so I can see them visually. So I did my true 3 exposure learning technique that got me through most of the M1 year:
Exhibit 1: Read and highlight
Exhibit 2: Write charts, graphs, pneumonics, etc.
Learning theory says that this step should happen within 24 hours of exposure 1.
Exhibit 3: Try questions to test your knowledge.
Track persistent errors.
Rinse and repeat for areas where you continue to test poorly.
#5) What will my schedule be…so when should I schedule my exam?
The USMLE study schedule is a tear-jerking thing to write. I found myself in two things: mathematics and flexibility.
Maths: After making a list of all the topics (essentially the First Aid table of contents), I figured out how long each topic would take me. For example: The Cardiology section has 30 pages.
Exhibit 1: Reading and highlighting will take me about 1 hour to 2 minutes per page.
Exhibit 2: Writing, writing, writing will take me twice as long (2 hours)
Exhibit 3: The questions for me were 50 questions = 3 hours to revise
I review only a few questions, but in great detail. So if I wanted to do the reading and at least 150 Cardiology practice questions, it would take me two 6-hour days. I repeated this scheduling method for each topic and put it on a calendar. And, yes, time spent organizing is never time wasted.
Flexibility: After 2 NBME practice exams (one at 1.5 weeks and the other at 3 weeks), I adjusted my schedule to allow more time studying subjects I was weak at. For these subjects, I would go back to more in-depth resources such as BRS Pathology and Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple and double the number of practice questions (I was usually completing about half the questions available).
Finally, I always scheduled 1-2 days a week as pop-off valves for topics that needed more attention.
Schedule your exam based on the estimated time you estimate it will take. Adjust your schedule based on your weaknesses, but try not to dwell too much on a particular subject. If your endocrinology day is over, for example, go ahead and pencil it in for your pop-of-valve day. Towards the end, a lot of people burn out. Eventually your brain reaches its limit and the things that come in, push other things out. At this point, there is no point in delaying the test. Trust your method and stick to the strategies that work for you.
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