Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine
MD Education

Advice from AWOME

Overview

Preparing for USMLE Step 1 is challenging for everyone. There will be highs and lows–you will be excited about the sheer amount of knowledge that you acquire, and about recognizing how much you have already learned; but you will also face the stresses of test-taking and receiving a score. No matter your experience, there are always people and resources in the Feinberg community to support you throughout the process, including deans, faculty, learning specialists, and other students.

We have overseen hundreds of Feinberg students as they prepare for Step 1. No two experiences are the same, and there are many paths to success. Below, we outline some general observations from our experience to help you better understand what studying for Step 1 looks like.

Resources

While the curriculum, which is designed to prepare students to be outstanding physicians, is highly relevant to Step 1 material, students find it most efficient to use Feinberg lectures as a supplement to resources specifically geared toward the test. However, it is important to keep in mind that these resources are review materials and assume that you already have a depth of knowledge. Popular test-prep resources among Feinberg students include First Aid, for an overview of the most commonly tested concepts and facts; the Sketchy series, for visual mnemonics of microbiology, pharmacology, and immunology; and Pathoma, for video lectures about pathology. Other commonly used resources for content review include the Boards and Beyond video series and the Board Review Series Physiology and Anatomy books. However, be aware of resource overload; successful students from the past recommend using trial and error to choose no more than two or three resources in addition to First Aid.

Additionally, all students use practice questions in preparation for the exam. Studies have shown that using questions is the most useful way to consolidate knowledge.  They are essential for becoming comfortable with the exam format and question style as well as identifying areas of weakness. The most common question bank used by Feinberg students is UWorld. Other question banks include NBME practice tests, Kaplan, USMLERx, and Board Vitals (which is available for free through Galter Library).

Before Dedicated Study Time

There is significant variation in how students prepare for Step 1 before the dedicated study period.  Each student is unique, and the strategies that work for one may not work for another. The review of Phase 1 material can take many forms and start at various times.

Our learning specialist has prepared some advice which may be helpful and can be found here:

Click here for USMLE presentations and resources

The most important thing to consider when deciding if and how to review before dedicated time is whether a plan would be feasible and valuable to you. Consider your other commitments to extracurricular and regular coursework, your study style, and your stress levels. Again, we see a wide diversity of study approaches before dedicated study time, and there are many examples of success throughout the spectrum.

Dedicated Study Time

Feinberg offers 7 weeks of dedicated Step 1 study time from mid-March to late April. Most students schedule their exam 4 to 6 weeks into the study period and use the remaining time just after classes end and/or before Phase 2 to relax. Many students find that using the full period to study may lead to burn out and may make it harder to fully engage in the first clerkship because of fatigue.

A few initial considerations are where to study and with whom. Students may spend dedicated wherever they like and should choose the study setting they feel is best. Many stay in Chicago, while others go to their hometowns; some study in groups, and others alone. This is a matter of personal preference.

Past students have mentioned that it takes time to find their rhythm during dedicated study period. It is generally unrealistic to expect to be able to handle a heavy study schedule on day one. Instead, a realistic study calendar gradually builds in volume and makes room for decompression. Some students find physical activity early in the day helpful to charge up stamina for studying. Each week might also have a day with “me time” to step away from studying and recharge. Our learning specialist has compiled several fantastic examples of daily schedules that are accessible on our USMLE Presentations and Resources page. These include a day-by-day calendar of topics to study as well as suggested activities for each block throughout the day.

A common way to structure a study plan is to intersperse content review with practice questions by completing a block of questions after reviewing a subject or organ system. Start with content areas of weakness identified from Phase 1 and use practice questions to simultaneously become comfortable with the test format and identify difficult subjects. Successful students in the past have recommended completing questions in blocks in the morning in order to simulate test conditions. Resources like UWorld and other question banks offer questions most representative of the Step 1 exam and should be used throughout the study period.  Some studies have shown that exposure to new questions is more productive than repeating questions. In general, identifying areas of weakness early on and often allows for efficient studying throughout dedicated.

We will provide a workshop on effective studying on Tuesday, March 6, 2018 and our learning specialist will provide “drop in” hours on Thursdays following the workshop.

Encouragement

In the spirit of positive psychology, we want you to think of Step 1 as a great opportunity to learn. While the studying process can be daunting, upperclassmen in retrospect are proud of the amount that they learned along the way. Regardless of how important Step 1 may seem right now, it is just one piece of your entire medical training. Even if you don’t meet your score goals, know that there will always be other ways to bolster your residency application (research, clerkships, service, etc.).

 We encourage you to find ways to make studying enjoyable. Feinberg students have performed among the best in the country on Step 1, so in challenging periods, trust in yourself and in your preparation. AWOME and the rest of the Feinberg community will always be available to support you along the way, and we will celebrate with you when it is done.