Mind On Med Ultimate Guide to Studying for USMLE Step 1 and COMLEX
A couple of months ago I asked a few of my favorite online medical students to answer a few questions about their experiences preparing for Step 1 and COMLEX. They gave me some very insightful answers, so I wanted to share them with you. This post is simply to create a comprehensive answer to the question we all have as second year med students, holymaterialexcessiveness how do I even begin to prepare for this? Believe me when I tell you that these 4 students have amazing advice & guidance. I’ll answer the same questions from my point of view in another post. For today, though, let me introduce you to my guests:
Step 1: June 14 Step 1: June 24 Step 1: Early June COMLEX 1: May 27
I am very happy with my score. I originally set my goal around average – which is 220 or so. After taking a few practice tests, I realized I could aim a little higher and ended up surpassing the new goal as well. I used this score calculator online. It factors in UWorld, NBME, and practice questions to give a score estimate and I found it very helpful for setting my goals.
In general, I am very happy with my score. It wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t ugly either and really, unless you are shooting for something super-competitive, that should be your goal. The test is a reflection of how serious you are and the effort you are willing to put into a task, but it is also a measure of your ability to answer arbitrary arcane of standardized multiple choice questions on a specific day in May, June or July. For me, it’s like running a marathon in under 4 hours – not going to get you into the Olympics. It’s my best. In retrospect, that sounds like a total rationalization, but hey…it’s my rationalization.
Yes & No. Going into the exam I had determined a score range that I would be happy with. My actual score ended up being the literal bottom of that range. When I got my score, I started laughing. One point less & I would have been in tears. So yes – I’m happy, but (as always) I would have liked to done better.
No formal prep classes. My school had a week of formal review in late May provided by one of the prep companies with a wonderful live lecturer. I was happy with it and the videos provided with it were good, but if you hadn’t done a lot of prior prep-work it wouldn’t have saved you.
Doctors in Training. I highly recommend it. I was reluctant to use it, because it’s essentially a guided tour through First Aid, but it really keeps you going at a fast pace for 15 days (the length of the program).
I used two books: Goljan Pathology and First Aid, and supplemented with the classic textbooks from each supporting discipline. Goljan Pathology is not for everyone, but it is worth taking a serious look to see if it suits you. I found it ideal because it was clinically applied pathology, written with STEP 1 in mind. I did all of USMLE World, taking time to read through the explanations. Also, I listened to the Goljan audio recordings of his STEP 1 review several times through during the year to learn pathology in general.
I predominantly used First Aid for Step 1 and UWorld question bank. I also used specific books for weak areas – Rapid Review Biochemistry, BRS physio (super high-yield) and Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple.
Book: First Aid for USMLE Step 1 Resource: Kaplan Q-Bank (on PC/Android/iPad). A note on Qbanks, your choice of Qbank is not as important as your discipline in using them. If you are a MSII you should be deep into a Qbank – start as soon as you can and use it often. A month with the best Qbank is not going to make up for lost prep time.
I studied non-stop for five straight weeks after second year was over. Prior to that I thoroughly read through Goljan and First Aid once with friends as a study group before the end of second year classes. We started this before Christmas break, meeting roughly once a week. The group wasn’t a huge time investment and it paid off tremendously because, when full-time studying came, I knew where to look to sharpen areas that I’d become rusty on.
I ended up studying for 4 weeks and a few days. After formal lectures ended the school gave us a maximum of 6 weeks to study for the test. I tend to get distracted very easily when I’m studying, so I knew that a schedule would be important to keep me on track. I would wake up around 7 and get to the library by 8. I would study until lunchtime, when I would walk back to my apartment and grab some food and take care of other errands. I’d get back to the library around 1 and study until 5 or so, when I usually took a class at the gym. At night I’d eat dinner and do a set of practice questions out of UWorld, and get to bed around 11 or so. I used a systems-based approach to studying. Our curriculum was systems-based, so it made sense to me to review the material the same way I learned it in the first place. I didn’t even start studying for the USMLE until our last class ended in May. Instead, I focused on the coursework and doing well on my tests, since these covered each topic more in depth than Step 1. You only have a few weeks to study before the exam, which isn’t nearly enough time to re-learn everything from the start of 1st year, so learning the material well the first time through is key.
My school did not give me time to prep – our classes ended a week before our mandatory live prep course. I tried to get 2-3 hours of prep a day regardless of my class schedule. I would use the review materials/Qbank pertinent to the organ system/specialty we were studying at that point. It’s not as hard as it sounds.
I started studying concurrently with classes in January 2011. This might seem early, but I consider myself a slow reader & my weakest subjects were biochem & micro (2 BIG subjects & sections of FA). I used the Taus Method where you annotate each section of FA using a review book. Study time varied by week & topic I needed to cover, but I aimed to put in 4 hours/week of board prep on weekdays & at least 4 on the weekends. I then studied for 2 weeks after classes ended. During that time I’m guessing I studied 10-12 hours/day.
The day before the test, I broke the rules and did some reading. Personally, I feel more relaxed just reading stuff. That way, I don’t have to convince myself that it’s okay not to do any preparation. I’m not a hyper-focused person who’s too neurotic to relax, it’s just that I prefer to read over material rather than not.
I reviewed my ultra-high-yield/most commonly asked questions…Brachial Plexus, Dermatomes, Cranial Nerve Exams, Characteristic Drug Side Effects/Reactions. Mainly for nerves and to give me something to do.
I got a massage, ate a great lunch, watched Inglorious Basterds & reviewed FA. Everyone says “Don’t study!” I disagree. Don’t try to learn anything new, but do set a cut off time – mine was 6pm. I went to bed at 11pm.
Take some time preparing a lunch that will be tasty, you’ll actually want to eat, and that’s easy to store in a 1 cubic foot nonrefigerated locker. Figure your lunch out the day before and don’t forget napkins and all that. Also, pay attention to what foods make you tired an hour after eating and avoid those.
I took the exam early in the morning (it’s an 8 hour exam). I recommend taking lots of sugary snack and caffeinated drinks, because it’s a marathon of a day. The exam has a tutorial section and a lunch break built in, but you can skip both. I wouldn’t skip the tutorial, because there are a few ways that the test software differs from the practice tests. Also, the lunch break can be split up. I took breaks in between each of my exam blocks to stay fresh.
Bring snacks, one for each break and your own water. Sounds dumb, but make sure you do it. Make it tasty, but not too tasty, with a good mix of complex and simple carbs (Power Bar). If you need caffeine, re-caffeinate at lunch. A day long test is as much a physical challenge as a mental one.
The one thing that I regret is not taking more full-length practice tests. I don’t think I ever sat for 8 hours straight during my preparation and the fatigue definitely got to me on tst day. I consider myself kind of tough, used to working 8 hour days and longer, but I was surprised at how my focus was off. If I were to do it again, I would have done two or three 8-hour practice sessions, just like the regular test day; get up at 6AM, make a quick breakfast, and then go to a room and do nothing but questions for 8 hours. It sounds awful just writing it, but considering all the work invested, this time developing test stamina might have had a big impact. Last comment: I would seriously consider not taking ANY notes or doing ANY highlighting. Just read and do questions. Your brain is amazing, and trying to force it to remember stuff with notes and highlighting just gets in the way.
Most of my classmates took about 5 weeks to study, and began Monday after our last final exam; this gave them a week or so afterward to travel and relax before third year began. Hands down, the best decision I made was taking a week off to go on a trip BEFORE I started studying. Most of my classmates thought I was crazy, but when I came back I was fresh and relaxed. My other biggest strength when it came to studying was that from the beginning I wouldn’t let myself get freaked out by what everyone else was doing – some friends would literally do nothing but eat, sleep, and study. I didn’t get bent out of shape about it, because I just can’t study that way. I made sure to take time for the gym, and my favorite TV shows. I took weekends off from studying and did fun things. I think it helped keep my mind clear and stress level down.
QBanks – if you are only taking the COMLEX, a 3 month subscription to COMBank is all you need. The questions are indicative of what’s on the actual test. If you think you want to take the USMLE as well, then stick with UWorld & get a 1 month subscription to COMBank. Take a practice test. There are several available on the NBME website for $50 each and they are definitely worth it. They are made of retired questions and it is exactly how the actual test will be (but only 200 questions instead of 400). My suggestion is to take one about 2 months before your exam so you have a baseline & then another 1 month before so you can see how you would do on a real exam. The downside to the COMSAE is that you don’t get an answer key. They score it for you & give you a breakdown, but not explanations so they aren’t really helpful for learning – just assessment. I took 2 & my actual COMLEX score was 60 points more than what COMSAE predicted.
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I’m an Ob/Gyn resident (that means I went to medical school to become a doctor) and now I'm working like a crazy person to learn my trade before I'm on my own in the wild. Once upon a time I birthed a couple of babies of my own, they're friggin' adorable twin toddlers now. My life story through November 2010 can be viewed here. The events in the many years following can be summed up as wedding bells, books, exams, babies, and doctoring. I only started this blog in hopes of landing a role in a Lifetime movie so I could quit medicine and move to Hollywood, so if you wouldn't take medical advice from Angelina Jolie, you shouldn't take it from me. I may not even be a real person. In fact, I'm probably a spambot. Or possibly a 15 yo boy blogging from a dingy basement. If you're really interested you can read more about me here. If you have any questions or want to guest post contact me.