Studying for the USMLE may seem like a daunting task due to large quantity of information it covers. However, if you know what to study and how to study for the USMLE Step 1, getting a good grasp the material tested and ultimately getting a good score, is possible.
Active use of material increases retention and facilitates recall. Repetition makes memories. Each instance of recall produces a new memory trace, linking it to another moment of life and increasing the chance for recall in the future. Memory is dynamic. Recall actually changes neuronal structures. To be truly useful, a piece of information needs to be triangulated, connected to a number of other concepts or, better yet, experiences. For the USMLE Step 1 exam, meaning, not mere information, is your goal.
Rereading textbooks from cover to cover and underlining—yet again, in a different color—every line on every page is not an efficient way to learn. You need to focus on the material most likely to be on the examination. Studying that material through active application is the best way to enhance your understanding and retention of the information.
The following study techniques will help you develop better ways to prepare for the exam, but remember, learning for retention and use requires active involvement.
Choosing What to Study
How can you possibly know what is likely to be on your examination? There are a number of approaches.
Choosing How to Study
Mastering the material you must learn for this exam is a three-stage process. These stages parallel the functional organization of memory.
Tips for How to Study
Your method of study and your study schedule should be arranged to allow you to master each of these stages in turn. As you make your decisions about how you will study, the following suggestions may be helpful:
• Be organized. Set up an organized study schedule and adhere to it. The biggest danger when preparing for the exam is spending too much time on one area or ignoring one subject altogether. Decide how much time you will study each day and put your time in like it is a job. Schedule regular breaks and keep them.
• Decide what your weak areas are by taking pretests, a diagnostic exam, using information from your coursework, or using the questions in each book. Begin your study plan with your weak areas and plan to cover those at least twice before the exam.
• Do not entirely neglect your strong areas, but allocate less time to them. This can be difficult. Research suggests that, left on their own, most students study what they know best and give less time to subjects that make them uncomfortable. Reverse this process and spend the most time on the subjects that make you the most uncomfortable.
• Emphasize integration by reviewing subjects together and/or by organ system. This will greatly aid your preparation for USMLE, which emphasizes the integration of basic sciences. This type of review is best conducted in a group with other people. Other people may look at the same material differently than you and help you expand your perspective and your understanding.
• Review materials in related clusters. For example, take the anemias and review how each might present, the basic epidemiology, what lab tests would differentiate, the underlying mechanisms, and initial therapies for each. Using this strategy allow you to “preview” questions and anticipate both the correct answer and the most likely distractors.
• Keep your sessions short; no more than an hour to an hour and a half with at least a 10-minute break. Your concentration declines significantly after an hour or so. Sitting longer will provide only minimal extra return. In addition, the break time allows the short-term memory to be consolidated into long-term memory.
• Do not reread textbooks. Use review books that consolidate the information for you.
• Limit the number of information sources from which you study. Select one main review book for each subject. If you have several books, use one as your primary study material and the others as back-up to clarify points as needed. Too many study sources creates overload, and overload stifles comprehension.