How to Study for USMLE Step 1

How to Study for USMLE Step 1

The United States Medical Licensing Exam is a challenging exam for anyone, no matter how well you did in school. It’s the exam you need to take to obtain a license to practice medicine on your own without supervision, so of course, you want to pass it on your first try.

Like other exams for which you’ve sat, there are ways to prepare to take every step of the USMLE. Here’s how to study for the USMLE Step 1 so you can go in with the best possible chances of getting a good score.

Preparing for USMLE Step 1

Before you start studying for the exam itself, you should learn as much as you can about what you might face. There are a few ways to do that.

Talk to Others Who Have Recently Taken the Exam

Any friends and colleagues you have who have taken Step 1 of the USMLE in the last few years will have invaluable wisdom about what you can expect. They can tell you if their exams seemed to focus more on some topics than others and whether they seemed to have a theme of sorts (like infectious diseases).

They can’t tell you exactly what your test will look like because it changes from year to year, and asking them to give you hints will merely frustrate everyone. However, they can steer you towards some of the topics on which you should focus.

Talk to Faculty

Not only have many people on the faculty taken the USMLE, but they can also help you determine both what to study and how to do it.

Faculty members can be, a valuable resource for any student looking to sit for a major exam. Helping you figure out what and how to study is just part of it. If you talk to your professors and TAs, they can help you determine your strengths and weaknesses, which is an essential part of studying effectively. Don’t be afraid to approach them.

Study the Standard Topics and Download Study Materials

While it’s always a good idea to do this for any major exam, you probably want to talk to people before moving onto this step. Standard topics begin to appear on the USMLE about two to three years after gaining prominence among the scientific community and the general population.

Your colleagues and instructors can help solidify your knowledge of what’s considered a standard topic now that may not have been just a couple of years ago.

Don’t forget to take advantage of Step 1 study materials, too. Downloading study materials from the USMLE website will help you learn the nature of the exam and give you practice tests and other materials to help you better direct your studying.

Avoid Studying the Previous Year’s Exam

It might seem like a good idea to use previous years’ exams as study materials, but the exam changes from year to year.

That, in turn, can cause you to review the wrong things, and then you’ll be ill-prepared to sit for your exam.

How to Study for USMLE Step 1

A good way to study for this exam is to take a three-stage approach:

  • Terms and definitions
  • Central concepts
  • Applications

Terms and Definitions

You already learned basic terms and definitions during your coursework. But think about this: Has anyone ever asked you to define an easy word you use all the time and you couldn’t do it? You need to ensure you can remember terms and definitions and reinforce your understanding of them, so you’re less likely to blank during the exam.

During this stage, create ways to remember these terms and definitions. Mnemonic devices and word associations are excellent ways to help you memorize them.

Central Concepts

The USMLE Step 1 has seven subject areas, and you have to master the central concepts of each subject to pass the exam. This stage is all about learning how to explain these concepts, including how they’re used, what they mean, and their connections to other ideas.

Visual aids like pictures and diagrams are extremely helpful during this stage because they help you form images of each concept. A mental image of one can help you recall another, which leads to identifying patterns within each of the seven subjects. Be sure you have a solid recollection of all your central concepts.


Practical application is the most important part of studying for this exam. This stage involves taking the central concepts and applying them to clinical and mini-case presentations.

Book studies are excellent methods for preparing to sit for the USMLE Step 1, but the ability to apply the information is necessary as well. It’s not enough to understand the concepts underlying each subject area. You must have the ability to apply them correctly in given situations.

The application stage is where practice tests and study groups are most helpful. You and your fellow students can put forth situations requiring you to recall certain ideas, determine which ones to use, and ascertain how to properly use them. Practice questions will test your ability to do this, too. You’ll benefit most if you do both.

Tips and Tricks

Does this still seem like a daunting task to you? Don’t worry. There are lots of tips and tricks to help you get the most out of all your hard work.

Above All, Organize

Trying to tackle this without getting organized is like trying to remodel a kitchen without a plan. You’ll make things far harder than they need to be if you don’t get organized first.

Develop a study schedule and do your best to stick to it. That includes breaks, meals, and even sleep. Make sure your schedule covers everything involved in the three stages above, so you don’t over-prepare in one area while ignoring another.

Determine Your Strong and Weak Areas

Your natural instinct is to focus entirely on your weak areas because those are what will make or break you. Do things like taking pretests and reviewing your coursework to see what those are, and include an emphasis on them in your study schedule.

Also, even though you’ve talked to your teachers about your strengths and weaknesses, taking a diagnostic test will help you further identify them so you can figure out what resources you need most.

Your strengths are important, too, so don’t sacrifice those to your work on your weaknesses. You don’t want these to atrophy while you’re studying.

Integrate, Integrate, Integrate

Science is all about integration, and rarely does anything stand alone. When you’re working with others, go over integrated subjects together to gain a better understanding of how things work in concert with one another in the body instead of studying each area alone.

Having other people with you can help reveal things you may have overlooked in your individual study, too. They might see something that you don’t, and vice versa and each of you can help the other and enhance your understanding of the subject.

Go Over Materials in Related Clusters

You’re more likely to remember information if you study it in clusters. For instance, take degenerative nervous system disorders and look at what they are, how they affect the nervous system, their underlying mechanisms, how they’re diagnosed, and how they’re treated or managed.

Reviewing material this way instead of moving back and forth between topics can help you anticipate possible questions and their correct answers, along with things that are most likely to serve as distractors for those questions.

Avoid Long Study Sessions

We’ve all pulled marathon study sessions, including those fun all-nighters in undergrad right before finals. We’re familiar with how it gets ever more difficult to concentrate and how exhausted we felt mentally afterward.

Many of us learned the hard way that studying like that can backfire rather badly.

To avoid a similar catastrophe with the USMLE Step 1, study in short sessions, ideally no more than an hour at a time. Make sure to take breaks and to sleep. It’s during those breaks and when you sleep that your mind will process and convert the information you learn to long-term memory.

Use Review Books Instead of Your Textbooks

At this point, your textbooks are one of the worst study materials available. You need material that consolidates information rather than spreading it out. Textbooks are very detailed and can inhibit your information retention. Choose one primary review book for each subject instead.

Final Thoughts

Studying for the USMLE Step 1 exam doesn’t have to be frightening and overwhelming. When you know what to go over, the order o review it, and other things, you can create a study plan that will allow you to make the most of your work.

Be sure to use the resources available to you, including the people around you. Studying alone is good, but working with others on things like applying concepts can broaden your knowledge of certain subjects and concepts, helping you achieve the best score possible.

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Matt Lane

Matt graduated with a BSEd in Kinesiology from University of Georgia and is now pursuing a medical degree. He enjoys sharing his experience with other ambitious young people.