10 Steps to Survive Studying for the USMLE Step 1

If you’re a medical student who is anything like me, you probably started medical school dreading that five-letter B-word more than anything else. Boards.

And how could you not? You know that sometime during your second year of medical school, you will have to spend a good hunk of your youth studying for a damn test. A damn hard test. While all of your fellow twenty-somethings are off clubbing in Vegas (or so it feels), you are sitting in a room of fluorescent lighting and towers of books and flashcards.

Somehow, though, I managed to make it through the period of boards studying without going crazy. And I have to admit it now…I actually really dislike studying. Ok, I hate studying. There, I said it. Although I know I have to study to become a doctor, I signed up for this medical school thing so I could take care of patients, not so I could sit on my ass and study from dawn to dusk.

I came up with some tips that I think helped me survive this somewhat painful period of my life. And to be honest, it was not nearly as painful as I had anticipated!

1. Clear your plate
Yes, I know you want to get your research published, train for an Ironman, find yourself a boy/girlfriend, and write a book in the next month. But in order to study effectively and efficiently, you should put all these other tasks off until after the boards. If applicable, make it clear to your research adviser or parents of the kids you babysit that you will be out of commission until you’re done with the boards. You want as few distractions as possible. Of course, entirely eliminating distractions is not going to happen. You will still have to pay bills and go grocery shopping. You should also remember to talk to your mom on occasion (trust me on this).

2. Keep it simple
There are a million and one resources on there that claim they are a “must-have” for scoring well on the Boards. While I haven’t gotten my scores back yet, I can honestly say that 97% of my test was covered in either First Aid or USMLE World/Kaplan Q-bank (I ended up using both, but if you’re choosing one, go for USMLE World). I tried using flashcards, but that just didn’t work for me. At first, I felt guilty for not using all the resources I had purchased, but the truth is, you don’t need them all. The only time I looked at other resources was if I didn’t quite understand what was covered in First Aid/Q-bank. So in summary, if all you did was study from First Aid and a Q-bank, and take 3-6 NBME practice tests to see where your score is, you have the opportunity to score welll!

3. Focus on your weaknesses
Inevitably, your medical school will not cover some of the topics very well. For us, that was microbiology and pharmacology. Start with the subjects you aren’t very familiar with, and make sure you leave enough time at the end of your study schedule to review them another 1-2 times. For some reason, it’s easier to study what you know best…perhaps because it makes you feel smarter…but DON’T GIVE IN!

4. Healthy –> Happy –> Effective studying
You’ve probably heard this a million times, but it’s true. You need to take care of your health during this time of high stress. This means sleeping as much as your body requires (for me, this means a full 9 hours…I think I’m in the wrong profession). This also means taking breaks and setting limits. I set a limit of 8 hours of studying a day. To make sure that my 8 hours were actually spent studying and not on Facebook, I started a stopwatch whenever I had my head in a book, and stopped it whenever I “just had to” check my email. Once I reached 8 hours of studying (that was about all my brain could handle anyway), that was it for the day. I also took at least 1 full day off a week. Some weeks, I split that full day off into two half days off. I think this was absolutely essential to rejuvenating me. I don’t think I could have persisted in my studying without that day off. During your breaks, get some exercise in. But not TOO much exercise. I used to be the queen of too much exercise (as are all competitive swimmers). So take it from me that a little exercise makes you feel energized. Too much exercise leaves you run-down and exhausted. Don’t forget to shower, brush your teeth, and wash your clothes, or at the very least, your underwear. Please, for the sake of anybody who will come into contact with you. I promise that spending 10 minutes a day on personal hygeine will not affect your board score.

5. Rest your brain
When you’re an athlete, you have to give your body time to recover between workouts. Well, boards studying is kind of the same thing. I found that at the end of a full day of studying, all I was able to do was sleep or watch TV (I assume because it requires almost zero brain activity). So go ahead…watch Glee. You know you want to.

6. Remove yourself from stressed out people
Some people seem to thrive on stress, but I am not one of them. I prefer to go about things my own way at my own pace. I’ve found that being around others who are also studying can be stressful, as they are sure to know something you don’t, which can make you wonder if you’re doing the wrong thing. If you like to study with other people, find calm people who won’t make you more stressed out than you actually are.

7. Spend time with people who are not medical students
This is important. Studying for boards is a weird time. You can almost forget that the rest of the world is going on. Fortunately for me, I have a husband who is not a medical student who was able to help take my mind off the test. When I got stressed, he was able to put it in perspective for me. So go hang out with your non-med student friends for a bit. It will make you feel more normal.

8. Do things that non-med students do
Going along with number 7, I think what refreshed my the most was to get away from my desk and go do totally normal things. For instance, go to the mall or the grocery store. It will take your mind off the boards for a little bit, which trust me, is very necessary at times.

9. Forgive yourself if you fall off track…and then hop back on
There will inevitably be a time when you just cannot look at one more word in First Aid. You may end up requiring to take an unintended half or full day break. This happened to me, so I said, “screw you, First Aid,” and I watched the documentary on Babies (because babies make me happy). I promise…you will be OK…you are only human, after all. And those missing those few hours will not affect your score in the end, as long as you get back on schedule the next day.

10. Remember that this test is not worth sacrificing your physical or mental health
If you find yourself getting sick, burned out, or depressed, please seek help. Your well-being is far more important than this test. After all, you are training to be the doctor, not the patient.

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