2020 USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 CK Score Percentiles

7 min



You just got your score back from either USMLE Step 1 or Step 2 CK. Perhaps you hit your mark or maybe your score is lower than you expected. Regardless, the next step is understanding your score so you can plan for your next steps. Our goal of this blog post is to breakdown your score and help you interpret how you did.


USMLE Step 1

The change by the NBME and FSBM of the USMLE Step 1 to a Pass/Fail system by January 2022 will dramatically change the interpretation of scores for medical students. According to the NBME/FSMB, the passing score for Step 1 in 2018 was 194, up from 192 in years prior. When examining the nomograms provided by the test-makers, this equates to approximately the 5th percentile. In other words, to pass the exam, you must achieve a score that is better than the lowest 5% of all test-takers. In general, a passing score corresponds to answering 60% of the 280 questions on the exam correctly. While it is unlikely that the percentage of students passing would change meaningfully in the first few years of the new format, it is possible that this will change at some point. 

Until the scoring system for Step 1 changes to Pass/Fail, the scores on Step 1 can be interpreted based on historical percentiles. While 194 represents the 5th percentile, the average (50th percentile) falls between 230 and 235. Scores at or just above the mean are good scores! This means you have outscored more than half of the test-takers that year. Not coincidentally, this also places you in the range for many competitive residencies; for competitive surgical subspecialties such as neurosurgery or orthopedic surgery higher scores may be needed. When examined from this perspective, a strong score is simply above average.  

Examining the distribution of scores below, it is important to observe the narrow distribution of test scores; this is extremely helpful in figuring out why answering even 5% more correct questions on exam day can dramatically increase your score. If a score of 265 (of a theoretical 300 maximum) represents the 98th to 99th percentile, that means that nearly 93 to 94% of all test takers will score between 194 and 265. With only 71 points between these scores, and all of these test-takers answering 168/280 questions (60%) correctly (5th percentile), there can be rather dramatic jumps in scores by answering only a few extra questions correctly. This explains the importance of adding any extra knowledge and/or test-taking skills to your repertoire, which our EMP tutors are expertly prepared to help you with.



When interpreting your score from Step 2 CK, you can use a very similar mindset as with Step 1. The main difference is that scores on Step 2 CK are on average 5-10 points higher than on Step 1; the distribution of scores is thus slightly narrower 95% of test-takers scoring between 210 and 275. The passing score on Step 2 CK most recently was 209, representing approximately the 3rd percentile. With the changes discussed to Step 1, it is quite possible that far more test-takers will take Step 2 CK prior to submitting applications. In addition, results on Step 2 CK will carry far greater importance with Step 1 reported as Pass/Fail only. Until this change takes place, test-takers can take use the table above to interpret their results.


USMLE Step 3

Briefly, scores on Step 3 are always significantly lower than those on Step 1 and 2 CK. This is largely because the majority of test-takers are in the midst of intern year while taking the exam. The sole exception are international medical graduates who may have the option to take Step 3 prior to beginning residency. The most recent passing score announced by USMLE was 198, which corresponds to approximately the 3rd to 4th percentile.

That’s all! We hope that this post was helpful in interpreting your score on Step 1 and Step 2 CK. If you are looking to improve your score on the USMLE or for USMLE tutoring, please contact our EMP staff for an evaluation by one of our EMP tutors.

Need additional
help with your exam?

Enter your info to hear from a member of our team and discuss if 1-on-1 tutoring is right for you.

About the Author

Michael Zobel, MD

Read More

Never Miss an Article!

Sign up to our newsletter and get the best of Elite Medical Prep, tailored for you.