Best Ways to Use NBME Practice Exams to Prepare for the Real Thing
My students often ask me, “why am I doing well on UWorld but scoring poorly on NBME practice exams?” There isn’t an answer to this question that’s true for everyone, but the solution to this question is often to take more practice exams. The NBME, or National Board of Medical Examiners, writes practice exams for Step 1, Step 2 CK, and Step 3. The NBME exams contain questions similar to those found on your step exams and are one of the best ways to practice your test-taking skills for Step 1, 2, or 3. But what is the best way to use the NBME practice exams?
I was a theater kid in high school (cue laughter, go ahead and get it out of your system). Despite how uncool theater was at my school, I loved preparing for shows and getting into the heads of my characters during performances. My theater club had a systematic way of performing for shows. First, we would break up each part of the show into scenes and practice them over and over again. Then we would put on dress rehearsals in full costume and character. During dress rehearsals, we would identify issues with the show so that we wouldn’t mess up on the big opening night.
Practice exams are dress rehearsals for the USMLE. Your test day is your opening night. The NBME practice exams give you a chance to troubleshoot and prepare ahead of time for any bumps in the road, this is one of the best ways to prepare for your Step 1, 2, or 3 exams!
Let’s talk about the best way to use your NBME practice exams. Let’s talk about how you can use your CBSSA/NBME strategically to prepare for your USMLE Steps.
Scoring Your NBME/CBSSA Exam
Your NBME/CBSSA score can be located in the top right hand corner of you score report. This three-digit score is meant to represent your performance based on your peers who also took the test and can be converted into an approximate USMLE Step score using the USMLE conversion charts (often found at the bottom of the score report).
When is the Best Time to Take Your NBME for Step 1 Prep
There is no right or wrong time to take your NBME practice exams. There are a few to choose from, however. The UWorld Self-Assessments 1 and 2, or UWSA1 and UWSA2, are probably the most reliable practice exams out there. In particular, UWorld 2 is strongly correlated with your Step 1 score/pass rate.
The NBME exams are a great way to fill the space between the UWSAs. I normally recommend my students take an NBME before they start their dedicated study to get a baseline for where they could expect to score if they took the test that day. The next practice test I recommend they take is UWSA1. After that, take NBMEs leading up to the week before your test. About a week before your Step 1, take UWSA2 to try to predict how you might do on the exam.
The Best Way to Use Your NBME to Review Step 1, 2, or, 3 Content
The NBME performance profile is probably the most useful part of your score report. By looking at the graphs on your score report, you can not only find out how you performed on each physician task, system, and discipline on your NBME when compared to your peers, but it can also tell you how you performed compared to your prior NBMEs.
What were your weakest areas? Set aside time to focus on these areas. This can consist of a 10-20 question UWorld test, plus review of that subject using whatever resource you’re using for content acquisition (e.g., Board and Beyond, First Aid, Pathoma, etc.).
What were your strongest areas? Studying for your USMLE exams is all about efficiency. You should still review these subjects, but dedicating the same amount of time studying subjects you excel at with subjects you struggle with is a mistake. You do not need to dedicate as much time/UWorld questions to strong subjects as you should to weaker subjects.
Using Your NBME to Get in the Testing Mindset and Build Your Confidence
Fifty percent of doing well on USMLEs is your knowledge. The other 50% is your mentality. Mindset is everything. Have you ever taken a practice test only to review it later and kick yourself for questions you feel like you shouldn’t have missed? I know I have.
Use your NBMEs to build up your confidence. NBME practice exams are a great way to put yourself in the right testing mindset. Prove to yourself that you know the information in a high-pressure environment. Practice being more confident in what you know and being honest with yourself about what you don’t. Use your NBMEs (and UWSAs) to learn how to trust your intuition and trust that you’ve prepared well for your exam.
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