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How Long to Study for Step 1: Road to USMLE Success

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A medical student organizing their study schedule for Step 1 in front of a calendar, making notes with colorful sticky notes.

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With the transition from a scored Step 1 to PASS/FAIL, many students are left asking themselves how long they should take to study for Step 1. Is 2 weeks enough? Should I plan for a full 6 weeks for Step 1?

 

And, like many things in life, the answer is it depends.

 

For a student who has excelled through their pre-clinical years without difficulty, 2-4 weeks may be sufficient to study for Step 1. If a student already has plenty of experience with NBME-style questions, they also may need less time studying for Step 1.

 

And for those students who may have struggled through the first few years of medical school, they should consider taking 6-8 weeks studying for Step 1.

 

When deciding how long is right for you, reflect on your past few years of medical school. Do you find yourself needing more time to study for tests? Did you struggle to cram in the studying that you needed to? Does your school use NBME questions on their tests?

 

These answers can help you decipher how long you specifically need to spend studying for Step 1.

 

 

Is three months enough to succeed on Step 1? Would one month be okay for me? How about ten years of studying? TAKE AN EXAM.

 

Just kidding about the ten years of studying, but I’m not joking about the importance of a practice exam!

 

In order to truly know the time needed to study for Step 1, you need to know where you are starting. If your school offers a CBSE exam, this can be a great baseline to help you gauge how long you might need to study. If you are an IMG or do not have access to the CBSE, start with one of the NBME exams.

 

Then use, this (as well as the percent likelihood of passing) to help you plan how long you might need to study for. If you are near the passing zone (around 65%), you can plan for a shorter amount of time. If you are scoring lower (around 40% or 50%), you may need to plan for a longer study period!

 

But you’ll never know where you are if you don’t start with a practice exam. And remember! Simulate a testing environment. Go to the library, don’t look anything up, take breaks as you would on the test, etc. (I would even eat the exact same breakfast that I planned to eat the day of my real test.)

 

 

Can studying longer for Step 1 help set me up for success in Step 2?

 

Previously, Step 1 was a great predictor for how students would do on Step 2. Without a numeric score to predict how a student might do, one might wonder if it is worth it to put forth the extra effort to excel on Step 1.

 

For multiple reasons, we believe a bit of extra studying is worth it for Step 1. First, a bit of extra time studying for Step 1, if your schedule allows, will ensure you have a cushion to pass the exam. We encourage students to be near (or above) the 70% correct range to be in the safe passing zone. If you find that you are scoring above this 70% correct range, you can feel all the more confident during exam day.

 

Second, it’s true, much of Step 1 material is on Step 2. The better foundation you have, the better you will be prepared for when your Step 2 dedicated studying begins. And finally, a solid Step 1 foundation can help you excel during your clinical year. As you prepare for long days on the wards followed by rigorous shelf exams, a strong understanding of the material can be crucial to your success during your third year.

 

How MUCH more time?

 

That said, one might ask, “how MUCH more studying should I do?” One should be careful to avoid burnout when studying for Step 1. Ideally, an extra 2 weeks following meeting your “safe passing zone” score might help give you the confidence you need to succeed in Step 1 and establish a strong foundation for Step 2.

 

We recommend 2-4 weeks of dedicated studying for stronger students and 8-12 weeks of studying for students who may have struggled in the past. But most of all, base your study length on your CBSE or your initial practice exam.

 

 

What about IMG students?

 

For those taking Step 1 after graduating from an international medical school, the process and length of time may be different. If you are working all day and studying in the evenings, you may need to consider three to four months of studying. If you graduated many years ago and have forgotten much of the basic sciences, you also may need a longer time to study. You may even prefer taking Step 2 first. For those who are more recent graduates with a strong foundation in basic sciences, perhaps your study schedule may be shorter.

 

BUT, as previously mentioned, a practice exam will be most helpful to you when deciding your perfect study length.

 

 

Other Keys to Step 1 Success

 

One of the secrets to Step 1 success is certainly making sure that you have the appropriate amount of time to study for Step 1. Too little time and you risk not making it to a “safe passing” zone, and too much time and you risk burning out and struggling through your study schedule.

 

In addition to planning the right amount of time to study for Step 1, here are a few other keys to ensuring your success on Step 1.

 

Make a study schedule!

 

A study schedule is crucial to your success on Step 1. Whether you have 2 weeks or 10 weeks, make sure to game plan what you will do and how you will do it! Here is a link to a great 5 week schedule. And here is a game plan for a 10 week schedule.

 

Take care of yourself.

 

Burnout is real and could be a huge hindrance to your success on Step 1. Make sure that even as you are studying 10 hours a day, you prioritize your own health. Take breaks as needed. Exercise throughout the process. Get good sleep! Try to keep 1 hobby that brings you joy. Taking care of yourself can help ensure that the study process is slightly less brutal, while also making sure that you keep your mind sharp for test day!

 

Focus on your weaknesses, but don’t forget your strengths.

 

When I was studying for Step 1, I would take a practice test, and then use that to focus on my weaknesses. But then, the next practice test I would see a decrease in something I considered a “strength.” I found that I needed to focus on my weaknesses, but I also continued completing practice questions surrounding my strengths. Once I made this transition, I noticed that my scores across the subjects were more steady. I needed that repetition even for the subjects I excelled in.

 

Find ways to make it “enjoyable.”

 

Okay, okay. I hear you. How in the world can this be enjoyable? I’m not saying this will be Disneyland level of fun, but you can find ways to make the studying more bearable. Do you enjoy studying with friends? Then find a friend to study with every other day. Do you love the coffee scene? Study at a coffee shop every few days. I personally found that I loved to study outside when the weather was nice! This helped me avoid feeling like I was TRAPPED inside my house studying all day. 

One final word of advice. You can do it! Remember your “why”. The days may be long and the studying is tough, but with grit and determination, passing Step 1 can be a stepping stone into a beautiful career caring for others.

 

For more help with your Step 1 prep, consider enlisting the help of a Step 1 tutor. Schedule a complimentary consultation to learn more about how we can help you succeed!

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