Home » How to Study to Score a 280 on USMLE Step 2 CK

How to Study to Score a 280 on USMLE Step 2 CK

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student on the computer taking notes for USMLE Step 2CK


How to Study to Score a 280 on USMLE Step 2 CK


Having scored in the 270-280 range on Step 1, Step 2 CK, and Step 3 of the USMLE, I am often asked by students questions like “What’s your secret?”, “How can I plan my study schedule to score that well on the USMLE?”, “How long should I study for Step 2 CK?”, and “What’s the best study plan for Step 2 CK?”


I’m going to be honest: if I had a single secret or silver bullet, I would tell you. The harsh truth is that if you want to score in the >99th percentile on the USMLE, the work will have to begin early in medical school with concerted efforts to build a solid knowledge base. You can then use that knowledge base to consolidate during your dedicated study periods. 


Chances are, though, if you’re reading this post, you are preparing to take Step 2 CK within the next few weeks to months, and are looking for actionable advice about how to set yourself up for success in the here and now to secure your residency program acceptance. So, don’t despair! While I (unfortunately!) don’t have a single gimmick that can guarantee a high score, I would like to emphasize:

  • (1) the strategies that I employed to be a successful test-taker for the NBME and
  • (2) patterns of study behaviors I have observed in the dozens of students I have tutored that tend to lead to more or less successful test performance. 



Building a Firm Step 2 Foundation: The Importance of Clerkship Year for Step 2 CK


In comparison with Step 1, Step 2 CK is more clinically focused. The typical Step 1 question will involve basic pathology, microbiology, disease pathophysiology, pharmacology, or similar basic science concepts. While basic science questions still show up on Step 2 CK, the most common question types are “What is the most likely diagnosis?” and “What is the next best test?” rather than “What is the mechanism of action of the appropriate antibiotic?” or “What is the makeup of the genome of the most likely causative virus?” as on Step 1.


Effective Study Strategies During Clerkship Year


Given this, success on Step 2 starts with concerted studying throughout clerkship year. As we know from adult learning theory, interleaved practice is crucial to consolidating knowledge and making memories stick. This involves making associations between patients and disease processes you see on clinical rotations. It also includes comparing them to the textbook versions of their diseases you read about in clinical resources like UpToDate, journal articles, review books, and question banks. Studying hard during clerkship year pays dividends in both directions. Clinical experiences in which you can put a face and a story to a disease increase the salience of the medical information you are reading. Meanwhile, gaining a deeper understanding of patients’ disease processes will make you a more engaged and effective physician.


Using UWorld Step 2 CK QBank


Because of this, there is no better time to consolidate clinical medical knowledge pertinent to Step 2 CK than during your core clinical rotations. Many students choose to use the UWorld Step 2 CK question bank to aid in clerkship study and prepare for shelf exams. I strongly recommend using the QBank in this way. Doing a “first pass” through the 2 CK question bank during clerkship year will (1) ensure that you have made it through every question at least once before your exam, and (2) help you integrate the knowledge you’re learning in each clinical discipline with the specific subset of knowledge the National Board of Medical Examiners thinks is most pertinent for each discipline. 


This is important because your clinical instructors’ emphasized topics won’t perfectly align with all Step 2 CK requirements. While a rotation on vascular surgery, for instance, may emphasize a detailed understanding of blood vessel anatomy and nuanced considerations for intra-operative decision-making, the surgery questions on Step 2 CK are more apt to focus on big-picture indications for vascular surgery (e.g., recognizing compartment syndrome) and post-operative complications. Moreover, the exam will cover all subspecialties. There will likely be questions on trauma surgery, for instance, to which you may never be exposed if your core surgery rotations are in pediatric bariatric surgery. Using the QBank for clerkship studying ensures a solid framework for a discipline’s breadth and compensates for individual clinical variations. A solid framework is key to any successful Step 2 CK study plan.


Benefiting from Question Practice and Enhancing Long-Term Retention


In addition, using the UWorld Step 2 CK QBank during clerkship year is advisable because there is evidence that USMLE performance increases directly with the total number of questions performed. This is sensible when considering that the NBME has (1) a predictable, and therefore learnable, style of question-asking, and (2) certain favorite topics that can be mastered with repetition. That is, the more exposure you have to USMLE-style questions in the months prior to your exam, the better equipped you will be to handle the hundreds of questions you will have to answer back-to-back on test day.


Creating flashcards as you go along with a spaced-repetition feature like Anki is a great hack to consolidate long-term retention: if you make flashcards with QBank pearls from each clinical discipline in turn and keep up with them throughout the entire year, then your long-term retention of the material will be outstanding, and your exam prep will be all the easier. 



When Should I Take Step 2 CK?


Given that clinical experiences are so key to Step 2 CK-relevant knowledge, if at all possible, you should aim to take Step 2 within 6 months of finishing your core clinical rotations. The rationale for this is self-evident. Reviewing recent introductions to the relevant disciplines is much easier than revisiting topics years later. If you have a medical school structure in which Step 1, you may consider taking Step 2 shortly after Step 1. This is advisable because there is substantial overlap in the topics covered.


One caveat here: clerkship year is exhausting and may contribute to burnout. If diving into Step 2 study right after rotations seems overwhelming, consider taking a break between them. Taking this time for reset and recovery on lighter rotations before jumping back into intense study preparation is sensible. Our brains absorb knowledge best when we are well-rested, curious, and engaged, not tired, burned out, and exhausted.



How Long Should I Study for Step 2 CK?


No matter when you take Step 2 CK, if you want to score in the 270-280 range, it is critical to have a dedicated study period with no other significant obligations to consolidate your knowledge and hammer home exam prep. So, if you want to know how to study for Step 2 CK, start with your dedicated study period.


To determine how long that period of dedicated study should be, it is important to reflect on your comfort with the material, the length of time since your core clinical rotations, the length of time since you took Step 1, and the amount of time you needed to study for Step 1. If you passed Step 1 easily, recently finished core clinical rotations, and prepared for Step 1 in 4-6 weeks, you may need just 1.5-2 weeks for Step 2 CK prep. By contrast, if passing Step 1 was a struggle, are several months out from clerkships, needed 8 or more weeks for Step 1 prep, and are serious about reaching 270+, then a dedicated period of at least 4 weeks is advisable.


If your schedule doesn’t permit an extended dedicated study period, consider studying over 6-8 weeks alongside other obligations. Prolonging dedicated study more than 2 months is not advisable because the likelihood of forgetting topics studied at the beginning of your review period increases with increasing time spent studying. If you’re concerned about Step 2 CK due to a lack of a dedicated study period, consider Step 2 CK tutoring to maximize your knowledge consolidation in the available time.




What are the Best Resources for Step 2 CK Exam Prep?


From my extensive USMLE tutoring experience, many students mistakenly think that more resources guarantee better exam performance. “If I review ‘everything’ in each of these study resources, then I’ll be more prepared than if I only reviewed a single resource”, or so goes the argument. This is a fallacy.


The highest yield resource for Step 2 CK is far and away the UWorld question bank. Getting through the entire QBank and really understanding each question should be your top study priority. Beyond the QBank itself, the official exams offered by the NBME are the best possible predictor of our score on the actual exam. I recommend taking at least two practice exams, as these will simulate the stress of the actual exam better than simple UWorld question blocks. Taking a practice exam about two weeks before your exam helps gauge your proximity to your target score. If you score >20-25 points below your target score with 2 weeks remaining prior to test day, it is likely worth postponing your exam by a week to allow for additional time for review.


Additional high-yield materials that can supplement your studying (e.g., for additional review of problem topics) but should not be considered primary resources include First Aid for Step 2 CK, Online MedEd, Step 2-3-Clinical from Boards & Beyond, USMLE Step 2 Secrets, and Master the Boards Step 2 CK. If you need additional information, all resources are listed on our reviews page. Many students find these resources as helpful in organizing the material presented in UWorld.  However, they should not be your first priority – I scored a 278 without giving any of these resources more than a cursory look-over. 



When Might I Need a Tutor for Step 2 CK Prep?


Not every student needs a tutor for Step 2 CK exam prep, but every student could benefit from utilizing tutoring services. You might especially benefit if your practice NBME exams suggest you’ll need more than a 20-point increase or if you have less than 8 weeks to prepare. In addition, if you’re applying for a highly competitive specialty, your Step 2 CK study plan may benefit from including Elite Medical Prep online tutoring.


Finally, for any students that find tests stressful, or students who are falling behind for any reason, our tutors can give you the support you need to succeed. Schedule a complimentary consultation with us to learn more!



What Final Tips Can Help Me Score 280 on USMLE Step 2 CK?


So in summary, acing Step 2 CK requires:

  • Prioritizing studying throughout clerkship year to build a firm clinical knowledge base, ideally building a comprehensive Anki deck for longitudinal review
  • Minimum 2 weeks of exclusive exam prep time
  • Exhaustive attention to the UWorld Step 2 CK Question Bank
  • Taking at least 2 official NBME practice exams
  • Giving yourself enough time off before studying in earnest to avoid burnout


Best of luck with your USMLE prep – and may you land the residency of your dreams!

If you need help along the way to define a study strategy, contact or call us! Our USMLE Step 2 CK tutors are happy to aid in your studying process.

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About the Author

Rhodes Hambrick, MD

As a Phi Beta Kappa and Summa Cum Laude, Rhodes Hambrick completed his BS in Biochemistry at Furman University in 2014. Upon graduation, Rhodes began…

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