My Experience Taking the USMLE during COVID-19

11 min



Finally, I took my USMLE exam on the 1st day that Prometric opened up my testing site. This quite frankly seemed like a miracle; I had already rescheduled my exam date 3 times due to COVID-19 cancellations, and I was quite sure it was going to happen again. To those of you studying for and trying to take a USMLE exam during the COVID-19 pandemic– I understand and feel your struggle. 

Not only do you have to worry about studying for your USMLE exam, but you also have to manage the stress and anxiety of when you will be able to actually take your exam. It seems that having a confirmed testing appointment through Prometric doesn’t necessarily mean you are “good to go”. I had a few friends taking their exam around the same time as me and it seemed like a lottery as we waited to see which one of us was actually going to be able to take our exam. We all had been cancelled several times after our testing sites had already officially opened up in May so our hopes were low. In fact, my friend was scheduled to take her exam at the same testing site as me 3 days after my date; yet when she logged on to her account the week of her exam, she found out she was no longer scheduled for her exam, without receiving any sort of notification of this cancellation. Yet somehow, I was able to proceed with my test.

I know that in recent weeks past USMLE has expressed disappointment (see announcement from May 8th, 2020) over how Prometric has handled exam cancellations. The good news is that USMLE is now expanding Step 1, Step 2 CK, and Step 3 testing by opening regional testing centers at medical schools across the United States, however, being caught in the middle has felt almost surreal. To clarify, I took USMLE Step 3 at a Prometric testing center. In some way, I feel incredibly fortunate that of all the exams in medical school, Step 3 was the one I ended up having to take during COVID-19. 


In light of the confusion and stress surrounding taking a USMLE exam at a Prometric center during COVID-19, I wanted to write out my experience for anyone wondering what it’s like:

– You had to wear a mask the whole time–from the moment you entered the building through the time you finished–and yes, even while you were in your private testing cubicle


– You could (and needed to) bring your own mask–you couldn’t enter the mask without one. I did not see Prometric handing out masks to anyone–I’m not sure if this is because they didn’t have any or if it’s because everyone had their own, but you definitely needed to have one. It did not need to be a specific type of mask–a cloth mask was fine.


– You could not enter the testing site earlier than the time the Prometric site had instructed you to arrive. It seemed like the majority of test-takers arrived early, including me, however we were told to wait outside the building (despite the building being open) and could not enter until 8 am.


– When checking into the lobby of the building, we had to stand 6 feet apart. We then had to take the elevator 30+ stories up to the Prometric site, one person at a time. Once on the correct floor, we had to wait in the elevator bank as test-takers were checked in one at a time. There could not be more than 2 people in the check-in/locker area at a time. Despite arriving at 7:30 am, I wasn’t checked in until closer to 8:45 / 9am, even though I was among the first few to enter the testing area.


– Testing capacity was significantly reduced–every other seat was empty in my testing room. In addition, there were 2 other testing rooms, which were mostly empty.


– When taking a break, I had to raise my hand and receive permission to get up so that there wouldn’t be close contact of test-takers in the security check-in/check-out area.


– You had to flip your mask and show the inside for inspection every time you re-entered the testing area.  


Overall, the journey of getting a test date that finally was not cancelled was stressful but the actual test taking experience at Prometric was fine. My particular site seemed very clean and the staff upheld the new COVID-19 regulations. While all the regulations felt a bit surreal, overall the test went smoothly for me. That being said, I do have some specific tips for test-takers:


Tips for taking your USMLE exam at a Prometric site during COVID-19:


– Pick a comfortable mask (cloth, surgical, etc) that you can take your test in.


– Consider doing a practice test with a mask. Is the mask you are wearing bearable? Does it give you a headache? Does it bother your ears? Does wearing it fog up your glasses or make your contacts dry up?


– Log into your Prometric account and regularly confirm your appointment for your scheduled test. Remember, testing sites have to be reduced to <50% capacity so if you are in an “unlucky” seat, your appointment will be cancelled. 


– If your test is cancelled, it’s okay–take a deep breathe. This is not in your control. Prometric may reschedule you to another date, or you may have no particular date at all. Regularly check the Prometric website for availability if you plan to reschedule. You could also consider taking the exam in a different location like a regional testing center at a host medical school if you can find a spot there.


– Disclaimer—this last tip is a silly one. I would probably avoid eating anything too spicy or very minty during your breaks–you are wearing a mask the whole time so the scent can escape through the top of your mask and make your eyes water if it’s too pungent!


All in all, I feel of course relieved that USMLE Step 3 is at last behind me, however, in my wildest dreams I couldn’t have imagined that these would be the circumstances under which I would finish my USMLE journey. To those of you who are just beginning, all I can say is hang in there. I hope that my experience and tips may help some of you. We will all get through this.

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About the Author

Alexandra R., MD

Alexandra earned her Neuroscience degree from the University of Michigan, graduating with Summa Cum Laude recognition in 2014. She continued her education at the University…

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