The Case for USMLE QBanks- Why They Work

12 min



So you’ve downloaded all the study schedules you can get your hands on, can practically recite pages from First Aid in your sleep, maybe bought a couple subscriptions for video lecture series, but still you’re wondering: Am I doing this right? 

The world of USMLE prep can be overwhelming (to say the least). We’ve been there too. I mean, are you even in dedicated if you haven’t spent at least one night crying in a stress induced breakdown? Of course, we’re kidding. But, feelings of anxiety and stress are completely normal for any kind of students preparing for a high stakes exam– let alone medical students.

With this post, we want to help provide you some guidance and clarity regarding how you should be studying for the USMLE. Hopefully the following advice will help to alleviate some of your anxious feelings, but (as always) if you need a little extra help planning or additional reassurance, the Elite team is always here and more than happy to talk to you. 

Alright, what’s the best way to study? We want to start here with a bit of an allegory (bare with us, it’s a good one) one of our team members uses when advising USMLE students:


So there’s a college pottery class. The teacher decides to split the class into two equal groups. The teacher tells the first group that the student who makes the most beautiful and perfect pot will receive the highest grade in the class. The teacher then tells the second group that at the end of the semester, he is going to put all the pots each student has created onto a big scale and the student with the highest total weight will get the highest grade in the class. So all the students get to work. The first group of students (being graded on who can make the most beautiful pot) spent the whole semester going to art museums, researching the elements that make pottery perfect, and reading about famous pottery pieces. The second group of students (being graded on the total weight of all the pots they make) spent the whole semester sitting at the pottery wheel and making as many pots as they can. 

In the final 2 weeks of class, most of the students in the first group decide that they have researched everything they possibly can and are confident that they know how to make the most perfect and beautiful pot; so they begin sculpting. However, they can’t do it. The students realize that they are not familiar with how the clay moves in their hands, their muscles are not familiar with how much pressure to use when sculpting. 

The class ends and the teacher looks at the work of all the students. The teacher sees that actually, the very best, the most beautiful, most symmetrical balanced pots came from the students being graded on weight. They were the ones who had been practicing all semester.


Now, we always have one student who comes back after hearing this allegory that says, well couldn’t the students in the group graded by weight have just made a whole bunch of rushed and ugly pots and still gotten the highest grade because he has the most? Well, technically yes but that’s not the point!


Maybe you already guessed, but the point of the pottery class story is to show you learning isn’t enough. You absolutely have to practice. And, it terms of the USMLE, that means qbanks. Now, we are not recommending here that you only and exclusively go though qbanks. After all, even the weight group of pottery students still had to have some instruction on how to use a pottery wheel in order to create a pot in the first place. This being said, here are our recommendations:


  1. Get your foundations in place, then go crazy with the practice questions.

  • When beginning the journey that is USMLE prep, we recommend that you spend a little bit of time doing a high yield review, then, roll up your sleeves and get to the practice questions. While you should have learned most (if not all) of the information you need for the USMLE in your classes, most students can use a good refresher. Now is the time to lightly go over old class notes, go through some videos if you chose to purchase a subscription to a USMLE video learning platform, or maybe even take a USMLE review course if your school offers one.

*This is also a great time to identify your weak areas that you will hone in on later


  1. Get going with the practice questions and try to notice trends in what kind of questions you are getting wrong. 

  • Practice, practice, practice. This is what we were talking about in the allegory. It is absolutely imperative that you get used to the format of USMLE questions. You need to start getting used to the types of language used, tricky things to look for in the answer choices, and time management in getting through questions. We strongly recommend using a kitchen timer (not phone) to see how long questions take you to answer. 


*If you jump into practice questions and find you have absolutely no idea about the content in which many of the questions are trying to test you on, go back to recommendation 1 and build up your foundations. If you feel like there is a lot of information you are confused about or you feel overwhelmed, you may also want to consider a couple hours of tutoring.


  1. Identify weak areas or topics that you need to focus in on with extra review in addition to doing (you guessed it) MORE practice questions.

  • The more practice questions you attempt, the more you will start to notice trends emerging. You should start to be able to identify subjects or types of questions that you are weaker in and thereby need to focus on. This is where you need to bust out the flashcards and start memorizing. Some students also choose video resources or get a personal tutor and we recommend both of those options as a supplement to flashcards; not in place of.


*DO NOT identify your weak areas then hyperfocus only on those. Once you identify your weak areas, give them some extra time and effort, but you still need to continue practice question from all areas. If you focus on exclusively learning one topic or subject and neglect the rest, your knowledge in those areas will suffer. 


  1. Continue the PRACTICE QUESTIONS and get help if/ when you need it!

  • Did we mention you should be doing practice questions? We can’t stress this enough! PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!!! YOU NEED TO DO PRACTICE QUESTIONS!!! Do all the practice questions you can, time yourself, look up explanations (or ask a tutor), continue to identify subjects and topics of weakness and devote time to studying them. You should be making and reviewing flashcards for the information you find yourself shaky on and seeking out supplemental resources if you identify any topics that really stump you. 


That’s pretty much all!


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About the Author

Elite Medical Prep

The Elite Medical Prep team consists of MD and MD candidate tutors from the top medical schools and residency programs, our founders, Dr. Brus-Ramer and…

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