to studying for the usmle step 1

You guys, after an unimaginably chaotic year with many ups and downs, both Denzel and I received our USMLE Step 1 scores this morning. If you have followed our journey this past year you will know it has been anything but typical or easy. The past ten months have been mentally, physically and emotionally taxing. But today, we are filled with joy and pride! We are happy to announce we both received passing scores on the USMLE Step 1 exam.

In January I put a target score on a piece of paper and taped in on the wall in front of my desk. When I looked at that score, it didn’t honestly seem realistic. Deep down I had already settled on a lower score. Fast forward to October 8th when I took my exam, I went in with a completely different mind set. I put in the time and the work, I went in feeling like I deserved to take the USMLE Step 1 and I deserved the score I taped on my wall ten months earlier.

Achieving these scores certainly came from working hard, but more than that it came from fine tuning our study approach and our day-to-day routine.


Let’s go back to May 22 when we received our bitter sweet NBME results:

As a couple in medical school, you have two options. Either you meet goals separately and hope to meet up in the end, or you try to meet goals simultaneously to stay together as you go. Denzel and I have always had the goal of sticking together and meeting our goals as a united front. So, after getting conflicting score reports, we knew we had to do something different, but together to get to the next step. After trial and error (multiple errors), we figured out the missing piece was an effective and detailed study schedule.

The day we got our results, we sat down and spent a few hours cultivating a daily, detailed, five-week schedule. Denzel used that schedule to pass his NBME Comp with a 10% increase in his score! Since we knew this schedule worked, we fine tuned it and used the schedule as the basis of our USMLE study approach. If you are interested in our schedule, check out more info about it at this link and contact me!

Our holistic approach can be summed up in the following steps:

1. Choose resources and find a balance between them

The most effective study approach we found was a balance between MCQ’s and studying (reading and videos). Before I began studying for NBME Comp and Step, I had people giving me conflicting advice- do MCQs all day vs just study all day. What I found worked best for me was a balance between the two. I always started my day with MCQs and finished my day with studying. This way, I had well rounded practice and did not get bored with my studies.

For both Denzel and I, the most effective resources for success were UWorld, First Aid for the USMLE Step 1, Pathoma, Sketchy Pharm/Micro, and NBME practice exams. I dabbled in other resources, but always ended up coming back to these mainstays. Video lectures like DIT and RX did not help me establish long-term learning, I found they were more helpful in short term memory which is not what I wanted to achieve. In the end, these were the only resources I utilized to pass both NBME Comp and Step. My advice would be to choose your resources and stick to them, even if they are different from what I suggested.

In addition to following a schedule, I found making my own notecards was effective in memorizing points that were not sticking with me. For example, when I would review my UWorld block or NBME practice test, I would make notecards on subjects I continuously got wrong or did not know at all. I did not waste too much time writing down facts I already knew. Don’t forget to actually review the notecards you make! I separated mine by subject in zip lock bags and casually went through them when time allowed. I also spent an entire day, two days before my exam, going through all of my notecards one more time.

2. Create and stick to a schedule

Once you have a schedule created that covers everything you want to cover before your exam, you are prepared to succeed. There is no more worrying about “will I get everything done?” or “will I have the time?”. You have it on paper, and now all you have to worry about is getting what you assigned done each day. That said, there will be days you get behind or days you need a break. Reassign the tasks to other days and do not beat yourself up about it.

3. Trust the process, mindset is everything

In general, I feel like doubting yourself through medical school is common. It wasn’t until I started at Ross that I found myself constantly second guessing my knowledge and always asking “am I good enough?”. That feeling and doubt did not go away when I started studying for NBME Comp and Step 1. Having to take Comp multiple times definitely doesn’t help that feeling either.

The most important lesson I learned after I passed Comp on my third attempt was this- trust that your efforts will lead to results. There was a point in my studies where I realized I am good enough and I deserve to take and to PASS this exam. Once I started repeating that to myself and stopped repeating that I was not smart enough, I manifested success instead of failure. My UWorld scores went up, my NBME scores went up and I finally felt like subjects that were “too hard” became understandable and possible.

No matter how many people believed in me, I knew I needed to believe in myself to pass and do well on this test. Everything changed when I stopped standing in my own way.

4. Remember you are still a human

Studying for 10+ hours per day is not easy and it isn’t “normal”. I don’t think our bodies were created to sit and study for hours on end. This is what makes studying for Comp and Step so incredibly challenging- emotionally, mentally and physically.

There were days during these past 10 months that I broke down, I did not want to continue studying and I wanted to quit. There were days where I couldn’t focus enough to get effective studying in. There were MANY days where I was too tired to study.

Staying healthy while dedicating your life and days to studying is difficult! Getting to the gym for even an hour and attempting to cook healthy meals is sometimes too time consuming to fit in your schedule. I certainly would not say I feel my best self physically or mentally after these 10 months of studying, but I think it is important to give yourself credit for the hard work you have done. And to step back and remember, this is not your forever! This is temporary.

That said, it IS important to have breaks and take care of yourself to the best of your ability. For Denzel and me, that meant going on weekly dates (Tuesday discount movie night!), going to the gym about 5 times a week, taking a day or half a day off here and there, and not missing important events. There was even a time that I took three whole weeks off, it is something I had to do to come back with energy and determination to reboot my studies for Step 1.

5. The most important day- the day BEFORE the test

I spoke about this in my last blog post, but now that we have received our scores I feel even stronger that it is CRUCIAL to take the day before your exam off completely.

I mean ZERO studying. No… not even a Sketchy video. Not even a notecard. I mean NOTHING! Fill the day with relaxation.

Denzel and I spent time doing hot yoga, a massage, a nice lunch date, watching movies and most importantly, going to bed early. I really believe this got both of our minds prepared for test day.

What if I didn’t finish my last 10 Sketchy videos I meant to watch?

Doesn’t matter! Taking this day off is even more beneficial than the slight chance that all 10 of those Sketchy videos show up on test day.

Trust me (if you feel so inclined), it is a life changing strategy.

6. Dealing with the anxiety of waiting for and opening your results

When we finished our test, we just felt weird. A mix of “ok that wasn’t terrible” and “I might have failed, who knows”. Once you have taken your test, it takes about 3-4 weeks to receive your scores and its usually on a Wednesday (unless there is some delay in scoring). I think the best way to avoid the overwhelming anxiety of waiting on your score is to stay busy.

For us, that meant getting back to a good gym routine, seeing friends, spending time with family, going on a getaway or vacation, and focusing on the next step (preparing for clinical rotations). For the most part, this helped keep my mind consumed.

Whenever thoughts came up about passing or doing well, I would say to Denzel, “Do you think we passed? We passed right?” and he would say “I think so…” and we would just move on with the day. There were also some questions I just could not get out of my mind that I knew I got wrong or I couldn’t figure out the answer to. I think talking about them out loud helped me accept that I could never get everything right and just because I remember questions I got wrong doesn’t mean I failed.

My advice- address the worry and then let it go. Once you have taken your test and walked out, it is out of your hands and hopefully you have gone in knowing that you gave it all you got! All that is left is to believe in your preparation and yourself and just be patient.

Two days before our results came out, I had a feeling that it would be coming that Wednesday. The anxiety started kicking in then, a mix of excitement and fear! We got our scores on Halloween, three weeks after our exam. I woke up that morning and saw the email, you then have to log in to retrieve your results. Denzel and I opened it at the same time and I swear we never felt as much joy as we did when we viewed our scores side by side- WE PASSED and we met our goal! After working so incredibly hard since starting medical school, we both were filled with pride, but also feeling humbled by the long, challenging climb to this achievement.

It has been a journey, and we are grateful and blessed to have had the support of family and friends. I know that one study approach does not work for all people, but I believe this approach can work for most, especially students like myself who need structure and might be at a loss for what to do next. Please feel free to reach out to us if you need any help in revamping your study approach or if you are interested in our study schedule (more info about our schedule here).

I am excited to start blogging more often about life, love and medical school!

Next stop: Internal Medicine Foundations in Miami, Florida

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  • Reply
    A D
    November 3, 2018 at 10:04 pm

    Congrats! WIll you be doing a score reveal?

    • Reply
      November 3, 2018 at 10:44 pm

      Hi no we decided not to do that.

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