It never fails. I meet with a new USMLE Step 1 student for our first tutoring session together and I ask him to bring all of his study materials with him. He brings a pile of books that would require Herculean strength just to carry, along with a stack of DVDs. He also tells me which Qbanks he plans to use.
“What am I missing?” he says to me, concerned that he forgot the secret ingredient to acing Step 1.
I take 3 books out of the pile and leave all the rest, including the DVDs. “You will use these 3 books, a Qbank, and almost nothing else. Trust me, you’re better off using fewer resources and mastering them than skimming over many resources and not knowing any of them well.”
At this point, I usually get a mixed look of relief and disbelief, and I often have to spend quite a bit of time convincing the student that all those extraneous resources are just not necessary. In the process, I then explain the best USMLE study resources and how to make optimal use of each one.
The key points of the conversation are as follows:
Fewer Resources = Better Performance
It is true of most things in life that the people who excel the most are those who master the basics, rather than spending an enormous amount of time on minutiae with little pay off. The USMLE Step 1 exam is no different. Although the exam covers a great deal of material, it is actually a pretty predictable exam. This means that most of your exam preparation time should be spent studying things you know are going to be well represented, or “hi-yield,” on the exam.
There are a few study resources that have perfected the art of predicting what will be tested on the exam. These are the USMLE study resources that top scorers use and are the only study resources we recommend that every student use for Step 1 prep:
- First Aid for the USMLE Step 1
- USMLE World question bank
- NBME assessment exams
These resources will cover at least 90% of what you are likely to encounter on USMLE Step 1, and have been proven effective by tens of thousands of test takers over the years.
Note: Because a good understanding of physiology and pathology is required to perform well on USMLE Step 1, we often suggest BRS Physiology and Pathoma as well (but these are not required for every student).
However, these 5 resources are the absolute maximum amount of resources that most students should use.
Right about now, you're probably asking how this could be possible. The answer is that the key to USMLE Step 1 success is not quantity of resources, but rather quality of resource use.
So, you may wonder, “Great! Now I know which resources to use, but how the heck do I use them?” I’m glad you asked.
Often referred to as the Bible (for good reason), First Aid for the USMLE Step 1 should be seen as the backbone of your study program. Knowing this book cover-to-cover is necessary for achieving a good score on the exam and should be your goal.
This book outlines all of the hi-yield material covered on the exam, as well as some of the more obscure material that often shows up. The key to using this book is not just to read it, but to breathe it in and make sure you understand every last inch of it.
Flashcards will also be your best friend here. First Aid is a very dense book and flashcards will allow you to memorize the details found in First Aid by reviewing them over and over again until you own them.
Practice questions will also help to bring the information in First Aid to life in a more clinical and contextual fashion, so let's cover your best USMLE question bank now.
Understanding the material presented in First Aid and memorizing the details will only get you but so far. In order to do well on Step 1 of the USMLE, you must be able to apply the material in the myriad ways you may confront it on test day. This is where USMLE World comes in.
Of all the Qbanks out there, USMLE World has the best proven record for helping students excel on Step 1. In our experience with thousands of students, we've found that UWorld’s question style is as close as it gets to the actual USMLE. In addition, the difficulty level of USMLE World questions is at least as hard, if not harder, than the actual exam. This builds confidence for test day, and makes you less likely to freeze up when you get the harder questions on the exam because you'll be prepared.
Lastly, one of the greatest assets of USMLE World is the answer explanations. These are an essential learning resource as they are well written and cover every correct and incorrect answer in detail. If studied carefully, they can also teach you how to better dissect questions on the exam. (We will cover dissecting UWorld questions more extensively in a future post.)
NBME Self Assessment Exams
Would you go into any high stakes situation such as an important job interview without specifically practicing for it? Would you buy an expensive new car without taking it for a test drive first? Of course not! You want to be prepared for life’s most important moments by going through the motions in a lower stakes environment.
NBME assessment exams allow you to do just that. They allow you to sit for a half-length exam that very much resembles the actual USMLE Step 1. In addition, the score breakdowns allow you to assess your weak areas and, thus, to prioritize the subjects you need most to improve, which in turn allows flexible customization of your study plan as you go through it.
NBME assessment exams are also highly predictive of how well you will do on the real exam, thus allowing you to assess readiness to take the exam. We recommend that all students make extensive use of NBME assessment exams during their exam preparation (for a more in-depth look at NBME assessment exams see this post).
What about all the other resources?
We know that there are literally a hundred or more other resources out there covering parts or all of the USMLE curriculum. Literally 95% of them just aren’t well made, are not kept up to date, are too generic, or are otherwise poorly organized. Stick with these fundamentals and only add to them as absolutely necessary (e.g., Pathoma and BRS Physio).
We’ll be covering some other new resources, like Picmonic and Firecracker, in subsequent post, but here’s a quick spoiler: They’re not bad, but they’re also not essential. Master First Aid, USMLE World and the NBME exams first! You won’t regret it.
In the next post in this series, we share the most detailed USMLE Step 1 study schedule sample you'll find online.
New to this series? Read Part One: The Most Essential Elements of a USMLE Study Plan