Think about the last time you were engaged in conversation, and your eyes and part of your attention drifted to read and respond to a text message while still paying enough attention to the speaker to engage in conversation. What would have been overtly rude not too long ago is now commonplace and expected. While we are becoming excellent multitaskers, able to scan through one thing while entertaining another, we are becoming more and more distracted. Therefore, it is more imperative than it ever was before to maintain focus when focus is due. This is especially true when you are studying intensely for the USMLE Step 1 and 2 CK. Here are the 3 big mistakes that feel completely innocuous, but when looked at objectively, can definitely hamper your studying.

Mistake #1: Granting yourself mini-rewards

We’ve all been here. You complete your hour-long question block, and are proud of yourself for pushing through. As a reward, why not a quick check of Facebook or the Reddit main page? After all, you’ve earned it right? And a mental break will help your studying, no? But then you get sucked down a wormhole, and find yourself reading Wikipedia pages about Charizard or Iwo Jima. Do we really care about these things, or are we just searching for the dopamine rush of a liked picture or unexpected friend request?

When it comes to your intensive studying period leading up to your exam (and throughout medical school, in fact), you should take measures to avoid these distractions. Answers to your question block should be reviewed immediately after completing the questions, while you are still inside your 100% medical mind, not while 15% of your brain is lamenting about there being too many pictures of babies on Instagram. After all, on test day, you will need to be focused and present for about 8 straight hours — you might as well start building that stamina now. Sure, grab a drink, use the bathroom, but don’t lose energy and mindspace to these time-sinks.

Mistake #2: Not setting yourself up for success

As you progress through your clinical practice, you will learn the art of “setting yourself up for success.” Placing a difficult IV? Get yourself into a comfortable position with all the tools you need at your disposal, and the plugged-in ultrasound machine in a logical position. Pulling a chest tube? You want your patient in the optimal position, educated on their responsibility to exhale/hum/Valsalva on command, with your occlusive dressing within reach. The same art holds true for studying. Have your references (First Aid) and notepad close at hand, and close all other programs on your computer. Don’t carry on a Gchat conversation while studying! Set your phone to airplane mode, get your headphones on if you are in public, and shut the door to your office.

Mistake #3: Not striving to emulate test conditions (silence, timed, posture)

Perhaps the most important thing you can do during your devoted pre-test studying is to emulate the actual test conditions. The closer your setup and environment is to the test center, the more natural Test Day will feel. Now, I’m not suggesting that 100% of your studying be done alone at a desk; there is definite value to studying with others, getting outside, and seeing other humans during this often isolating time. But at the very least, you must spend a decent amount of time performing under the conditions you expect on Test Day. This means sitting with good posture and mental devotion at a desk, not doing all your question blocks on your iPad on the couch. Also, don’t get into the habit of only doing question blocks with music on—this can make the silence of the test center feel crippling.

The biggest mistake I see students make is doing too great a proportion of their blocks on Timed Tutor mode instead of Timed. Don’t get me wrong; timed tutor mode is useful, but you shouldn’t get in the habit of expecting a green check or red X after every question. Plus, switching your mind from active question-answering mode to passive explanation-reading mode 44 times is radically different from the test environment, where you produce answers constantly for hours on end.


These small changes in your study habits can go a long way. While tiny distractions don’t feel they are much of a hangup, they are definitely NOT helping you master the fund of knowledge necessary for your USMLE exams. It is crucial to be honest with yourself! If you truly want to excel, you have to take the measures to set yourself up for success. I’ve written before about the best lesson from one of my first mentors— be 100% on when you are on, and 100% off when you are off. Give everything you have to working when you are working, and don’t think about it at all when you are relaxing. Let there be in-betweens. Real life distractions (family, sirens, hunger) will always exist, but do what it takes to maintain as much focus as possible, and you will benefit immensely.

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Brian Radvansky

Brian Radvansky

USMLE Tutor & Senior Writer
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