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WeAllStumbleYour Step exam is just around the corner and you're looking to squeeze as many points out of that test as possible. What else can you do to crush your exam?

With an exam that rewards good test taking skills as much as a good knowledge base, avoiding common mistakes when it comes to answering questions is an absolute must, and can mean the difference between a good and a more competitive score.

So, here are three of the most common and easily-fixable mistakes veteran students still make that can help you win back key points on test day!

1. Not letting the easy questions be easy

This first mistake is a very common mistake that I’ve seen veteran studiers make all the time. We’ve all had multiple choice questions where we think, “It can’t possibly be this easy. I must be missing something.” So we think hard and in crazy directions to rationalize an equally crazy answer that is ultimately wrong. When we review the question we kick ourselves because it really was that easy and should have been a free point.

Students do this because we never get over the expectation that board questions are supposed to feel really hard. This feeling persists despite hundreds of hours spent studying and makes very prepared students get simple questions wrong. Remember that the USMLE is not out to trick you. Prepared students should be confident enough to let the easy questions be easy and not get in their own way.

2. Picking an answer choice simply because you don’t recognize it

The second mistake is something students do frequently when feeling defeated by a question. I call this mistake “raising the white flag.” Many students underestimate their knowledge and ability when it comes to answering questions. Thus, when faced with a question without a readily apparent answer, many students assume the answer must be something they’ve never learned and thus pick the unfamiliar answer. Ironically many of these questions are perfectly answerable and the student simply gives up too quickly.

I tell my veteran students that if they've prepared right for the exam, they will rarely see questions where the correct answer is something they have never seen before. More likely it's just a different approach to a common or easier concept. In these situations I urge students to go back to the stem as they have often skipped over or missed a certain key piece of information that suggests the more simple answer, and lo and behold they get it right!

3. Changing answers without being able to explicitly explain why

This last mistake is one of the more frustrating mistakes students see themselves making over and over. Many students make their way through a question stem piece by piece, logically thinking over each piece of information. They predict an answer and notice to their delight that it is in fact one of the answer choices.

However, here’s where things go wrong: Students feel the need to rule out every other answer choice. During this process of perusing the other choices, students encounter something that seems plausible and choose — without regard for their previous thinking — to switch their answer and ultimately get the question wrong. When I ask my students why they did that, they're often left questioning the thinking themselves. The advice I give these students is not to change their answers unless they can explain to me explicitly why the new answer is better. This has lead to more correct questions and higher scores!

I hope this has been helpful! Remember to continue to practicing your own approach to answering multiple choice questions — it's a crucial part of your preparation for the board exams. Diligent practice and thoughtful review are the keys to a high score.

If you do stumble on your big day, like Jennifer Lawrence did, just know that we all make mistakes, brush yourself off and move forward with as much grace as you can muster. (After all, life's too short to take ourselves too seriously, no?)

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Eli Freiman

Eli Freiman

Eli is finishing up his last year of medical school at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and is pursuing a career in Pediatrics with an interest in Oncology. He has a record of excellence in medical school with high test scores and honors in all of this clerkships. In addition to working with MST, Eli has a strong interest in advocacy and organized medicine, serving as a student leader in the AMA and AAP. Eli is excited to be a member of the elite Med School Tutors team and looks forward to helping students everywhere achieve their academic goals.
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