Developing a Study Strategy for the USMLE Step 1


Last week on the blog, we provided an overview of the USMLE Step 1, discussing the format of the test and its general content. Passing this exam is the first major hurdle for foreign medical graduates who are applying for ECFMG certification, so if you are a foreign medical student or graduate considering applying for a U.S. medical residency in the future, getting a good score on the USMLE Step 1 can help you on your way to achieving you goal. To get that passing score, you need to come up with a study strategy that properly prepares you for test day. Read on to learn more about what you need to do to get ready for this crucial exam!

Knowing What You Will Be Tested On

In general, the USMLE Step 1 covers the basics of medical science and organ systems. Therefore, regardless of the country where you attended medical school, you have probably been exposed to most of the concepts on the test at some point in your education. Given that the content of the test will probably be familiar to you, the main goal of studying for the USMLE Step 1 is not to learn new things, but to refresh your memory on the subjects that the test emphasizes.

Not all subjects are given equal weight on the USMLE Step 1. The group of American and Canadian teachers, researchers, and clinicians who design the test believe that some academic concepts are more relevant for today’s physicians than others, and the USMLE Step 1 is structured according to their believes. There are two ways that the test specifications of the USMLE Step 1 may be divided, according to the test makers: based on Systems and Processes and based on Physician Tasks and Competencies. Knowing how the content of the USMLE Step 1 is divided within each of these schemes can help you design an effective study strategy.

If you are looking at the USMLE Step 1 through the lens of Systems and Processes, the test can be broken down based on the specific nature of the content on which you will be tested.

The following are the systems that you will find on the USMLE Step 1, along with the proportion of the test that each one takes up:

  • General principles of foundational science: 15% – 20%
  • Organ systems: 60% – 70%
  • Multisystem Processes and disorders, biostatistics and epidemiology / population health, social sciences: 15% – 20%

These are the processes that you will be tested on when you take the USMLE Step 1, along with the proportion of the test that each one takes up:

  • Normal processes: 10% – 15%
  • Abnormal processes: 55% – 60%
  • Principles of therapeutics: 15% – 20%
  • Other processes: 10% – 15%

Another way to approach the USMLE Step 1 is through the lens of Physician Tasks and Competencies. From this perspective, the test designers break down the USMLE Step 1 into the following competencies:

  • Medical knowledge / scientific concepts: 55% – 65%
  • Patient care: diagnosis (including laboratory / diagnostic studies, diagnosis, and prognosis / outcome): 20% – 30%
  • Patient care: management (including health maintenance, disease prevention, and pharmacotherapy): 7% – 12%
  • Communication and professionalism: 2% – 5%
  • Practice-based learning and improvement: 4% – 8%

Now that you know about the two ways in which the content of the USMLE Step 1 is organized, you can design a study strategy that focuses specifically on the topics that are most heavily emphasized on the test and the topics that you may not remember well from medical school. However, you also need to prepare yourself for the way in which questions will be asked on the test.

Preparing for the Questions on the USMLE Step 1

All of the questions on the USMLE Step 1 are multiple choice, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it will be easy. In most cases, the test questions will not ask you directly about specific medical facts. Rather, you will be challenged to apply your knowledge to solve problems, interpret data, and address real-life scenarios. Therefore, in addition to brushing up on your knowledge of medical science, organ systems, and basic physician tasks, you should make sure that you are familiar with USMLE Step 1-style questions before test day. As you develop your study strategy, you should block out a good proportion of time to completing practice questions. That way, when test day finally comes, you can successfully navigate the toughest questions with a sense of ease and familiarity.

It is important to note that the USMLE Step 1 is a timed test, so some of the practice tests you complete should be timed. Usually, timed practice tests should come late in your study schedule. That way, when you first start working on practice questions, you won’t feel undue pressure to rush through them. Later, as the test approaches, you can learn how fast you need to work through each section to complete the test within the time limit.

Overall, if you are familiar with the structure of the USMLE Step 1 and the types of questions you will see on the test, you can develop a study strategy that will get you ready for success on test day — and well on your way to earning ECFMG certification and getting matched to a U.S. medical residency!


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