What Are the Best Ways to Study for the USMLE®?

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  • Written By: M. Walker
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 15 December 2019
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The United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE®) is a multi-step test taken by medical students and practicing physicians at different points in their career. USMLE® prep often involves learning the material taught in medical school courses, practicing with standardized patients and practice exams, and taking study courses or purchasing study books. Many in the medical community study for the USMLE® throughout their early careers to lessen the pressure of cramming just before the test.

There are three separate sections that comprise this professional exam. Step 1 is generally taken after the second year of medical school, and is made up of multiple choice questions on topics such as anatomy, physiology, normal and abnormal systems, and other interdisciplinary areas. Students take Step 2 in the fourth year of medical school, and it is a two-part exam made up of multiple-choice questions and simulated patients that focuses mostly on the clinical aspects of medicine. After the first year of residency, medical doctors take Step 3, a written, multiple-choice, and practical exam using simulated patients. Students and doctors must use different methods for each section to successfully study for the USMLE® because each exam tests different material and different skills.


For Step 1, it can be incredibly beneficial for first and second year medical students to thoroughly know and understand their course material. The USMLE® tests a wide range of basic science and anatomical knowledge, which can make cramming very difficult. It’s generally best to have a solid understanding of the material first so that study time can be used to review unfamiliar or difficult concepts instead of to memorize a large number of facts.

Other important strategies to study for the USMLE® include utilizing practice exams, volunteer standardized patients, and working in study groups with other students or doctors. Not only will this help test takers get a better feel for the test itself, but it will also expose them to more resources. Standardized patient volunteers can also vary the difficulty level of their interviews by withholding information until certain questions are asked. Study groups can be a huge benefit as well because they help students develop a better understanding of some topics by teaching them to others.

Many students also purchase test prep books or take professionally taught courses to study for the USMLE®. These resources can be incredibly helpful, especially for Step 1 because they can provide a thorough and accurate review of a wide range of topics that are likely to be covered by the exam. While sometimes expensive, many students find these methods to be well worth it for a solid score.



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