Surviving Step 1: Study Methods

By Walter Wiggins

The evaluation of your study process should be continual throughout medical school. However, it is particularly important to fine-tune your study methods in the months leading up to your dedicated study period for Step 1. It is important to evaluate the things you’re doing well and the things you aren’t doing as well, so that you can maximize your efficiency with studying each subject. You’ll likely find that what works well for you in one subject does not work as well in other areas. There may be other aspects of your study process that change as time goes along, as well. This post will cover some of the stumbling blocks I ran across and the “executive decisions” I made to get around them.

There are a few simple things that can hang you up without you necessarily realizing it, until you pay attention to them. First, I often found that after studying in one location for a long period of time, I started to get restless and lose focus. This is easy to fix, as you simply need to vary your study location a little to avoid getting into a frustrating rut. Similarly, I often found myself bored with the same daily routine. Switching up my daily routine was enough to get me back into a good flow. Finally, after weeks of studying alone, particularly when I was studying for Step 1, I started to get something akin to cabin fever. Adding a little small group study – most of the time with just one other person who complemented my learning style – greatly relieved this feeling.

Sometimes a simple fix isn’t enough. There may be a fundamental flaw in your approach to studying. Two great ways to track your progress are question banks and periodic (though, not too frequent) self-assessments. Many people will want to save these resources for their dedicated study period. Practice questions for the preclinical years can be found in resources such as the Pretest series of subject-specific question books. If you’re not making consistent improvements in your scores, you may need to reevaluate your approach. I found that questions weren’t sufficient to memorize all of the bugs and drugs you encounter during the preclinical years and on Step 1 and reading about them was MISERABLE. So, for these topics, I made a switch to flashcards (not those textbooks on a 5×7 card you’ll find at your bookstore, real flashcards with high-yield, fast facts). This greatly improved my progress and I could see that reflected in my performance on practice questions.

In summary, few people will find that they can sustain the same approach to studying throughout the preclinical years and their dedicated study period. Small changes can make a big difference with respect to improving your ability to focus, but some big changes may be necessary. Regardless, it is vital to your success that you are constantly evaluating your progress and, hence, your study process. If it’s not working, you need to change it. If it is, then you’ll know and that can give you a major confidence boost.

Got any study methods you’d like to share? Post them below!


2 thoughts on “Surviving Step 1: Study Methods”

  1. While studying micro, my professor suggested that instead of memorizing each bug and its distinguishing characteristics, we should memorize the infection and disease process that the bug would cause in a patient. The best way that I found to do this was by making a quick flow chart for each bug. During exams, I recognized key words from the question prompts, visualized my flow charts, and traced my way back to the bug or whatever information the question asked me about. Since then, I’ve found that flow charts are a great way for me to remember just about everything.

    I agree that studying alone and in the same place can be confining mentally. Studying near a window helps me take little concentration breaks after I finish a concept without taking up too much time.

    I started my step 1 studying a couple of days ago. Thank you for the tips!

  2. I’m glad you’ve found a system that works for you, as micro can be quite challenging. Thanks for sharing and good luck with Step 1!

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