The first two years of medical school can be incredibly daunting. Attending lecture after lecture, taking two to three exams every week, and spending nearly every minute of the day looking at Powerpoint slides with topics ranging from parasitic tapeworms to the Krebs cycle. And then to top it all off, just as you’ve trudged through that last final exam and are ready to plunge into the world of clinicals, you realize that you only have four to six weeks to study for, arguably, the most difficult exam of your scholastic venture to date: COMLEX Level 1.
You’re exhausted and intimidated by the mere idea of the 16+ hours a day you still need to dedicate in order to achieve the score you want. Your future career depends on it. I’ve been there. I’ve survived.
I successfully took and actually overshot my desired score. My purpose in writing this brief blog post is to give you a few simple tips that will help you succeed in getting the score you want on test day.
My first piece of advice is about time management and consistency. Grab a calendar, mark when you’re test date is, and write down the number of weeks until test day. I started studying COMLEX Level 1 material in January of my second year. This was incredibly stressful for me, as I was already devoting most of my time to keeping up with current lecture material. So I had to take a step back and set up some realistic expectations. I started by devoting 30 minutes-1 hour a day to Level 1 studying. This meant doing about 20 questions from UWORLD, or reading through sections of First Aid. As March approached, I began to devote a total of 90 minutes to two hours daily. By this time, I was used to setting aside concrete studying time for COMLEX Level 1 material on a daily basis, so extending that time by thirty minutes once not nearly as daunting. With each progressive week and month, I again lengthened my dedicated study time until finally finishing my second year curriculum. This brings me back to my first piece of advice: mark that calendar, and set up an arbitrary amount of time you will study each day. Make it realistic. Don’t start with three hours. Realize that there will be some days that you will not study as much, and other days that you will have more free time and can study more. Once your lecture workload lessens, add more time. The key to success is consistency.
My next piece of advice is related to the first: don’t sacrifice your grades for your COMLEX Level 1 score. Realize that when you start studying, you probably haven’t finished courses like Pharmacology, Pathophysiology, and Microbiology, which will make up the bulk of your exam. A common error I see with second years is that they feel like they need to devote five-six hours a day reviewing everything they’ve forgotten in first year. They feel that grades don’t matter as much, and will cram the night before the exam. Instead of internalizing and really learning the material, they’re memorizing, and will forget the new material the moment they leave the testing center.
This is why it is crucial to start with a small amount of time for Level 1 studying on a daily basis, and work your way up. If you dedicate the time to actually learn the new material, you’ll save more time in the long run.
Instead of learning a bunch of new material a month before the exam, you will be doing your second or third pass at it. You’ll have a better understanding and will perform better on test day. One way I combated this error was by annotating First Aid alongside my second year material. For instance, the night before a Pharmacology test for Cardiology, I used my dedicated Level 1 studying time that day to read and annotate the Cardiology Drug section in First Aid. By so doing, I reinforced knowledge I already had to prepare for my exam, and also added in pearls from class notes to review at a future time when studying for Level 1. It is indeed possible to study for exams and the boards at the same time!
Finally, a few words regarding study materials. As you’ve probably realized, there are a lot of products that are marketed for Level 1 studying. The most important advice I can offer is to choose two or three, and stick with them! If you dive into ten different books, you’ll end up skimming and not actually internalizing the information. Most books are designed to cover all of the material you’re likely to see on test day.
One obvious must-use is First Aid for USMLE Step 1. This is the most comprehensive material out there. It is very dense and daunting to get through the first time.
I’d recommend getting through a first pass before your dedicated study time for COMLEX Level 1, perhaps by annotating alongside your second year curriculum. Passes two and three will be a lot faster if you do it that way. Next, you need two to three solid question banks. UWORLD is absolutely crucial. It not only assesses knowledge, but allows you to learn material in the process. I’d recommend starting with 10-15 questions a day with subjects you’ve already learned. Don’t include subjects like Neurology if your school hasn’t covered them yet! You’ll just waste time and get frustrated in the process. Also, some students recommend using Anki Flashcards or a google document to write down questions you’ve missed and review them on a regular basis. This is a fantastic way to reinforce material you are weaker on. If you’re the type of learner that needs help motivating yourself to study on a daily basis, using a program like MedSchoolCoach with private tutoring is a great option. Having individualized attention can aid in the learning process and keep you accountable in studying every day.
COMLEX Level 1 is an incredibly difficult exam, and perhaps more daunting than test day is the weeks and months leading up to it.
I hope that what I’ve mentioned here helps in some way to calm your nerves, but also to convince you to take action now to start making a study plan. Start small, with a bit of time each day, but stay consistent. Don’t neglect your second year curriculum. And finally, fully invest in just a few books or Question Banks instead of dabbling in a dozen. Doing this will help you in getting the score you want to get that dream residency. If you need COMLEX Level 1 tutoring, check out MedSchoolCoach.
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