USMLE Step 1 Prep: Pro Tips and the Best Study Resources

How to Study for USMLE Step 1 [Plus, the Best Study Resources]


Posted in: USMLE & COMLEX

The USMLE, or United States Medical Licensing Examination, is a pivotal series of exams for medical professionals. The exams are divided into 3 distinct steps, each assessing different aspects of a medical professional’s knowledge and skills.

The USMLE Step 1 is an eight-hour exam evaluating your medical knowledge and its practical application. It’s designed to assess your grasp of core medical concepts across various domains, emphasizing the interplay between basic sciences and clinical scenarios. 

Achieving success on Step 1 not only demonstrates your competency but also greatly influences your future residency program opportunities. I’ve compiled expert tips to take the guesswork out of studying so you can confidently prepare for test day. Let’s dive in.

We can help you boost your USMLE scores for a better shot at the residency of your choice.

Begin Studying When You Start Medical School

Contrary to the MCAT, which typically requires 4-6 months of dedicated study, the USMLE Step 1 is an examination that you essentially prepare for alongside your medical school curriculum.  Instead of adhering to a strict study schedule, your preparation becomes an integral part of your ongoing medical education. Consistency, discipline, and adaptability are key to your success in the USMLE Step 1 exam. I advise hundreds of students preparing for the USMLE each year on how to increase their chances for success. Here are my top 10 study tips for the USMLE Step 1 exam:
  • Allocate sufficient time: Ideally, students will start preparing for the Step 1 exam from the first day of medical school. However, if you didn’t start already and are already in med school, I recommend at least 6 months of focused study.
  • Active learning: It’s essential to actively engage with the material to improve retention and recall. Repetition, especially through recall, is key, as each instance creates a new memory trace.
  • Choosing what to study: Review past exam materials from NBME self-assessments or the USMLE website. Stay updated with standard topics that tend to appear on the exam.
  • Master the material: Mastering the material involves 3 stages: learning basic terms and definitions, understanding central concepts, and applying these concepts in clinical settings.
  • Focus on weaker areas: Maintain an organized study schedule, focusing on weaker areas, and review related clusters of information in your study guide.
  • Trust your study methods: Create a structured study plan tailored to your learning style — it’s something you should know pretty well this far into the process. Don’t get overwhelmed by various study approaches. From workbooks to interactive lessons, focus on what works best for you and avoid comparing yourself to others.
  • Practice with realistic questions: Utilize practice questions to get accustomed to the exam format and types of questions.
  • Replicate real test conditions: When practicing for test day, mimic the actual test conditions, including time constraints.
  • Stay balanced and prioritize well-being: Maintain a balanced lifestyle with adequate sleep, nutrition, and short breaks to keep your mind and body in optimal condition.
  • Tap into expertise: Seek guidance from mentors, professors, or advisors who can offer valuable insights and support.

Choose the Most Effective Resources for You

By the time you tackle the USMLE Step 1, you’ve likely spent years honing your study skills. You know what works best for you, what resources resonate with your learning style, and how to maximize your efficiency. It’s crucial not to lose sight of this invaluable self-awareness.

Consider the resources that proved most effective for you during your MCAT preparation. Did you find success with specific textbooks, online question banks, or study groups? Chances are, those strategies will help you most when studying for Step 1.

Remember, time is a precious commodity during your USMLE journey. Avoid the pitfall of wasting it on resources you know deep down aren’t a good fit for your learning style. 

Trust in the methods that have brought you this far, and let your previous experiences guide your resource selection. This approach will help you make the most of your preparation and increase your chances of success on the USMLE Step 1.

Learn more about how we can help you ace your licensing exams.

The 8 Best USMLE Step 1 Study Resources

Embarking on your USMLE Step 1 journey requires a strategic selection of the best study materials. Here’s a curated list of the 9 best USMLE Step 1 study resources:

  1. The Best USMLE Step 1 Tutoring: Set yourself up for success with MedSchoolCoach USMLE Step 1 Tutoring Services. Our tutors have extensive knowledge of preparation resources and follow MedSchoolCoach’s personalized approach for each student.
  2. First Aid for the USMLE Step 1: This comprehensive guide is a must-have for every medical student. It covers the high-yield topics you’ll encounter on the exam and provides a structured approach to studying.
  3. UWorld Question Bank: UWorld is known for its high-quality practice questions and explanations. It’s an invaluable resource to test your knowledge and build test-taking skills.
  4. NBME Practice Exams: The National Board of Medical Examiners offers official practice exams that closely resemble the content outlines of the real test. They are essential for assessing your readiness. 
  5. USMLE Official Step 1 Materials: This is the official resource for preparing for Step 1 provided by the USMLE website.
  6. SketchyMedical: For visual learners, SketchyMedical offers mnemonic-based videos that make it easier to remember complex topics like microbiology and pharmacology.
  7. Anki: This flashcard program, along with pre-made decks like “Zanki” or “Brosencephalon,” can help you memorize facts and concepts efficiently.
  8. BRS Physiology: For a deep dive into physiology, BRS Physiology is a trusted resource.

Remember, the best resources for you may vary depending on your learning style and preferences. It’s essential to explore these options and choose the ones that align with your strengths and needs to create a personalized study plan for success on the USMLE Step 1.

When you work with MedSchoolCoach tutors to prepare for the USMLE, we’ll help you curate the right study resources for you and tutor you using any resources you already have available.

Focus Study Where Your Academic Performance Is Sub-Optimal

From my own journey, I’ve learned that the areas where I struggled the most during medical school were often the ones that continued to challenge me during USMLE Step 1 preparation. It’s a pattern I’ve seen with many aspiring doctors, and it underscores the significance of shoring up your academic weaknesses.

If you find that a specific subject or topic consistently tripped you up in med school, it’s almost certain that it will be a focal point on the Step 1 exam. The exam’s content aligns closely with the foundational knowledge taught in medical school, so any weak spots can be a stumbling block.

My advice is to prioritize these areas, dedicating extra time and effort to bring them up to par. Whether it’s pharmacology, pathology, or any other challenging subject, focus your study efforts there. Use your medical school coursework as a guide to pinpoint the topics that require the most attention. 

This targeted approach will not only enhance your understanding but also boost your confidence as you tackle Step 1.

Remember, it’s not about being perfect in every subject but ensuring that you’ve reached a solid level of competence across the board. This proactive strategy can make a world of difference in your Step 1 performance and help you on your journey to residency and becoming a successful doctor.

Take Practice Exams

Practice exams are a critical component of success. The National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) practice tests, in particular, are invaluable tools for gauging your readiness for the real thing.

I recommend taking the NBME practice exams multiple times throughout your preparation. These practice tests closely mimic the actual exam, and they’re an excellent way to assess your progress.

When taking these practice exams, it’s common to experience some nervousness and anxiety. The testing environment on the actual exam day can be quite different from your study space, which can affect your performance.

In my case, I found that my scores on practice exams at home were often slightly higher than my performance on the actual test day.

To account for this, here’s a helpful tip: Subtract 15-20 points from your practice exam scores to get a more realistic estimate of how you might perform under the pressure of the actual testing conditions. This can help you avoid any unwelcome surprises on exam day and better prepare mentally.

Pass the USMLE Step 1 Exam

The USMLE Step 1 recently transitioned from a numerical scoring system to a pass/fail format. This change reduces pressure on students and promotes a holistic approach to medical education. 

Despite this, performing well remains critical as it influences residency opportunities and assesses the application of medical knowledge in clinical scenarios. A pass demonstrates competency and readiness for the subsequent steps in the USMLE series, emphasizing the importance of thorough preparation.

You’ll need to score a minimum of 196 out of 300 points to pass.


The preparation for Step 1 is an ongoing process that integrates with your first two years of medical school. Ideally, it would take you those 2 years to prepare for the exam as part of your medical education. However, you need at least 6 months of dedicated study time before Step 1, especially if you haven’t studied since starting med school.

A dedicated four-month study period may facilitate strong performance on the exam if you’ve spent ample time strengthening your weak areas from day one of your medical education. But for most students, at least 6 months of dedicated study time is ideal for success.

Effective January 2022, USMLE Step 1 became a pass/fail assessment. To pass, you need a score of 196 out of a total of 300 points.

The USMLE Step 2 CK (Clinical Knowledge) exam is designed to assess a medical student or graduate’s clinical knowledge and skills. This exam focuses on the application of medical knowledge in clinical settings.

While there’s flexibility in the order you can take Step 1 and Step 2, many students opt to complete Step 1 at the close of their second year and Step 2 during their fourth year of medical school

The USMLE Step 3 may only be taken after passing both Step 1 and Step 2 CK. (I always recommend checking for updates, as policies can change.)

Qbanks refer to question banks. These are collections of practice questions, often available in digital format, designed to help medical students prepare for the exam. UWorld is one of the most popular Qbanks for medical students.

The United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) is a 3-part exam required for medical licensure in the United States. 

It evaluates a doctor’s competency in utilizing knowledge, concepts, and principles, as well as showcasing essential skills centered around the patient. These capabilities are crucial in both health and illness, forming the foundation for providing safe and efficacious care to patients.

The USMLE Step 1 exam is a one-day computer-based exam consisting of multiple-choice questions, typically scheduled toward the end of the second year of medical school.

The COMLEX (Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination) exams are a series of standardized medical exams specifically designed for osteopathic medical students. These exams are similar to the USMLE (they determine your residency eligibility), just for osteopathic students.

COMLEX assesses your understanding of medical concepts such as anatomy, biochemistry, behavioral sciences, microbiology, epidemiology, immunology, pathology, pharmacology, and physiology.

Get Experienced Support for USMLE Prep with MedSchoolCoach

If you’re gearing up for the USMLE and looking to maximize your chances of success, get the experienced support you need with MedSchoolCoach. 

Our team of expert advisors is here to guide you through this crucial journey, ensuring you’re well-prepared and confident on exam day. Your future in medicine starts here.
Picture of Joel Ramirez MD

Joel Ramirez MD

Dr. Ramirez is an integrated vascular surgery resident at UCSF who is passionate about teaching and tutoring for several board exams. He has served on the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine admissions committee and is committed to being a leader in medical education.

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