HealthJune 25, 2020

Does cramming have a place in USMLE prep?

By: Ogie M. Ezeoke, MD

Getting ready to study for Step 1? Use these tips to keep cramming out of your USMLE prep strategy.

As you enter the dedicated study period for your first United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE), otherwise known as Step 1, you may be facing some pressure to follow a detailed USMLE prep plan. Your plan most likely takes into account your strengths, your most challenging topics and the time you have before the test.

But even with a strong USMLE prep strategy, your progress may not keep up with your planned timeline. Cramming in as much information as possible may seem like the answer to this conundrum, but your results may vary. While the USMLE assesses preclinical knowledge, it also requires stamina to complete the eight-hour test and a well-rested mind to recognize the described pathology and recall the associated physiology in the given system. Cramming, unfortunately, isn't conducive to such critical thinking, and you may be better of adjusting your test date to match your level of readiness.

Are you cramming?

Your USMLE prep plan may involve completing a certain percentage of your review by certain dates, with intermittent assessments to track your progress. If you find yourself rushing through material or skipping different aspects of a topic with the goal of simply completing it, you may be cramming. Seeing a downward trend in your assessment scoring is a definite sign to reassess the quality of your studying, as is skipping assessments altogether with a focus more on knowledge-gathering than on practice.

When you aren't able to fully review a topic, you merely skim the explanations behind a question stem or you don't complete any learning assessments, you end up losing some value in your studying. The sheer volume of information the USMLE tests is vast but finite; getting comfortable with the knowledge and pulling from it to work through clinical cases is doable, but it requires time and practice.

How can you avoid cramming?

The most important way to develop a cram-free USMLE prep schedule is to give yourself adequate time. Think about taking an assessment like a USMLE practice test early in the year you plan to take your Step 1. This will give you a general idea of what you've retained and how well you can use your preclinical knowledge. Knowing where you stand will allow you to develop a study model that focuses on your areas of weakness without sacrificing additional topics. Efficient studying will turn into effective practice and keep you on track and away from any need for cramming. Personalized digital tutors like Firecracker can help design a study schedule suited to your individual needs, with realistic time frames that support sufficient learning and practice.

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Most medical schools give you a predefined time window to take your exam, when you're free from lectures or clinical duties. However, you can incorporate your USMLE prep throughout the year. Consider using USMLE-style practice questions to reinforce lecture topics and to help you think further about both the physiology and potential pathology of any organ system. Preparing yourself in small steps along the way to your test will allow for a more fluid transition from traditional medical school studying to your dedicated period.

What if you run out of study time?

While running out of Step 1 study time is certainly not ideal, it can happen for any number of reasons. Life's emergencies, from medical to family, may arise during your study period and can disrupt a perfectly planned study schedule.

Reaching out to your medical school as soon as possible is critical. Your advisers can help you reschedule your test if necessary - with guidance on any potential financial support - and can waive school requirements regarding test completion, allowing you adequate time to prepare for the exam.

Cramming for a test is likely to add additional stress to an already difficult situation, which means it's not conducive to effective learning. Remember to always ask for help, and you'll be able to stay on track for success in your USMLE preparation.

Ogie M. Ezeoke, MD
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