HealthOctober 24, 2016

How this Firecracker scored a 267 on USMLE Step 1

Developing smart and consistent study habits separates successful med students from the rest of the pack. Sarah is a third-year at Rutgers-NJMS who began using Firecracker about a year ago. Through reviewing first-year materials alongside her second-year coursework, she stamped a very comprehensive knowledgebase into her long-term memory. Sarah’s studies resulted in stupendous success on Step 1, and her study strategies are now second-nature for her clinical clerkships. She’s written this summary of how she did it for you:

”I currently attend Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. They have a systems-based curriculum now, but I’m a member of the last class to have the ‘traditional’ curriculum. I started using Firecracker a few months into M2, during our disease pathology/therapeutics class.

My husband is one year ahead of me in medical school, and he started using Firecracker a few months into his third year. He liked it and recommended it to me, because he thought it would be helpful for Step 1 preparation. I got a thirty-day free trial and liked it, so I bought a subscription through the end of my M3 year.

At the time I subscribed, my main goal with Firecracker was to keep material from all of my previous classes (i.e. all of the M1 stuff—biochem, anatomy, physiology, etc.—and previous system units as we progressed through pathology) fresh so that my studying during dedicated Step 1 prep time would be as efficient and painless as possible. My goal was to score above a 250, and I knew that I would have to be strong on everything to do that. Something I had heard from multiple upperclassmen during and after their Step 1 prep was that it was really difficult to get to a point where they were super solid on everything from M1 because it was just so long ago and it pretty much came down to cramming pathways during dedicated prep. I didn’t want to be in that position because a) I hate cramming and b) again, I knew that I couldn’t rely on cramming to get the score I wanted. Firecracker seemed like a much better way to keep past content fresh than sitting down and reading 20 random pages of old stuff in First Aid every day. Also in general, I think that the whole ‘active repetition’ (or whatever it’s called) model that Firecracker is based on is a much better way to learn than from passively reading or watching lectures. I definitely do think that reading has its place, especially when you’re learning the information for the very first time, but once you know it, I think active recall is a much better way to keep that information solid than passive reading.

For M3 so far, I’ve relied on Firecracker much more as a primary learning tool rather than just a refresher mechanism. So far I’ve finished the surgery and psych rotations. I got a raw score of 93 on the Psych Shelf and 89 raw on the Surgery Shelf. I honored both rotations, as both of those scores were well above the cutoff for honors. I anticipate that I did similarly well on the Neuro one. I’m on obgyn now and getting tons of pimp and uworld questions right thanks to Firecracker! Firecracker is just ridiculously convenient for everything about M3—from those awkward times in clinic in between patients, to getting in a few minutes of studying during lunch, it’s just so much more convenient to pull out your phone and do Firecracker cards than whip out a book or notepad or whatever else. I think that because of Firecracker, I got in a good 1 to 2 hours more of studying per day than my classmates who didn’t use Firecracker, because there would be many times when we would be stuck somewhere without our books that I would just be able to get out my phone and study from Firecracker and they would be stuck with nothing to do. In the preclinical years where you’re literally studying all day, an extra hour doesn’t sound like much, but once you’re on rotations an extra hour a day is HUGE, especially on surgery where you might not get more than two hours total (if that!) to study per day, or you might be too exhausted to study when you get home at 8 or 9 pm so maybe that hour of Firecracker during the day is all the studying you would get, period. Aside from the convenience factor, Firecracker has been really useful in M3 because there are simply fewer resources for learning rotation material than there were for all of the preclinical material. There’s not really a First Aid for Step 2 (I mean I know it exists, but it’s nowhere near as comprehensive as FA for Step 1), there’s no Pathoma, there are no school lectures to use as a framework, etc, etc. So, I realized I’ve been using Firecracker as my primary learning tool for M3 material from both the flashcards and the ability to search through the entire Firecracker fact database, which I think is a really undervalued tool. I can basically turn Firecracker into my own FA-like tool at this point with the addition of the Notes feature, because I can add stuff I learn elsewhere (UWorld, books, etc) and have it all in one place, which was how I used my annotated copy of FA during the preclinical years.

Much to my chagrin, I didn’t use Firecracker for any of my basic science classes, but I STRONGLY wish that I had. It would have made Step 1 prep even less painful!

During M2, I didn’t really use Firecracker as a primary learning too, but more of a refresher tool to keep all of my knowledge up. It’s not that I don’t think Firecracker is a fine way to learn stuff for the first time—see my thoughts about Firecracker for rotations below—but just because there are SO many primary learning tools to use during the preclinical years. Between Pathoma and Goljan Rapid Review for all things pathology, great review books like Costanzo for physiology and others, and the innumerable other resources like Sketchy Micro, UWorld and Kaplan qbanks, and of course my school’s lectures that I had to study to get minutiae that would on class exams, there just wasn’t time to use all of those resources (and I did use all of those, as well as some others) AND to do 600 Firecracker cards a day. So, what I did during this time was 100-200 cards of "past" material per day, encompassing everything I had learned in previous classes/units. This way, I was able to manage using all of the aforementioned resources, doing my actual school-related duties, and still being able to review a good chunk of Step 1 material every day.

During my dedicated Step 1 prep time, my schedule looked like this:

6am: wake up, go to gym, listen to relevant audio/lectures for whatever I was studying that day (ie Goljan audio), come home and eat/shower/etc

9 am: reading (FA, Pathoma, occasionally Goljan or Costanzo)

12 pm: lunch

1 pm: 1 or 2 blocks of UWorld or Kaplan

6:30 pm: dinner

8:00 pm: Firecracker for an hour or two

In this way, I did anywhere from 100 to 300 Firecracker cards per day during my 8 weeks of dedicated Step prep. At least half of those cards would be all ‘past’ (everything from M1-M2 minus the topic I was studying that day). Depending on how strong I was on the topic I was studying that day, I might or might not have also done cards relevant to that topic. For example, I was already pretty strong on psych/behavioral sciences, so on those days I wouldn’t even bother marking those topics as current because I thought it would be a better use of my time to do more past topics and keep those things fresh. In cardio, I was not as strong so I marked the cardio topics as ‘current’ and did more of those on my cardio days and focused a little less on the past material. After I finished my first pass (maybe 6 weeks in?) I just had everything marked as ‘past’ and did as many cards per day as I felt like (never anything too crazy—probably 200 cards a day. I’m not one of those people who can pull off 800 cards a day!)

I just have to say that there were MULTIPLE (I can’t even count how many) questions on my Step 1 that I either was able to answer SOLELY because of Firecracker (i.e. I had only seen the fact/information in Firecracker and literally nowhere else), or that I technically had learned from other resources but was only able to remember because of Firecracker. I hate that I can’t give specifics due to NBME rules, but suffice it to say that there were several questions where I literally thought ‘THANK GOODNESS I did Firecracker!!!!’ when they appeared on the screen:

USMLE score explanation

I’m pretty much a broken record at this point, but for Step 1, I really valued Firecracker because it was a surefire way to keep all of my preclinical knowledge solid, which made dedicated prep time so much less painful. It might be a drag sometimes to force yourself to do your Firecracker every day, but that little bit of extra invested time pays off many-fold once you crack open FA to prep for Step 1 and realize that you already know a ton of the information. In fact, even before dedicated prep time started, I was pretty well prepared for Step—I scored a 250 on our basic science NBME (school-administered mock Step 1), and again, this was right at the end of our pathology class, before we had any Step 1 prep whatsoever. That took a huge amount of pressure off during the dedicated prep time, and allowed me to really enjoy the studying I did during that time, really hone in on specifics I didn’t know, and just enjoy my life more in general than I feel like others were able to during that time because I was so not stressed. And as I mentioned, Firecracker continues to help me with M3—I do about 200 cards a day of current material, plus 100 cards of past rotation material.

I would recommend Firecracker to highly motivated med students, and I would recommend that they start using it asap—like, literally the first day of class. Having seen all of the cards that many more times going into Step 1 prep will be a HUGE advantage. It is a significant time investment and it has to be completely self-motivated, which is why I say I think highly motivated people will have a better experience. But I would really recommend that anybody starting med school do the free trial and if you like it, get the subscription and be consistent. I know there are people who do like 800 cards a day, but honestly, I think that doing even 50 ‘past’ cards a day (which shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes, maybe even shorter) 6 days a week for the first two years of med school (and obviously studying diligently for classes and using the other abovementioned resources) will put anybody in a much better position going into Step 1 prep. Hopefully I will be able to say the same for Step 2!”

Sarah has rocked her exams thus far, thanks to her consistency in reviewing relevant medical concepts and facts. Part of the beauty of Firecracker is our spaced repetition engine, which automatically recommends review materials for you based on your performance and progress. Familiarizing yourself with Firecracker during your preclinical years will help you to get a leg up on your peers heading into your third year; our membership who keep on crackin’ during clinical rotations are seeing absolutely astounding results! If you’d like some guidance in creating a study plan that fits your lifestyle (or with questions about pretty much anything), shoot us a message at [email protected] to get in touch with the experts on our team.

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