HealthJuly 08, 2020

Mastering your boards: How USMLE practice tests can help

By: Ogie M. Ezeoke, MD

Before the real thing, taking USMLE practice tests can help you target your study plan, track your progress and manage your anxiety.

For medical students around the country, the United States Medical Licensing Examination® (USMLE) Step 1 is a milestone. As you begin to prepare for Step 1, remember that the test assesses not only preclinical knowledge but also your ability to recognize the patterns of pathology and associated physiology. Drilling down on those patterns and understanding the mechanisms that lead to disease can only be achieved with continued practice.

One key tool for getting there? USMLE practice tests. In the setting of a practice test, particularly one that's timed, you're compelled to quickly think through various disease presentations, a skill that will serve you well on test day.

Here are three ways USMLE practice exams can help you prepare.

1. Developing your study strategy for the USMLE

Having a feasible and comprehensive study strategy will help you accomplish your learning goals and feel mentally prepared for test day. A realistic study strategy should take into account the amount of time you have to study for the test, your baseline readiness for passing, the study resources available to you and your medical knowledge mastery goals.

When developing your study strategy, it's vital to approach the test topics systematically and ensure you're reviewing all necessary subjects. It's equally critical to measure your test readiness at the start so that you can tailor your study strategy to your needs. Taking a practice test before studying may seem like nothing more than a cruel reminder of how much you need to review, but it will help you identify the topics you find more difficult and that will take more time to work through. Be sure to set realistic goals for completing your practice test so that you don't end up rushing through questions and getting an inaccurate assessment.

You can choose from many products available for Step 1 studying, from question banks to personalized digital tutors like Firecracker. Most of these tools provide practice exams to gauge your progress as you study.

Sign up for a free 7-day trial of Firecracker.

2. Tracking your progress to test readiness

By continuing to take USMLE practice tests at regular intervals, you can reassess your knowledge and determine if you need to make adjustments to your study schedule - or your test date.

Consider incorporating both full-length and shorter blocks of practice tests into your schedule. As you progress through your dedicated study period, this will allow you not only to continue tracking your progress but also to hone your time management skills and build your test-taking stamina.

During the real test, you'll have the opportunity to take breaks between each block of questions; consider applying this pacing to your study regimen to avoid test fatigue. This is also a good strategy in order to clear your mind and prepare to answer a new set of questions. You'll begin to learn when your body and mind need a break, allowing you to pace yourself through full-length tests more effectively.

The time you allocate to practice tests should include actual test time as well as the time it takes to review each answer and explanation. Often, the explanation may be tied to the same general disease pathology; however, seeing it represented in various case stems will be excellent preparation for the rigors of test day.

3. Avoiding burnout during dedicated study

The pressure surrounding the USMLE Step 1 can sometimes encourage unhealthy study habits, including all-nighters and excessive energy drink consumption. Unfortunately, these habits can lead you to burn out before you achieve your study goals and successfully complete the test.

To avoid burning out without sacrificing discipline in your study routine, it's important to maintain good sleep hygiene, take breaks for snacks and mental wellness and set realistic expectations for daily studying. Finding a quiet study location, avoiding distractions and staying hydrated can help support your dedicated study. Consider breaking up your day to include at least two different study tools; for example, shaking things up by going from practice questions to videos or tutoring sessions is one way to stave off burnout.

USMLE practice tests can help you avoid test prep burnout, too. They let you get a feel for the real thing so you'll be more comfortable on test day. When taking a practice test, try to create an environment similar to what you'll encounter on test day. This includes writing out any formulas that you would write on your provided laminated sheet. Going through this routine for every practice test will help you remember these formulas and reduce your test anxiety.

Ogie M. Ezeoke, MD