Take Charge of Your USMLE Study Schedule

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Published: 09th October 2012
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Don't be pulled in by blogs and USMLE forums telling you how you should organize your weeks leading up to the USMLE. It is such a personal thing, that only you can write your schedule. Below, I will show you how. As you get started, begin with these questions:

#1) What's my learning style: Visual, auditory, or kinesthetic?

Visual learners study most effectively when they are able to visualize graphics, diagrams, charts, etc. Auditory learners can sit in a lecture and remember every word. They learn well in in group study sessions, by podcasts, saying things aloud, etc. The kinesthetic (or tactile) learner uses hands-on learning, performing questions, practice, teaching, etc.

What are you?

#2) How much time can I realistically spend in a day studying without driving myself nuts?

The brain has its limits. If you were to be honest with yourself, how many good hours of studying can you do? Often people overestimate their brain's attention span and this leaves them staring blankly at the computer, wasting hours pretending to study. The classic example of the person who "stays home to study" on Friday nights. Do you think their brain is actually letting them study or are they sneaking in episodes of MadMen?

#3) What study materials are good?

Ignore the impulse to stockpile all of your old class text books or PDFs. The days of in depth learning pare over. Now it is time to make word-associations. I highly recommend First aid for the Boards. If you memorize every word of that book, you will do well. Augment First Aid with two other more books: (1) Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple, and (2) BRS Pathology. Microbiology Made Ridiculously Simple is good, but too long. Only use it to read in-depth on microbes listed in First Aid. If you are an auditory learner, I recommend Guillon audiotapes. In addition to the above resources, everyone needs a question bank (USMLE World or Qbank). The rumor is that Qbank is better for step 1.

#4) What would improve my memory retention?

Study effectively so you are not wasting your time letting information bounce of your brain and into the wastebasket. Use this three-exposure technique:
Exposure 1: Read and highlight First Aid
Exposure 2: Study in-depth. Within 24 hours of your first exposure, shove that info into memory. During Exposure 2, Visual learners write graphs, auditory learners make rehearse flashcards, kinesthetic learners manipulate the information until it makes sense.
Exposure 3: Practice questions. Lots of them. If you study each question in-depth, aim for completing around half of your question bank. If you hope to do as many as possible as quickly as possible, you may get over 80% done. While doing questions, keep track of the topics on which you are weak. If there is time do the 3-Rs, Review, reorganize, repetition. (1) Review these topics more in-depth, (2) Reorganize your study material (i.e. put all of the causes of diarrhea together and compare them in a graph), (3) Repetition via flashcards or even the old fashioned way - writing something over and over again on a piece of paper.

#5) How should my schedule look?

Study for 1 day and log how long it takes you to read a page of First Aid, to study a page in depth, and how long it takes you to do 50 questions. After that first day, you have enough information to organize your next few weeks. Start by listing all of the topics you will need to cover (basically The First Aid table of contents). Then estimate how long the topics will take to review based on your own pace based on page numbers and how many question on that topic are in the question bank.

Let's use the topic of Cardiology as an example:
Exposure 1: Read & highlight. If the Cardiology chapter is 30 pages, and you read an average of 1 page every 2 minutes (time it!), it will take about 1 hour.
Exposure 2: Learning in-depth will take twice as long (2 hrs) as Exposure 1 depending on content difficulty.
Exposure 3: Questions. How many questions can you get done in 1 hour and how many questions do you want to do? Calculate the time it may take for a particular subject.

The information above can be used to write out a daily and weekly study schedule based on the hours you can realistically do every day. Be sure you've given yourself enough time to add on a couple days as "bonus days" for topics you find you need more time on. Use both NBME practice exams to readjust your schedule. If you are doing well on a topic, move on and a lot the extra time to other topics on which you are not performing as well. For instance, if you are scoring over 70% on the question bank questions, that is good. Move on.

It takes a couple hours to calculate, but afterwards, you have a personalized schedule! Optimize your learning and personalize it to you. Good luck!

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