How to prepare for the USMLE Step 1?

Studying for the Step 1 exam is extremely tough. The sheer volume of information is very difficult to retain in such a short period of time. However, many students have still been able to crush the Step 1 exam which shows that it is possible. Overall, this will probably be the hardest exam you ever take, so it is important to prepare early.

Time for Preparation

The general preparation time for the USMLE Step 1 exam takes about 1.5-2 years of medical school education and about 1-3 months of dedicated study time which is an independent, uninterrupted review of everything that you have learned. Most of the Step 1 content should be covered in the first two years of medical school. Therefore, during dedicated study students are mainly reviewing material they have already learned, doing practice questions, and taking full length practice exams.

The amount of dedicated study time depends on two things: how confident you feel with the material AND how much dedicated time your school allows. It usually ranges from 4 weeks to 12 weeks. However, many students find that 8 weeks is a fair amount since too little time can be detrimental and too much time can be counterproductive.

Approach to Preparing

1.  Assess your baseline

Take a practice test to know your initial score before beginning to study. Many students perform poorly on this practice test, but it is an essential step because it allows you to assess whether you are making progress.

2.  Set your goal

Be realistic. If your baseline score was 180, setting a score of 270 might be unreasonable. Set a conservative goal that you are comfortable with that still allows you to reach the residency of your choice. If you surpass your goal, then even better for you.

3.  Make a study plan

Do not overload yourself. Plan your schedule and resources wisely. Aim for a schedule that is challenging but fair. Choose resources that you know will help and do not overload on them. It is better to know a few resources really well. For help with developing a plan visit our study planner resources.

4.  Study!

There is no substitute for studying. Be diligent. Work hard. Put the time and effort into studying and it will pay off. Whether that means working through questions or reviewing content, do what works best for you to reach your goal.

5.  Track your progress

You need to know if you are making progress and whether you have reached your goal yet. Take practice exams at regular intervals throughout your dedicated study because this will gauge whether you are studying correctly and efficiently.

When am I fully prepared for the Step 1?

It is very likely that you will never be “fully” prepared for the Step 1 exam. The exam is designed in a way that very few people end up with a score close to the 100th percentile (about 265+). However, a student is probably prepared for the exam if they are consistently reaching or surpassing their desired score during practice exams.

Study Tips

Here are some study tips that can help you succeed while studying for the USMLE Step 1 exam.

Start early

Many students recommend using your dedicated study resources during your curriculum. For example, some students begin their UWorld questions 3 months before dedicated to get a head start on it. Also, some students follow their First Aid book throughout didactics to get an early first pass on it. This can be a very useful strategy for studying.


Limit your interruptions. Stay away from distractions. One of the biggest distractions is your phone. It is important to limit anything that can break your focus during dedicated study.

Plan your breaks

Schedule regular breaks so that you don’t burn out. Breaks during dedicated can be motivating to study harder. Having a break to look forward to can encourage your mind to focus harder so that your break can feel more rewarding.

Social life

Have someone to talk to. Although your social life will probably be poor during dedicated, make sure you still have people you can enjoy time with and vent to if needed.


Choosing your resources for the Step 1 exam can be very difficult because there are so many options to choose from. It is recommended that students pick at least one review book, one question bank, and a lecture series. For example: First Aid for content review, UWorld for questions, and Boards & Beyond for lectures to reference.

For more information about resources, visit our thorough resource guide.

Preparing for Step 1 Exam FAQs

Studying for the Step 1 typically takes about 4-12 weeks depending on how confident you feel with the material AND how much time your school permits. In reality however, studying for the Step 1 exam is much than just dedicated study the months before the exam. It also includes how well you study during your medical school curriculum and how early you begin your dedicated study resources such as question banks.

About 10-12 hours a day OR the max you can without burning out.

Last updated: August 27, 2020