How to Pass USMLE Step 1

Instructor: Jessica Munk
To practice medicine in the US, you must first pass the United States Medical Licensing Exam (USMLE), which is a series of three exams. There are a number of resources to help you pass Step 1 of the USMLE, including study materials, self-assessments, reviews and practice exams. Read on to learn about how to access these resources.

Understand the Exam Content

To pass the USMLE Step 1 Exam, you must be familiar with the many topics that can be tested. The best way to learn what topics will be tested is to review the USMLE Content Outline and the USMLE Physician Tasks/Competencies outline, both of which can be found at Because so much information is tested, basing your study on the foundational scientific and clinical knowledge you obtained throughout your medical school study is the best way to prepare for the exam.

The USMLE Step 1 Exam will cover both basic scientific content areas and interdisciplinary areas. Here's a breakdown of the content areas covered on the Step 1 Exam, as well as resources that you can use to prepare:

Develop a Process to Answer Questions

The USMLE's multiple-choice questions are designed so that some answer choices may be somewhat correct, but there will only be one answer choice that constitutes the best choice. Since you will have to choose from multiple seemingly correct choices and choose the answer that fully answers the question, you should develop a system to eliminate answer choices.

One strategy recommended by the UCMLE website is to first fully understand what the question is asking. Next, come up with your own answer to the question and see if your answer matches one of the answer choices. If this process doesn't yield a clear answer, you could read all the answer choices and see which ones are obviously wrong. Hopefully, this process narrows down your answer choices, and you can then choose the best answer.

Download Study Material

On the USMLE's website, you can find study material available for download. This material includes general exam information, as well as a percentage range of how many questions will be on each topic. You can also download an exam tutorial and sample questions and tests.

Consider Taking a Practice Session

While a practice session should not be used to estimate your actual USMLE Step 1 score, it could be useful to get comfortable with how the exam will be delivered at a Prometric testing center. Taking a practice session can also be useful because, as of May 2016, new features on the testing software will allow you to adjust the screen color and magnification. You may want to find out what makes you most comfortable before your actual exam.

Your practice session will test you on the practice material provided on the USMLE's website. It will consist of three sections that will last an hour each and also include a tutorial. You are eligible to take a practice session when you register for the USMLE, but the price of the session is not included in the cost.

Take an Online Self-Assessment

Unlike a practice session, a self-assessment can be used to estimate your USMLE score. You can sign up for a self-assessment designed to prepare you for Step 1 through the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) website. You receive score reports and feedback to help you evaluate the areas in which you need to improve. Because you can take multiple self-assessments, you can see how you are progressing as you study.

Enroll in a Review Course

You can purchase review courses that come in a number of formats with a variety of study materials. For example, you can attend an in-person review, watch live reviews online or watch pre-recorded reviews online. Most review courses give you self-assessment resources, sample questions and exams and the ability to interact with or ask questions of your instructors.

Utilize the Resources Offered By Your Medical School

Your medical school will likely offer resources to help you pass the Step 1 Exam. Your school may offer review assistance, self-assessments and practice exams. You may also be able to find study groups, or student groups may provide discussion boards, blogs, tutoring or other recommendations to help you pass Step 1.

Be Familiar With the Format Changes

If you are taking the USMLE before May 9, 2016, you will have to complete seven exam sections, and you have an hour to complete each section. There will be 44 multiple-choice questions in each section, and you will have a 45-minute break between each section. You also have the choice of viewing a tutorial.

If you are taking the USMLE after May 9, 2016, the format will have changed somewhat. The overall testing day is eight hours. You will have to complete seven sections, and each section will last one hour. While each section will have no more than 40 questions, the number of questions on each section will be different.

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