One Step at a Time

Keeping the boards in perspective

As we enter the summer months, the rest of the world rejoices in the warm and sunny weather while a cohort of medical students skip buying sunscreen in lieu of extra highlighters to prepare for the long slog of board studying.

Of all the boards I’ve taken (and by the way I am currently studying for another set), I believe the biggest and most stressful was the USMLE Step 1 exam. 

I prepared for my Step 1 study month like you might prepare for traveling to a desert island.   I went to Costco with some friends and bought enough study snacks and freezer meals to last me the entire month without having to make any real grocery store trips.  I said a proverbial goodbye to all my friends. I shut down my Facebook account. I collected sample schedules from more senior medical students and attempted to create my own. 

On my first day of studying, I packed my backpack and lunch box and arrived to campus just after 8 am. I walked down the long hallway lined with “nerd rooms” (essentially oversized closets each with a desk and whiteboard) and trying not to be put off by the fact that several were already claimed, picked one for myself. I started up my laptop and began taking questions. I quickly realized that the walls of the nerd rooms were exceedingly thin. I could hear my neighbor cough and even turn the page in their review book!  Thoughts ran through my head: “What are they typing next door? What novel are they composing? What are they studying such that they are feverishly flipping through pages?” I tried to turn my attention back to my test. Luckily, I brought a supply of earplugs, and I reentered the bubble. The morning went by slowly, but finally noon arrived. I excitedly packed my valuables in my backpack; left everything else in my nerd room (I was not going to give that up), and went outside to sit on the grass to eat lunch in the sun. I was surrounded by fellow classmates who were all in the same boat and we all commiserated together.   Then I went back into my cave and studied some more. I went home for dinner. And then studied again.  The rest of the month was basically the same pattern repeated again and again; including the lunches and dinners (thank you Costco). Sundays I did not study, and those were easily my favorite days.


Now all of you studying for Step 1 might recognize some of that last paragraph.  Perhaps you too are eating out of a humongous bag of pita chips that will last you the entire month (and then some). But I want to share with you a couple of things I learned along the way that might make your life more bearable.


The first is that life still goes on.  For you, and for everyone else. My grandmother’s health was declining during this time, and I had the distinct impression just days before she died that I needed to be extra diligent in studying in case I needed to fly out to California.  I am so grateful that I chose to go out to her memorial service and spend time with my immediate and extended family. I was reminded of the big, eternal picture and how there is more to life than just studying for this test.    


Second, on a practical note, I learned not to get down when I got a question wrong.  My mood initially was tied directly to my score on my most recent question block. I remember one of my classmates talking to be as I stepped out of my study room to fill up my water bottle and telling me what his scores had been that morning.  They were significantly higher than mine, and I felt extremely discouraged.  However, I remembered something my dad told me shortly before I took the MCAT.  At the time, I had gotten a terrible score on an MCAT practice test. I was crushed, assuming that this would be what my actual score would be (and I would never get into medical school, and this would be the end of the world). However my dad reminded me that it did not matter because no one else would see my practice test. That’s why it’s a practice test. So it is OK if your practice scores are not where you want them to be.  Actually, that’s the whole point of doing practice questions is to get a bunch of them wrong and then truly learn the material. Get your money’s worth out of that question bank!


Third, now that I have convinced you that your practice scores do not matter, believe it or not your real score does not matter as much as you think it does.  I did not get my goal score on Step 1.  I was initially devastated, but then after doing some research, realized my score was probably OK and that even though I might not get to go to the dream residency I had my eyes set on, I would probably match.  And guess what? I ended up matching at that dream program after all.  


So take a big breath, a step back, and a chill pill. It is going to be OK! Study the best you can, realize when you need to take a break, and stay connected to your friends and family.  And by the way, it’s OK to take time to be a normal person. Halfway through the month I found myself going to the grocery store anyways because I was getting sick of pita chips...


Written by AirwayBreathingChurch 6/3/2017


Photo Credit: Britlyn