Getting into medical school is a fantastic achievement. Personally, I am the first person to go to medical school in my family. As I opened my acceptance, I was thinking now there is nothing stopping me from becoming a cardiologist! Then after the first month of medical school, I started hearing rumors about these big “step exams” that would be a major factor in determining what type of doctor I could become. Then came the stress as I read SDN forums about the tests and heard horror stories from upper-level classmates. After successfully completing these tests you realize being a good test taker is not indicative of how good of a doctor you will become. Any student that has put in the hard work to be accepted into medical school likely has the intelligence, drive, and compassion to be an excellent clinician. However, succeeding in undergraduate studies does not necessarily mean you have learned good studying and test-taking habits. For example, active learning is a great studying technique that will help you succeed and perform well in medical school.
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Well, I am here to tell you that they are just tests and tests can be conquered as long as you have a strategy that works for you. I worked occasionally through my third and fourth years in medical school as a USMLE tutor for my fellow students. This was not an official job but my teachers asked that I guide certain struggling students. The biggest mistake I saw fellow classmates make when I was helping them prepare for the USMLE is not having a game plan and using passive study methods.
One student had crushed her MCAT and had been doing very well in her coursework but failed her first practice test for step one. Her mistake was only reading without utilizing active study methods and not doing enough practice. She was rereading all of her first and second-year books over the preceding months. She was putting more time into studying than many of her peers. If anybody reading this is a musician or an athlete imagine attempting to perform at a concert or a game without first having weeks, months, or even years of practice beforehand. Test-taking is like any other skill it requires first the knowledge base and the skill to utilize that knowledge base effectively.
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To learn the material well you need to employ active learning. Read the material while taking notes on key concepts. Then find ways that work for you to review and remember the key points. Employ flash cards or group study techniques to review these facts. During group studying volunteer to teach a confusing concept. Nothing reinforces difficult material like being responsible for teaching that material to others. Real long-term learning requires repetition and active participation.
Developing proper test-taking skills requires completing as many questions as possible in a test-like environment. Don’t casually complete UWorld on tutor mode and expect to improve your test-taking skills. You need to simulate the exam by doing randomized and time question blocks. And then while reviewing you need to employ the same active learning methods utilized during book studying. This way you will be entirely at ease on test day. It will feel like another day of practice!
If you got into medical school you have what it takes to perform well on your step exams. All you need is for someone to give you the tools to succeed. Active learning and practice are the keys to your success. Don’t let a test score hold you back from your dream specialty!
By: Nathan Wheeler MD, PGY1 University of Wisconsin Internal Medicine
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