Guide to Self Prep for the USMLE Step 1: 7 Steps to a Higher Score

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Most of you reading my blog will be prepping on your own. Only a few will be enrolling in a prep course. Therefore, I think there is a need for a brief guide on how you should be going about this.

If you don’t know whether you are better off joining a prep course or prepping on your own, read my post on ‘Do I need a Prep Course?’

Discussing all the details will be quite long, so we will list the 7 steps, give a brief discussion and we will tackle each step in more detail in future posts.



Before you can slay the monster that is the USMLE, you need to know as much about it as you can. So you will know how to prepare for it. There are two ways you can go about it.

  1. Do it the way I did it. Buy multiple books. Spend hours going through forums and blogs. Read up on exam experiences. Try to discern who is lying and telling the truth. In some cases, I only realize who is lying or telling the truth after I aced the exam.
  2. Buy my book ‘How to Master the USMLE Step 1: Askdoc’s Method of USMLE Prep’ which outlines all I know about the USMLE Step 1 and how to prep for it. Which is the result of my doing the first step.


Now that you know everything about the USMLE, you need to know yourself. Your capabilities, your strengths, your weaknesses, your situation.

In Sun Tzu’s Art of War, it states that if you don’t know the enemy and you don’t know yourself, you will fail in every battle. If you know yourself and not your enemy or know your enemy but not yourself, you will succeed only half the time. But if you know your enemy and yourself, in a hundred battles you will not know defeat.

You can find out how to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses in my free ebook ‘How to Create a Study Plan’ which can be downloaded here. A more detailed explanation plus what you can do about those weaknesses can be found in my book How to Master the USMLE Step 1: Askdoc’s Method of USMLE Prep’.


I cannot emphasize the importance of studying the right materials for this exam. Studying the wrong materials may mean studying too much or too little, or worse studying the wrong things. This could prove disastrous and may even cause you to fail. Worse, the correct material for you depends on whether you are just aiming to pass, doing well or acing this exam.

Again there are various ways you could do this.

  1. Go through blogs and forums. Read through experiences of people about each book and study materials. Decide on your goal and pick books and materials accordingly.
  2. Go through First Aid’s booklist. Again use your judgment on which book and materials are right for you and pick the books and materials accordingly.
  3. Buy my book ‘How to Master the USMLE Step 1: Askdoc’s Method of USMLE Prep’. Read through the study materials listed there for each subject, plus how to study them for maximum effectiveness.

Although some people will tell you that using a certain series of reviewers are the best way to go, my experience is that each reviewer have their strengths and weaknesses and the best way is to mix and match them.


You need to have a study plan if you want to do well in this exam. If you are joining a prep course, you are using their study plan. If you are prepping on your own, you need to create one.

You can read my free ebook entitled ‘How to Create a Study Plan’ on how to do this right. You can download it here for free.


You need to understand, memorize and recall fast all the materials you have studied. A common error of those who have failed Step 1 is thinking that so long as they understood the topics tested, they will do well. How often do you see people in forums who tell you that all the questions look familiar but they still can’t get the right answer. They understood the topics but have not memorized enough detail to answer the question. Another common mistake is thinking that once you have memorized it, you can recall it. How many times have you studied something and can’t recall it? Mastery means being able to do all three correctly.

There are lots of study methods that will help you understand, memorize and recall information better and faster. Some you already know, others can be found in various posts in my blog, most can be found in my book ‘How to Master the USMLE Step 1.’


So you have understood, memorized and are able to recall fast the topics tested by the USMLE, so you are now ready for the exam, right?

WRONG. The USMLE presumes that you have understood, memorized and are able to recall the medical concepts being tested. What the USMLE wants to know is if you know how to use what you know. You need to be able to use that knowledge to answer questions. And a lot of people find that they are unable to do that effectively only when they start answering q banks or worse sit for the exam.

Even though the USMLE questions are some of the most thoroughly tested, there are various methods and techniques to give yourself a better chance of getting the correct answer.

First, is to anticipate questions that may be asked in the exam while you are still prepping and concentrate on them.

Second, understand how tough questions are made so that you can simplify them and make it easier to answer.

Third, know how you analyze questions and your thought process, so you understand why you got a question wrong in the first place. No q banks teach you how to do that. They just give you the correct answer.

In my prep course, we do what we call ‘How do you answer the question drills’ that helps you realize why your pattern of thinking and approach to the question is wrong and what the correct approach should be to get the right answer.


The high yield review, done properly and at the right time can significantly raise your scores. Doing just a high yield review only, without proper prepping and q banks is a recipe for disaster.

So how do you do a proper high yield review.

First, do it after your main prep which covered both high yield and low yield stuff.

Second, do it about 2 to 3 weeks before you sit for the exam.

Third, concentrate only on high yield stuff. You should have done the low yield way before now.

Fourth, practice primarily fast recall. The best way is using flashcards. You can create your own, or go to my prepsite at and enroll in any of the various high yield flashcard reviews available. Remember those flashcards should cover only high yield stuff. Commercial flashcards like Pharmcards, etc. cover everything.

Lastly, don’t study anything new. It’s too late for that.

It is important to follow this seven steps if you are prepping on your own in order to make sure you are prepping right. We will discuss each one in more detail on subsequent posts. Of course, you can find all these discussed in detail in my book ‘How to Master the USMLE Step 1: Askdoc’s Method of USMLE Prep.’   Click to find out more>>>.


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3 thoughts on “Guide to Self Prep for the USMLE Step 1: 7 Steps to a Higher Score

  • July 9, 2012 at 1:20 am

    Hey Mike,

    Do you think pre-test series is any good for the first read? To help consolidate information and for becoming familiar with clinical vignettes?

  • July 11, 2012 at 1:03 am

    Hi Asim,

    Pretest series is not very helpful for Step 1. Pretest Physical Diagnosis can be of help for clinical vignettes. I own the whole set and have gone through all of them. They are more useful for Step 2 CK, but only a little.


  • July 11, 2012 at 4:25 am

    Hello again,

    What do you think a good question booklet/series is for first reads? Material that would aid in memorizing and reviewing chapter content.

    The new kaplan lecture notes have lost their review questions (was comparing physiology 2008 with a 2010, there was strikingly a difference of a hundred pages!) Are those questions available otherwise?

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