Suppose you came upon someone in the woods working to saw down a tree. He is exhausted from working for hours. You suggest he take a break to sharpen the saw. He then replies, “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw, I’m busy sawing!” What would you say?
And yet too many people prepping for the USMLE are too busy sawing, they don’t take the time to sharpen the saw. They are in a hurry to pass this exam and have no time to learn to prep properly. They progress slowly and poorly. And they plod on until they burn out or take the exam and fail or worse take the exam and pass but with such a low score it amounts to the same thing.
Seth Godin, founder of Squidoo.com states that ‘Hurrying almost always makes it take longer. If you don’t have time to do it right the first time. How will you find time to do it over. ‘
Although it makes sense that chopping down a tree with a dull axe or sawing with a dull saw takes much, much longer to finish the task, too many of us make the mistake of thinking that prepping for the USMLE is easy and you don’t need superior study skills or knowledge (i.e. sharper saw) in order to do well in this exam. Some people think it involves just picking up a book and reading. In fact you can encounter some people who will ask how long they have to read for the USMLE, not how long they need to prep. Reading is just a part of prepping, a small part of it.
Sharpening the saw involves taking the time to know if you are prepping the right way. Are you studying the right things? Studying the wrong things just wastes time. And yet too many people are studying the wrong things. In the USMLE the right things to study are different depending on your situation. Old IMGs and fresh grads need to study different things. So they need to use different books and study materials.
It involves knowing the right tasks and accomplishments to measure. Are you studying the right way? Are you learning anything? Are you retaining them? Can you recall them? You would be surprise at how many people measure progress in terms of how many chapter they have finished reading, not how much they have been able to understand, retain and recall about those same chapters.
You ask, ‘How is your prep coming along?’ They answer, ‘ oh I finished three chapters in physiology.’ Not, ‘Oh, I finished three chapters of physiology and took chapter exams and scored 80, 85 and 92.’
It also involves using the right tools. There are some study tools that are more efficient at helping you learn things faster and better. For example texts and lectures are best for understanding concepts. Reviewers and notes are best for memorizing concepts. Flashcards and q banks are best for improving recall. Q banks are also good for learning the finer points between concepts. Using q banks to learn concepts and memorizing them is like using a hammer to drive a screw in. It can work, not very well. But wouldn’t it be better to just use a screwdriver?
Even with the right study tools, there are more efficient systems and less efficient ones. For example, flashcards are probably the best way to improve your ability to recall facts. But there are actually two types. The standard one and the Leitner system. The Leitner system is much more efficient and can decrease the time you need to memorize and recall anything by half. Yet how many of you are using it or even know how to use it. For more information about the Leitner system, click here. If you want to try out a Leitner flashcard system for the USMLE Step 1, click here for information on how to register and access a 200 item flashcard for free. (Please click USMLE Step 1 Commons for the FREE 200 flashcards)
Another example is using online q banks or the ‘downloaded’ version of q banks. In order to do well in the USMLE, you need to get used to the exam environment and not just the questions. The online q banks simulate the actual exam. The downloaded ones don’t.
If you really want to do well in this exam, then sharpen your saw. Take the time to make sure you are prepping the right way. Take the time to learn new tools and skills that will help you prep better and faster. You have to spend time to save time.
Abraham Lincoln said – ‘If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six sharpening my axe. ‘
I don’t propose you take that long. But don’t be in too much of a hurry that you wind up having to do it all over again. How will you find the time?
Do it once. Do it right. Get it over with. Pass the USMLE in one take.