The Right Approach To The COMLEX-USA Exam – Tips & Tricks

COMLEX-USA Exam. The road to becoming a medical professional is a long and tricky one; it’s also pretty full of surprises so at best, all you can do is hang on tight. Just when you think you’re about to cross that elusive finish line, it slips from your grasps yet again. I know; it can be tiring and frustrating but it’s all going to be worth it in the end. The prestige, financial gains, and fulfilling experiences of a medical professional are far too precious to ignore. Your hard work will pay off soon – believe it.

One thing that is practically inseparable from the pursuit of a career in medicine is: EXAMS.

That’s right horrific, stressful, and nerve-wracking exams. From the start of your career up to climbing up the ranks, these exams will always come knocking down your door. They’re taunting and often demanding so I can understand why you dread them so much. However, by now, you should know that with sufficient preparation, there’s really nothing to be afraid of – even if what you’re about to take next is the COMLEX.

But before that, let’s do a quick run down memory lane:

Exams Medical Aspirants Need To Take

The day you decided to take up medicine was the day you were made aware that you had to take the MCAT or the Medical Colleges Admissions test which is a prerequisite to your enrolment to med school. That was probably the first of the many encounters you had with national, standardized medical exams and also probably the one you dreaded the most. After all, it was a deciding moment for your medical career.

Administered by the AAMC or the Association of American Medical Colleges, it’s a 7 and a half hour exam consisting of 230 multiple choice items that covers basic knowledge of sciences and passage-based questions meant to deliberate your aptitude for medical courses. The score you get from the MCAT literally decides where your medical career will take you. Most schools have cut-off scores, after all. If you’ve got a target institution in mind, it’s crucial that you pass their standards. Luckily, we have MCAT tutoring to help our newcomers achieve better ranks these days.

Just when you’ve managed to climb that steep hill, a valley, cliff, and mountain happens to block your way again – maybe visualize it with blizzards and hail for a little razzle-dazzle. After two years of medical school (which are also ridden by qualifying exams, by the way), you come face to face with the USMLE – an even bigger headache that you have to brave through. The USMLE or the United States Medical Licensing Examination is a three-part test series consisting of three “Steps.” Well, four if we’re going to be strict about it. We have Step 1, 2-CK (for Clinical Knowledge) and 2-CS (for Clinical Skills), and finally, Step 3 which is a 2-day examination.

Step 1 is taken after the first two years of med school and basically covers all the subjects you’ve covered at that time plus the integration of other branches of basic science. If you’re a little behind subjects, then you may really want to pick up the pace, maybe go for USMLE tutoring. Step 1 is, after all, the most important of the exams as it will heavily affect your application for residency. If a satisfactory score is met, previous takers often advise students to apply for residency before they take Step 2 as the outcome of which may affect the overall result of Step 1. Step 2-CK and CS is taken in the third or fourth year and can be taken together or with an interval in-between.

Lastly, Step 3 is a pass or fail exam. You basically just have to pass here; your marks won’t affect your residency at this point because (1) you probably got in already and (2) most medical establishments don’t care as much for Step 3 as they do for the other two tests. Still, Step 3 is incredibly long and arduous, even taking 2 whole days to complete. If you want to keep your record clean and consistent, improving your study schedule as well as getting tutoring for Step 3 is also advised. After all, you can never prepare too much for a USMLE exam, only too little.

There is a way for you to evade the USMLE and still become a medical practitioner, though. But I wouldn’t jump up and down upon hearing this if I were you. There’s a catch, you see. To avoid taking the USMLE test series, you have to take the COMLEX – which is, by the way, pretty much the same with the USMLE in terms of length and difficulty.

Getting To Know COMLEX-USA

COMLEX-USA or the Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination of the United States is a three-part exam series taken by those who wish to become a licensed osteopath. These are national, standardized exams administered by the NBOME or National Board of Osteopathic Medical Examiners (for the USMLE, the NBME is the one to administrate the exams). 

As you may already know, Osteopathy is a branch of alternative medicine that makes use of the manipulation of joints, muscles, and bones physically to treat many known, medical disorders. The person who practices Osteopathy is referred to as an osteopath or DO (Doctor of Osteopathy). As you may see, it’s a very specific career track in medicine; it’s a specialized branch. In fact, we have osteopathic medical schools specifically for people who want to pursue a career in this medical track.

So if you are trying to become a DO, then you have the option to not take the USMLE and take the COMLEX instead. You can take both exams to improve your application for residency but if you do, you have to make sure that your results in USMLE are highly satisfactory. If you think you might blow it on Step 1, then it’s best to focus all your efforts on the COMLEX exam. After all, you cannot “NOT” take the COMLEX; it’s a requirement to become a DO.

Anyway, here’s a brief run-down of what to expect in the COMLEX-USA licensure examinations:

If the USMLE has “Steps,” the COMLEX has “Levels.” Specifically, it has Level 1, Level 2-CE and Level 2-PE, and Level 3 – like I said, they’re way too similar right? Aside from 2-PE which is a patient-based evaluation of the test taker’s osteopathic patient care skills, all other levels are computer-based, standardized exams that mostly cover osteopathic knowledge.

But compared to the USMLE, the length of the COMLEX is pretty overbearing. They’re twice the number of items found in each step of the USMLE with COMLEX Level 1 and 2-CE having 400 questions each and Level 3 having 420 questions in total. With almost twice the number of questions, the length of time you have to take the COMLEX-USA is basically synonymous to the USMLE (around 7.5 hours excluding breaks) which means that you have to answer each question for half the time allotted or just around 45 seconds each. Now you need extremely fast reading and answering skills for that.

But you know what they say: Practice makes perfect. Or at least, in this case, practice makes you score high. And that is just what you need to ultimately fulfill your career goals. There are practice tests released by the NBOME that can help you chisel your knowledge and exam skills; they can help you practice answering questions within the time allotted as well. However, these practice tests would only come with plain answers – no guide or explanations. It’s up to you to figure out why the answers are what they are; it’s up to you to improve your knowledge fluency. This is why we offer to help.

In order to help you understand subject matters holistically, Medlearnity is offering a tutoring program for COMLEX-USA takers. While self-study is strongly advised, having experienced and knowledgeable mentors guide you through the process of learning individual subjects will help improve your overall understanding of osteopathic concepts that will, in turn, allow you to comprehend exam questions better. Licensure examinations will have many situational questions, after all. This is why you need not only learn the concepts; you have to know how to apply them in practical situations as well. Learn from the experiences of our own licensed DO tutors and pick-up exam tips from our well-rounded mentors when you [popup_anything

About the author 

Akshay Goel MD

Dr. Goel is a body-trained radiologist and an expert in medical education and imaging informatics. He completed his Radiology Residency at Columbia University Medical Center and his fellowship at Weill Cornell Medicine. Dr. Goel has guided several students and doctors into successful careers over the past decade. He continues to help Medlearnity tutors optimize their educational methodology to drive the highest tutoring and admissions impact possible.

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