How to Score 280 on USMLE Step 2 CK: A Comprehensive Guide

A high score on USMLE Step 2 CK is probably the best boost you can give to your residency application. For those who didn’t score well on USMLE Step 1 or receive a passing score, a high Step 2 CK score is a chance to show residency programs what you’re capable of. Even if you scored well on Step 1, a strong performance on Step 2 CK demonstrates consistency and clinical excellence. Discovering the best strategies and planning how to study for Step 2 CK could be one of your highest-yield activities as you prepare to apply for residency.

In recent years, Step 2 CK has really taken on a new sense of importance. Many residency programs now require residency candidates to submit their Step 2 CK scores before ranking their applicants. Moreover, the USMLE has announced that in 2022, Step 1 is scheduled to transition to a pass/fail metric – this change will place even more emphasis on your Step 2 CK score. Because Step 2 CK will still be a numerical score, it will be the quantitative criteria that residency admissions committees will use to select their top candidates.

In this comprehensive guide on how to score well on Step 2 CK, we share with you the advice of some of our Step 2 CK tutors who scored 279-281 on the exam. In working with hundreds of medical students over the years, we know that “one size” doesn’t fit all. So, we decided to get all of the best perspectives together, and compiled all of their best advice for you below!

Our tutors provided advice on the most important Step 2 CK preparation starting points for your study plan:

  •       How to Use Clerkship Year to Set Yourself Up for Success
  •       How to Study for Step 2 CK
  •       How Long to Study for Step 2 CK & When to Schedule Your Exam

How to Use Clerkship Year to Set Yourself Up for Success

Taking clerkship year and shelf exam prep seriously is important if you want to excel on USMLE Step 2 CK. You should see clerkship year as your opportunity to build a strong clinical foundation. Clerkship year prepares you for Step 2 CK because it gives you the chance to apply your medical knowledge to real, clinical scenarios — an invaluable opportunity because Step 2 CK is a much more clinically focused exam than Step 1.

We recommend that you start to use UWorld’s Step 2 CK question bank during clerkship year to prepare for shelf exams. This allows you to do your first pass of the question bank throughout the span of a year, and gives you early exposure to the style of questions that will be on Step 2 CK.

Practice and repetition are key. During your first pass through UWorld’s Step 2 CK question bank, we recommend using flashcards to document important concepts or points that you learned. Use Anki to make your flashcards – Anki’s spaced-repetition method is ideal for long-term learning and retention. Every flashcard you make should be concise and prompt a short, to-the-point answer. Be diligent, and keep up with making flashcards on concepts and points that you learn from practice questions – this will give you an extremely solid knowledge base for Step 2 CK.

How to Study for Step 2 CK

There are a few different things we consider when advising students on how to study for Step 2 CK. Our advice depends on how much time you have, your baseline, and the score you’re aiming for. But every study strategy should be firm on a few things – your study approach and the resources you are going to use.

Practice questions are the most important part of Step 2 CK prep – we cannot emphasize that enough. It is important to use practice tests to prepare yourself for the style of questions on the actual exam and to test your knowledge to find areas of improvement. Below, we get into more details on how to approach practice questions, but as a general matter, you should put a lot of your focus and energy into working through practice questions.

We recommend that you do two full passes through UWorld’s Step 2 CK question bank. After your first complete pass through the question bank, do a quick take through all the questions to see which ones you got wrong or right. Identify weaknesses and high-yield topics that you struggled with, and work on solidifying your knowledge base in these areas. Then take a second pass through UWorld. After your second pass, you should go back and do a complete review, spending most of your time on the questions that you got wrong as well as the questions you are uncertain about but got right.

Your general study approach should focus on mastering the high-yield material first. You know this content will definitely be tested on the exam, so allow yourself the time to review it first with a strong Step 2 CK study plan. This is an ideal strategy because it gives you the ability to identify weaknesses and knowledge gaps in high-yield information early on, and allows your brain the time to process through this high-yield information during the rest of your dedicated time.

After you work through the high-yield material, use the next few weeks of your dedicated period to work through knowledge gaps that you identified, as well as detailed material that might be less high-yield but is fair game as far as what can be covered on the exam.

During the last few weeks of your dedicated study period, go back to the high-yield content that you worked through during your first few weeks. This allows you to reinforce and solidify all of the high-yield information that you already learned – and at this point, took the time to strengthen (especially as to weaknesses of yours that you discovered in high-yield material). Re-visiting this high-yield information is extremely important because the second time around, your brain will already have taken the time to process it, and you can continue to work through knowledge gaps and see how it all fits together.

our tutors have average scores of 260+ USMLE, 580+ MCAT, and 650+ COMLEX

In terms of the resources you should use to study, the optimal strategy is to use UWorld practice questions, with a text-based resource, and OnlineMedEd. This resource strategy gives you the benefit of changing-up how you’re learning on a day-to-day basis. The audio-visual component of OnlineMedEd combines really well with a text-based resource, and UWorld practice questions help you to apply everything you’re learning. Other than practice questions, the resources you use to study is the most important component of your Step 2 CK prep. Check out our Comprehensive Step 2 CK Resource Guide if you’re struggling with knowing which materials and resources to use to prepare for Step exams.

Because practice questions are so critical to effective Step 2 CK prep, make sure that you are using your UWorld question bank in a way that most closely replicates real-time exam conditions. This means using timed-mode and using randomized, mixed blocks as you get more familiar with Step 2 CK style questions and test items. Initially, you will want to do subject-specific blocks to get familiar with and master the concepts that are tested in each subject area, but later on, you should transition to randomized, mixed blocks. Using too many subject-specific blocks during your prep will give you far more comfort than you’ll have on test day. You will need to train your brain to do the mental acrobatics needed to quickly switch from one subject area to another, within timed constraints so you are able to complete the Step 2 CK effectively and receive a high Step 2 score.

Additional Resources for Practice Questions

While the go-to question bank for Step 2 CK is UWorld, you shouldn’t hesitate to consult other sources. If you have already gone through the UWorld question bank twice, then definitely seek out other resources for practice questions. You don’t want to get too comfortable with the same material – questions are supposed to get your brain thinking hard the way you will have to on exam day.

We highly recommend Amboss. It has a large question bank with an excellent library feature that breaks down the topics covered by each question. The answer explanations that Amboss provides are excellent – and they are easily searchable at any time. One of the best parts of doing practice questions is how much you learn from the answer explanations – and having the explanations so easily accessible is a huge advantage of Amboss.

OnlineMedEd is also another source of practice questions. The OnlineMedEd practice questions are more focused on the basics of high-yield information that can be tested on Step 2 CK. It’s a great question bank to use if you have already exhausted UWorld and Amboss, and/or if you want to answer questions that focus on the fundamental basics and identifying whether or not you’ve mastered them.

Always Check Your Progress

The NBME Self-Assessments are the best way to track your progress. We recommend that you take one Step 2 practice exam a few weeks before the end of M3 to get a baseline score. As you work through UWorld practice questions and other resources such as textbooks and OnlineMedEd (Check out our guide on Step 2 CK Resources), use NBMEs as a check on where you stand every few weeks.

Craft yourself a study schedule where you evenly space out NBMEs, giving yourself almost equal time, say 3 weeks, in between each one. After each NBME, review each question and make sure you can articulate WHY the correct choice is the best answer. You should also have a strong intuition for why the incorrect choices do not work. Taking an NBME Self-Assessment every few weeks during your dedicated period allows you to periodically replicate the length of a real-time exam, which can help you to identify your weaknesses quickly, and make your study time more efficient. Check out some of our tips on how to use NBME Self-Assessments. Reviewing NBME exams can be challenging given the lack of explanations — this is where tutoring can be extremely valuable, as we have expertise in guiding you through where you went wrong.

How Long Should You Study for Step 2 CK

The answer to this question depends on a lot of factors – the most important being, your knowledge baseline, and the amount of dedicated time you have.

Be diligent, and use your clerkship year and shelf exam prep to set yourself up for success. And if you are aiming for a competitive score, it is extremely important to have a dedicated study period with no other distractions or time sinks. You need this dedicated time to zero in on Step 2 CK prep and consolidate everything that you know and identify the material you need to review.

Exactly how much-dedicated study time you need depends on how far out you are from core clinical rotations (is your knowledge recent or is it rusty?) and how you scored on Step 1. There are a variety of factors at play here, but generally, we recommend a dedicated period of at least 4 weeks.

Scheduling Your Step 2 CK Exam

You should ideally take Step 2 CK within 6-7 months of finishing your core clinical rotations (however we realize this is not always possible for IMG students or students with unique circumstances). We recommend this because you will just recently have covered Step 2 CK material during your clinical rotations and shelf exam prep. So, your Step 2 CK knowledge base will be recent, activated, and ready to grow!

If you’re struggling with setting up a Step 2 CK study schedule or looking for general Step 2 CK study strategy advice, set up a trial tutoring session with our USMLE Step 2 CK coaches. We would be happy to help you create an effective and strategic Step 2 study plan!
we've helped over 500 medical students meet and exceed their goals for every step of the usmle

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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