Improving Your USMLE Step 3 Study Schedule

So, you’re well on your way to becoming a doctor! You have come a long way so congratulations! I guess you can say that the storm has passed and the worst part is over. At the very least, you have probably applied for internship to a hospital of your choice and now, you just need to pass this final ordeal: USMLE Step 3.

You probably realize by now that when people told you that becoming a doctor isn’t easy, they sure weren’t kidding. It’s not the kind of profession where you can just wing it and hope for the best. When you become a doctor, you become responsible for other’s people’s lives. To assume that big of a responsibility, you need to be the kind of person who is always up for the challenge. It’s not something you can face with a half-baked attitude. This is why the medicine career track is very strict and very demanding of its aspirants. It’s not an easy road to tread for a reason. The MCAT, the application process, and USMLE, and everything that comes after are all put in place in order to filter out those who are incapable of handling the responsibilities and liabilities of a medical professional.

For you to get this far is a very big deal. Again, you have my congratulations.

But before you can finally claim victory, you still have to shoulder this big boulder that’s blocking your path. If you did well on the previous steps, all that’s really left to do is to pass Step 3. You don’t need an extremely high score. You just need to hit the upper average so that you can move on to the next stage of your medical journey.

Anyway, I believe that before proceeding to discuss Step 3 of the USMLE, it would be better to start with a brief introduction to the test series. For first-time takers, this term may be fairly new so it would be great if we can all start on the same page later on. Here we go!

What You Need To Know About The USMLE

So I know that you already have an idea about how challenging the life of a med student can really be. But what you probably don’t know about are the things that make it so. Well, one big headache for med students is the USMLE – short for United States Medical Licensing Examination. Without doubt, this examination (or should I say examinations) is one of the biggest hurdles in a medical aspirants life.

The first thing you should know about the USMLE is that it is a three-part testing series. Well, it has four parts in total if we’re going to count the two sections in Step 2 separately. Each test or group of tests is considered one “step” which is why the parts are called USMLE Step 1, 2, and 3. If you’ve already passed the first two parts, then that’s awesome. You’re out of the woods for the most part. If not, then let me tell you what to expect on the first two tests.

Let’s start with Step 1.

The USMLE Step 1 is often administered after the first two years of medical school and covers the basic sciences and all the other subjects students have taken up in the past two years. It’s basically a test to gauge your level of knowledge on medicine and its related fields. It’s a 280 item questionnaire divided into seven parts. Each part consists 40 questions that should be answered within an hour (roughly 1 minute and 30 seconds per question). Examinees are allowed a 45-minute lunch break and a 15-minute review session on the examination day. While you may think that Step 1 is the easiest part of three-part testing series, you are terribly mistaken. The material to be covered is vast and diverse so what you’re really up against is time. You’ll need lots and lots of time and concentration to cover all the material needed for the test. Step 1 also heavily impacts your overall results in the USMLE and can influence your application internship.

This is why following a good study schedule for is necessary to pass Step 1 with flying colors. Fortunately, we also have a quick guide for that so be sure to check it out later on.

Moving on to Step 2, this part of the USMLE testing series is divided into two sections: 2-CK and 2-CS. They are typically administered on the third or fourth year of medical school but examinees have the choice of taking it much later on, especially if they did great with Step 1 and they don’t want the Step 2 results to affect their internship application (students apply to hospitals for internship training at around this time). The CK section stands for Clinical Knowledge which tests the examinees patient skills on paper. It’s more of a comprehensive exam on how much students know about communicating with patients and handling emergency situations. The other section, CS, stands for Clinical Skills which include patient handling, record-keeping, identifying symptoms, performing physical examinations, and discussing findings to patients and other medical professionals. These two sections complete the second step of USMLE.

If you didn’t do well on Step 1, then you still have a chance to redeem yourself on Step 2-CK.  As for 2-CS, it’s a pass or fail test since it’s a hands-on examination. If you don’t get as lucky on your first try, you get to have two more tries (total of three) within the 12-month period. Now, Step 1 and Step 2 are very important tests that basically determine whether you have the qualities to become a real doctor. Being a medical professional is not a joke, after all. It’s one of those professions wherein you can do no wrong. The consequences are far too dire to be careless, after all. In business, you do a wrong pitch and you lose a customer. But in medicine, you make one wrong diagnosis and your patient’s life is on the line.

It’s a very, very serious profession which is why the filtering process is also very, very strict.

Anyway, if you’re a passer of both tests, the last part shouldn’t be as big a worry. To put it simply, all you need to get this over and done with is to pass the USMLE Step 3.

What Does The USMLE Step 3 Cover?

Hold your horses. I did say that Step 3 has the least weight on your medical career among all the other steps but I never said that it should be taken lightly. Step 3 is the deciding factor whether you would be allowed to practice medicine independently. It is usually taken during the intern year for residency so you will have to study for the exam while minding your performance on your internship. While many say that Step 3 scores hardly matter, you should think of the future of your career in medicine. Depending on the path you’re going to take, your scores on this test may or may not matter.

Still, it’s should pass this test all the same. Otherwise, you won’t have any luck at getting your license. And if you’re planning to pass it anyway, why not go out with a bang?

The USMLE Step 3 is a 2-day exam – bummer, I know. The first day is much like Step 1 and Step 2-CK and is a multiple choice exam questionnaire consisting of 233 items divided into 6 sections with no more than 40 questions each. You get an hour to finish each block and get a 45-minute lunch break after the third block. The first day typically runs for 7 hours or so.

The second day is when things get a little different. Instead of the usual 7-8 hours, the second day of Step 3 examinations lasts 9 hours and is broken into two different test formats. The first part is a multiple choice test of 180 items divided into 6 sections of 30 questions each. This time only 45 minutes is given to accomplish all questions in one section. The second part is case simulations. There are 13 cases in total and this is administered through a computer. You get 10 to 20 minutes to answer all questions related to each case. As you can see, Step 3 is a longer more arduous process of testing your abilities as a future physician. The entire process sums up to 16 hours in total.   

How Can You Prepare The Right Study Schedule For It?

On the previous section, we talked about how much longer Step 3 is compared to the first two steps. However, it’s not like you have to take the Day 1 and Day 2 exams back-to-back. You can take Day 1 first and schedule Day 2 a couple days later. You can schedule your exams according to what you believe is most beneficial to you. This should also allow you to organize your study schedule more effectively.

If you’ve successfully surpassed the first two steps, studying for Step 3 shouldn’t be that hard anymore. After all, you’re a seasoned test taker and you have most of the subjects down. The only thing that’s left for you to do is to review the materials you’ve taken up in the past so a good time to start studying is a month or two before the actual exam. You may also sign up for Step 3 tutorial classes if you want to hit all the key subjects crucial to the examination.

What you need to pay more attention to are case studies. Day 2 of the USMLE Step 3 have case simulations so you have to get ready for that. After all, as a medical professional, it’s not just important that you know the concepts; you need to be able to apply them as well. Allotting time for case simulations in your study schedule is a wise thing to consider.              

November 12, 2019

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