What can we learn from the data about USMLE Step 2 percentiles? And does your score even matter?
Among medical professionals in training, USMLE Step 1 tends to be the most feared hurdle. It’s known as a difficult exam, and your score on Step 1 can have a huge impact on your ability to match with the residency of your choice. In fact, many of the more competitive residency programs report having cutoffs for Step 1 scores, and also certain scores above which they will almost always offer an interview to an applicant. (If you’re thinking about Step 1 percentiles, this might be of interest.)
Many students are less worried about Step 2 than they were about Step 1. The buzz among medical students certainly suggests worrying less about Step 2. However, keep in mind that Step 2 CK can also have an impact on your residency application. If you didn’t score as well as you’d have liked on Step 1, then Step 2 CK could be your chance to redeem yourself. In addition, the announcement that Step 1 will transition to being pass/fail only in 2022 means that we can expect residency programs to become more interested in using Step 2 CK scores in their decisions. (Step 2 CS is already pass/fail.)
If you’re approaching Step 2, you may be wondering what your score on Step 2 CK actually means. What are the Step 2 percentiles? What score should you be aiming for as you prepare for residency applications?
Step 2 CK percentiles
One important thing to note is that, overall, Step 2 CK scores are actually higher than for Step 1 and Step 3. This could be looked at as meaning that the exam is easier; for example, it would be easier to score 240 on Step 2 CK than to score 240 on Step 1. That’s true, but it’s also not quite the right way of looking at things. You could also note that a 240 on Step 1 is in the 66th percentile, while a 240 on Step 2 CK is only in the 39th percentile. In other words, you need a higher score on Step 2 in order to achieve the same percentile. Because residency programs are comparing exam scores of different applicants to each other (not just looking at the number in isolation), it’s your Step 2 percentile that really matters.
Data provided by the National Board of Medical Examiners, which administers the USMLE, indicate that the average score for Step 2 CK, for US medical graduates, hovers just above 240 – generally it’s been 242 to 243 over the past few years. The 25th percentile is around 232, while the 75th percentile is around 256. This means that if you score at or below 232, you’re in the bottom 1/4 of test takers, while if you score at or above 256, you’re in the top 1/4. If you score 243, you’re right in the middle of the pack.
Does your USMLE Step 2 percentile actually matter?
This is the huge question that many students are asking. The fact is that Step 2 CK scores do have an impact on your probability of matching to your first-choice program. Step 2 will only matter more after Step 1 transitions to a pass/fail system in 2022.
In 2020, the minimum score to pass Step 2 CK is 209. There are 370 questions on the exam, and you only need to get a little over half of them right in order to pass. Don’t panic too much about this exam! Still, you’re probably aiming to do more than just pass. Of course, the more competitive the residency program you’d like to match with, the higher the score you should be aiming for.
The 2020 report by the National Resident Matching Program (NRMP) showed a mean (average) Step 2 CK score of 246.9 for students who matched to their first-choice specialty. As would be expected, the median score for matched applicants varied by specialty. The most competitive specialties (such as plastic surgery and dermatology) had median scores above 250, while the least competitive (including family medicine, pathology, and psychiatry) had median scores around 230 (give or take a couple of points).
Some students consider putting off taking Step 2 CK until after their residency applications are complete, figuring that this means it won’t matter for their application. This might work in some cases, but more competitive residency programs will actually require that you take Step 2 CK in order for them to consider ranking you for their program. They want to see that your performance on this exam matches your performance on Step 1, and is strong enough that they want you in their program. You likely won’t be able to get away with putting off Step 2 in order to avoid having it matter for your residency applications.
Should you prepare for Step 2 CK?
Step 2 CK is fundamentally a different test than Step 1. When you’re taking Step 1, you’ve been spending most of your time in the classroom and in the library, and Step 1 primarily tests basic science facts. When you’re taking Step 2, you’ve been spending most (okay, basically all) of your time on the wards and in the clinic, and Step 2 primarily tests clinical knowledge and reasoning. In a way, you’ve been reviewing for Step 2 every time you cared for a patient as a medical student. This could be a big reason why Step 2 CK scores are higher overall; medical students are better prepared for this exam, simply because of the nature of medical school itself.
Many students use this as an excuse not to really bother with studying for Step 2. They figure that third year will prepare them well. This gives the motivated student a great opportunity. If you actually dedicate a significant amount of time to preparing for this exam, you’ll be ahead of many of your peers. If you create a study plan and stick to it, then you have the chance to do really well on Step 2 CK. This could be the edge that gets you into the residency program of your choice.
Do you have a study plan for Step 2 CK?
In order to get the best score you possibly can on Step 2 CK, you need an efficient and effective study plan. Medlearnity is here to help you prepare for Step 2 CK and beyond. Check out our study guide for Step 2, and our review of the best resources to use as you study.
Personalized help from a professional tutor can also make a huge difference in your score. Our students report improvements in their USMLE scores of 20 to 50 points after receiving tutoring. Your tutor will identify your strengths and weaknesses and help you create your study plan. He or she will also walk you through the process of reasoning through questions; with a good grasp of strategy, you’ll feel confident on test day and be ready to ace the exam. If you’d like to see what it would be like to work with a tutor, we invite you to schedule a free one-hour session.
A great Step 2 CK score is important, but it’s just one part of your overall residency application. We can also help you with other aspects of this process, including writing your personal statement and presenting your application in the best possible way. This will help you to land a residency spot in the specialty and location of your choice.
We wish you a bright future in the rewarding field of medicine.