Creating a Study Schedule

A guy from Columbia came and spoke to my medical class about making a schedule for studying for the boards, and I think it was one of the most brilliant things I've ever heard.

First, he told us not to look at subjects and say "oh, I will spend 1 day on this subject, and 3 days on that subject", but to divide the day up into three separate study sessions. Then, you figured out how many days you were planning on studying for the boards, and then you multiply that by 3 so you know how many study sessions you had total. I think doing this is an amazing thing because it is so easy to waste a whole day, and then only get stuff done in the last few hours of the day. With this though, the amount of time you can waste is limited, because, you know that in just a few hours, you're moving on to a new subject so you have to make sure you use the study session well. However, there is no rule against having back to back sessions on the same subject. I just didn't do it that often as I felt it helped to keep me motivated and to remember things better by switching things up more frequently.

He then divided up all the subjects covered by the boards, and had us rank each subject on how well we knew the subject and on how much we liked the subject on a scale of 1-3. Using those rankings, he had us decide how many study sessions we would spend on a given subject. He also gave us the rule, that no matter what, you had to give each subject at least 3 study sessions.

He cautioned us that regardless of how much we liked a given subject, or, how much we felt like we didn't know in a certain subject, you should not study just that subject. Because the more time you spend on one thing, the less time you have for others. Hence, you have to make sure that you cover all subjects at least a little bit. But you have to use your own moderation in how you divide it up.

So after I divided up how many study sessions each subject would get, I created an excel file to keep track of my study progress. At the end of each study day, I entered in what I studied, and planned out which subjects I would like to study on the following day. Here's an example of my excel sheet after a couple of study sessions. (I set up the excel sheet so that you only have to type in the "Used" column and it calculates the other numbers for you.):

1 Allotted Used Left
2 Behavioral Science 6 1 5
3 Biochem 4 4
4 Embryology 4 4
5 Micro / Immuno 5 1 4
6 Pathology 4 4
7 Pharm 7 2 5
8 CV 6 1 5
9 Endocrine 4 4
10 GI 3 3
11 Heme / Onc 3 3
12 Rheum 3 3
13 Neuro / Psych 4 4
14 Renal 8 8
15 Repro 4 4
16 Pulm 5 5
18 70 5 65

Using an excel file is good if you're always studying by the same computer, but because I was studying in the library, I switched halfway through to using a google document version of excel which was easier than having to save and email it to myself every day.

Some people liked to schedule out what subject they were going to study at which session on which day for all the way up until the boards (I know others who took more of that approach). However, I liked the flexibility of taking it a day / week at a time. Moreover, I took a 4 hour practice test each week, (either a USMLERx practice test, a USMLE World Test, or a NBME test) which gives you a breakdown on how well you did on each subject. So before I started studying for the boards at all, I took a practice test, and that first week I studied more on the subjects I did poorly on (but I didn't entirely just do the subjects I did bad on, you have to sometimes break up the subjects you hate with ones you enjoy). Then the next week I took another test, and let that test kind of determine where my focus would be for that week, and then I just kept doing that up until the boards.

While I didn't make long term plans as to which subjects I would study on which days, I did plan all the way out in advance which tests I would do on which day. That way I knew when I was approaching a practice test and which one it would be (Rx vs World vs NBME). I printed off a monthly calender (found here if you need one:, and then wrote in on the calendar which days I would take which tests. Also, in addition to tracking with the excel sheet how many study sessions I had used (and how many I had left) for each subject, I also found it helpful at the end of the day to write down what subjects I studied on which days, just to make sure I kept everything straight. (Doing that helped me correct a mistake or two I had made on my excel sheet incurred while going along.)

Also, for one of my practice exams, I did a 4 hour exam plus two additional one hour timed exams so that way I felt like I was building up stamina for the real thing. I felt that the practice exam at the site was a great one to do too, although you don't get as much feedback from it. And with all the practice tests, I felt like they were not only great opportunities for reviewing material and finding out what I was weak in, but also to practice my timing and test taking skills (which sometimes gets overlooked, but I think is an easy way to get more points).

Moreover, as I got partway through, I realized that my initial assessment of how many study sessions I would give to each subject wasn't spot on, so I moved some of my sessions from one subject to another. (However, each subject still has to get at least 3 sessions.)

However much time your school gives you to study for Step 1, I would plan on using most of it, but make sure to have a week off after you take the test so you can decompress before beginning rotations. Avoid the temptation to just add more study sessions and plan to reschedule your test for later. I feel like that that's not a good route for a couple of reasons (which I didn't really realize until after the test): 1) Step 1 is a cram. Plain and simple. While understanding concepts is important, there is still a lot of memorizing details. And the longer you study for it, the more you're in danger of forgetting what you studied at the beginning. (I've already forgotten a lot of what I studied for the boards.) And 2) If you feel no real pressure because you know you can always take more time to study, you end up robbing yourself of a great motivator: a deadline. For the boards, everyone needs as much motivation as they can get and a deadline is one of the best motivators. For me personally, I found that I needed a reason to get me studying each day, and that was the clock ticking down to my test time. (That's also why making a schedule and sticking to it is so important.)

As far as how I spent each individual day, I made each of my sessions 3 hours long and also scheduled some dedicated time each day for just questions. I scheduled a study session from 8:00 am to 11:00 am, Lunch from 11:00 am -1:00 pm, Study Session from 1:00 pm - 4:00 pm, Random Question sets from 4:00 pm - 6:00 pm (While question sets of 60 I feel are good, I also liked to do question sets of 10 too because it just seemed to break it up better), Dinner from 6:00 pm - 7:30 pm, and then another Study session from 7:30-10:30 pm. As I said before, at the end of a day of studying, I would update my excel file and plan out the next day or two of studying based on what I felt like I needed (or wanted) to do and on how I did on my practice test for that week. The Columbia guy also recommended taking 3 sessions off each week. For me, it just worked best to take the three sessions off on Sunday so I had the whole day off, but you don't necessarily have to do it that way. Additionally, on days which I took practice exams, I would only schedule one study session in the evening. And that was even pushing it sometimes. You really do need a lot of time in order to take (and review the answers) for a practice exam.

Some mornings (OK, a lot of mornings), I was late, in which case I would just take a shorter lunch to make up the difference and got back on track by the afternoon, but I wish I had been better about that. I scheduled a longer lunch, because I tried to go running during lunch and listen to Goljan while I ran. I wasn't perfect at following my schedule, but having a schedule really made a big difference, and I really felt like the closer I followed my schedule the better I did. One thing I might recommend in creating your own schedule, is creating more question time. People I saw ace the exam swear by questions, and while I feel like I made a dedicated effort to do questions, I can't help but wonder if I should have done more. Perhaps I should have had 2 1/2 hour study sessions and more time dedicated to just questions? But either way, make sure the schedule you create is realistic and works for you. You want it to push yourself, but if it's too insane, you just end up behind and lose all motivation to follow it. I think the schedule I made for me was about as much as I could take.

One other thing: having someone to study with is also a great motivator. I studied with a classmate, and we didn't talk that much while studying, but just having someone around me kind of helped keep me on task. Also, another good way to at least be around other people while you study, is to study in libraries.

Good luck in creating your schedule. If you follow these tips and stick to your schedule, you'll do awesome on Step 1.

Good Luck!