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Step 1 Study Schedule: Make One You Actually Follow

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by Alec Palmerton, MD in Plan, Step 1 Pass-Fail

Anyone making a Step 1 study schedule knows there is one problem. How do you make a schedule you can actually follow? Of course, most of us want a detailed, even hour-by-hour plan so we can pass Step 1 in the shortest time. And obviously, we all crave certainty in how long things will take, especially with so many people struggling to pass Step 1. However, as we’ve seen, making a Step 1 study schedule has three major problems. As we’ve discussed, we:

  1. Don’t even know all the subjects we need to learn,
  2. Can’t know how long each subject will take to master properly, and
  3. Will have to repeat/re-learn everything that we don’t master sufficiently

But if making a detailed Step 1 study schedule is so hard, what should we do?

In this article, you will learn:

  • The key to improving your score regardless of what Step 1 study schedule you follow,
  • The way to build a detailed Step 1 schedule that you can actually follow,
  • How to set motivating goals that help you get more done,
  • Simple steps to make sure your days don’t get too crowded, and
  • Much more

Table of Contents

Master a System Until Your Scores Start Going Up

When constructing a schedule, the most important question to answer is this:

“Is my studying working?”

In other words, am I studying in such a way that my score is actually improving? This may seem obvious, but it’s a colossal waste of time to study if your results don’t reflect it.

We receive regular emails from students who have been studying for months and their scores haven’t improved. During this time, they’ve made and re-made dozens of schedules, each telling them what they should be doing every hour. However, they didn’t stop to figure out what they were doing wrong.

We’ve discussed the importance of mastering what you’re learning. A common mistake is to study each question as if you’re going to get the same question again on your test. What people miss is that the USMLEs have many ways to test a given concept. The concept will stay the same, but the details will change.

Study One Subject and Make Sure Your Scores Improve

To know if your studying is working, start with a single system. For example, in the Yousmle Online Course, we recommend students begin with cardiology. If you’re studying cardiology effectively:

  • Your percentages continue to increase – ideally to a 70%+ range and
  • You’re able to get questions correct on topics you’ve learned,
  • The system(s) you’ve studied improve from one NBME to another

If these conditions are met, what you’re doing is working at a basic level. Could it be better? Sure, we all have ways in which we could study more effectively.

If Your Scores Aren’t Improving, Stop Making Schedules

However, if your QBank and NBME scores are NOT improving significantly with focused effort, something is wrong. Most likely, the problem is NOT your schedule. Rather, the issue is in how you’re studying.

The most common mistake we see is students rushing. They typically have too much to do, and too little time in which to do it. As a consequence, they take what should take them months and try and condense it into weeks. They don’t give themselves enough time to learn anything, because they’re always worried about how much they need to “cover.”

They see their scores not improving. As a consequence, they double-down on their rushed strategy. In their Step 1 schedule, they double the number of UWorld questions they try to do.

If you find yourself rushing and your scores aren’t improving, slow down. Then, once you’ve gotten to the point of seeing steady improvements, use the rest of this article to help you lay out a daily schedule.

Interested in a personalized consultation to discuss what is holding you back? Sign up for a FREE consultation here.

Build in Flexibility AND Structure with a General Daily Schedule

The problem you need to solve with your Step 1 schedule is this:

You don’t know what you don’t know, nor how long it will take to learn it

Most of us want to know what we should be doing every hour. We would love for someone to just “tell us what I need to do to pass.” Then we’d do it.

However, since everyone’s background is different – and since the amount needed to learn is so immense – there isn’t a one-size-fits all approach to making Step 1 schedules.

Maybe the pages of First Aid you planned on studying take longer. (Common). Maybe you need more time to learn that topic from the UWorld question you missed. (Even more common).

Be sure to add flexibility into your schedule. Try to avoid schedules where you are told exactly what pages/topics to study on a particular day.

Sample Step 1 Daily Schedule

Here is a sample schedule we use for the Yousmle Online Course for students in their dedicated studying. Note that there are alternative schedules we use for students who are taking classes and/or clerkships.

  • 5:30 AM: Wake up / breakfast
  • 6 AM: 40-80 QBank questions (4-6 hours; consider tutor, untimed questions if you have more than 1.5 months until your test)
    • NOTE: quality >> quantity. Initially, while you are learning to make excellent cards, you might only do 20-40 questions/day.
  • 12 PM: Lunch
  • 1 PM: Anki all old, 30-50 new cards (3-4 hours)
  • Late Afternoon: 2-3 Yousmle Online Course Videos (1-2.5 hours)
  • 6 PM: Dinner
  • 7 PM: Finish remaining work from earlier in the day
  • 9 PM: Bed
Create Accountability

A flexible, structured daily schedule is useful. And what can make it even better?


It’s easy to SAY that we’re going to do something. However, with added accountability, we are more likely to follow through.

Ideas to hold yourself accountable:

  • Find a friend to text daily with what you plan to do and/or what you did
  • Go one step further and offer to buy them coffee if you fail to do something (e.g., wake up at a particular time, spend enough time on a QBank etc.)
  • Sign up for the Online Course and schedule (free) weekly check-ins
Put the Least Important “Nice to Have’s” at the End of the Day

We all have things that we NEED to do, and things we’d like to do. Many of us struggle with letting the “nice to haves” crowd out the “need to do’s.”

For example, students we work with often want to do something like this in a day:

  • Anki
  • Boards and Beyond
  • Sketchy Micro
  • First Aid
  • UWorld
  • Yousmle Online Course

If you tried to do ALL of these things, you’d go crazy. Instead, put the most useful things first. I’m obviously biased – but it would be Anki + Yousmle Online Course + UWorld. The Online Course is different from other videos in that:

  1. You learn the subjects in the context of actual USMLE style questions,
  2. We spend at least a week on most lectures, to make sure it is of the highest quality, and
  3. Each lecture has its own associated Anki cards, so you don’t have to waste time making your own

But you can make a schedule with whatever core resources you want! The important thing is to identify what is the most important resource – and then put the others to the end of the day. IF you have time (and that is a big “if”) – you can do those resources. If you don’t have time – and you usually won’t – then don’t sweat it.

Avoid at all costs the tendency to replace the most useful things with less useful resources. For more on this, see this article.

Daily Minimums

Rather than have a schedule that tells you exactly what you should study every hour, we recommend setting minimums you will accomplish. For example:

Note that these are guidelines you should adapt to your individual situation. As above, the most important thing is that you master what you are learning. If that means doing fewer QBank questions / less in a day, then do less.

What If I Need More Time?

In making your Step 1 study schedule, you may be wondering how you can possibly get it all done. You may also be wondering if you should give yourself more time to prepare. If you’re struggling to pass Step 1 and aren’t sure what to do, read this article.

In addition, consider a free consultation where we can help you pinpoint what you can do to consistently improve your score.

Concluding Thoughts

Step 1 study schedules are an exercise in fantasy meeting reality. We all fantasize about knowing exactly what should be doing every hour of every day. Who wouldn’t want to have a recipe for exactly what you need to do to pass your Step 1 in a month – regardless of how much you know going in?

Unfortunately, the reality often falls (far) short of our desires. Avoid creating a rigid schedule you’ll end up re-making/abandoning. Instead, give yourself flexibility AND structure with a daily scheduling including minimums.

What do you think? Have you found a technique to make a Step 1 study schedule that works well? Did you find this article helpful? Let us know how we can help you in the comments below!

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Want FREE Cardiology Flashcards?

Cardiology is key for impressive USMLE scores. Master cardiology from a Harvard-trained anesthesiologist who scored USMLE 270 with these 130+ high-yield flash cards. You’ll be begging for cardio questions - even if vitals make you queasy.