How to Prepare for the USMLE: Should I Take a Prep Course?

“Should I take a prep course?”

Shrug. I don’t know if you should or shouldn’t. The best I can do is tell you why I didn’t. Comprehensive review courses make a few implicit promises that include:

  1. Structured lecture, pacing of material, routine
  2. A community of other serious students
  3. A one-stop-shop for your review materials
  4. Some diagnostic component
  5. Confidence that you’re studying the right way

If you’re thinking about taking the Kaplan course, this is more or less what you’ll get. A great many of my classmates went this route and chose the Step 1 Prep Retreat which includes a full-service hotel setting and costs $5,599. That’s a lot of money. I could have chosen to take out a “bridge” loan for $6000 to cover it, but I decided to make damn sure that it was worth it before I added to my debt.

Could I accomplish everything the review course was offering on my own? The structured lecturing was out of the question. I didn’t go to class for the first two years, so taking a live lecture course made little sense for me. I’ve written about it before, but believe me when I tell you that my ears are stupid. I’ve never been the type to sit passively and absorb information; I instead need to be actively involved by rewriting the material (time-consuming) or teaching it.

As far as the pacing goes, I got a hold of the Kaplan lecture schedule just to see how much weight they gave to each section. Then, I just picked something upon which to base a schedule (First Aid), looked at how many days I had to study, and made one for myself. It wasn’t that hard to do. Sticking to it is often a pain, but chances are that every time I want to fall behind my study partner is keeping pace. At this point, my competitive nature takes over and I buckle down.

Daily routine has been incredibly important and we screwed it up. Trying to find a good place to study is hard in the winter when all the public libraries keep banker’s hours and all the academic ones are for students only. Having to sneak in, find parking a mile away, and worry about freezing to death all got in the way for us. Eventually, we found a great library and have been going there every day from 8am-6pm, but we wasted about four weeks trying to find it. So far, wasting that time has been one of my biggest mistakes. Things would have been so much easier if I was the type that could get work done at home.

I couldn’t exactly get a community of students around me, but I thought that might be a good thing. As it stands, I struck a deal with my roommate: I’ll make you study if you make me study. We shook on it and things have been going well for six weeks now. I recently spoke with a classmate of mine at the Kaplan Retreat in Alabama and found out how different it is.

“Kaplan Spring Break 2007! WOO!” I was afraid of that, to be honest. So many medical students reliving their dorm days sounds like a recipe for distraction. “We all wake up for eight hours of lecture with an hour break for lunch and by the end of it, we’re too tired to do anything else. We either spend the rest of the day watching a movie, going to the hotel bar, or lifting weights and relaxing in the indoor pool. It’s pretty great.” All that’s missing is a few testimonials about all the hot singles waiting for your call and a 900 number. I’m glad I passed.

As my roommate Kelly put it, “This is two months of your life where you make yourself a deal: life is going to suck, you’re going to work, you will have no fun so that after it’s over you don’t have to regret any of it.” Sounded good to me.

Being on your own outside of a class also means having to figure which books to get. There’s a great book called The Paradox of Choice that I recommend, but the nuts and bolts of it is that by having so many options and having the time to compare them against each other, we end up paralyzing ourselves and no matter what we choose (even if it’s better than what we would have chosen without all the options) we’re more unhappy with it. Such is life when buying review books. I thought I had a handle on it but have since learned that the books everyone else thinks are great I think are shit, and that no matter what happened I wouldn’t have had the time to find the “right” ones anyway.

So if you get the Kaplan books when you take the Kaplan class, you’ll probably be really happy with them. I have been unhappy with mine because I can compare them against other books to see their strengths and weaknesses. Ignorance is bliss. If I had to do it all over again, I might have just gone to, looked at a list of books I should buy, and then done so without questioning.

As far as the diagnostic component goes, I started studying for the USMLE thinking that the Kaplan QBank was the only game in town. I’ve since discovered quite the opposite and ended up going with USMLE WORLD. You have to wonder how many people never investigate and end up going with Kaplan classes because of how famous the Kaplan QBank is.

The last one is a doozy: confidence that you’re studying the right way. I struggled with this one before beginning. Ultimately, I looked at my last two years in school and decided that I had done enough things correctly that I could fake my way through preparing for the Boards. It also helped that I found the Step1Blog and talked to a few successful people a year ahead of me that also studied on their own. I’ve tried to figure out the best way to cover the material and I’ve failed at it more than a few times but I’ve also had some success and now I’m in my stride. Good thing since the test is now three weeks away.

In all, I’ve lived at my roommates house rent free, paid for gas, spent $500 on books ($200 of which I wasted on the Kaplan Lecture Notes), $200 on warm clothes because Cincinnati is freezing, and spent $700 to register for the actual exam. That comes to the grand total of $1500. What am I doing with the extra $4000 that I didn’t spend on a course?

My own Kaplan Spring Break 2007!

  • Flight from Midwest, USA to Bangkok, Thailand on March 27th.
  • Canon D60 digital camera with two Sigma lenses
  • Northface backpack (I will be living from this)
  • Flight home, May 8th


Return to USMLE Step 1 page.


25 Responses to How to Prepare for the USMLE: Should I Take a Prep Course?

  1. Chris says:

    It’s nice reading about people in the same place. I’m currently taking the 5th semester at Ross in Miami and studying for the boards while contemplating transfering into a school here in the states. The main problem I keep finding is this “urgent reasoning for transfer” that most of the schools require if they will even look at transfer students. It sounds like you are expected to do all four years in Grenada. I don’t know if St. George allows it, but there can exist the possibility of arranging your own clinicals throughout the US on your own and working with a clinical advisor at SGU. Anyway, I’m sure you’ve already looked into it. I hope everything works out for you as far as transfering but I was in Grenada last year on vacation and I’ll tell you, SGU looked like a Sandals resort compared to Ross in Dominica. It’s the Carabbean and beautiful and all that but I know after 16 months in Dominica, I was ready to go.

  2. lulu says:

    i know of many students who did horribly after attending Kaplan reveiw. It was like med school all over again, lecture, lecture, lecture. What we need to to know how to use the knowlege we have to answer questions. There is a great program in the midwest that specializes in it. thier email is

    Good luck to all those taking the big one:USMLE

  3. lulu says:

    i know of many students who did horribly after attending Kaplan reveiw. It was like med school all over again, lecture, lecture, lecture. What we need to to know how to use the knowlege we have to answer questions. Results are great board scores. There is a great program in the midwest that specializes in it. thier email is

    Good luck to all those taking the big one:USMLE

  4. Deep says:

    i’m IMG and want to know if there is any use of joining kaplan centre prep.i am one of those students who never really benefited from live class lectures,rather i study by writing n rewriting n understanding things {time consuming but effective in my mbbs}.so guys can anyone please reply to me as to whether kaplan centre all abt live lectures or they provide much more??

    please help!!!as i need to make a decision of joining kaplan asap.!!

    • mazin says:

      i’ve read ur post here . and i myself am in the same shoes and i was just wondering if u had found any lead on doing kaplan courses or not . keeping in mind their high cost ! thanx.

    • Sandra says:

      I’m also considering taking the USMLE – wondering if you’ve figured out how to prepare for it yet.
      When are you taking step 1? how much time to prepare?
      Let me know if you have any tips.


    • Stepprep says:

      If it’s not too late (although I fear it may be), you should check out to study! It’s basically online flash cards with thousands of questions built-in, and you can upload your own or make them out of power point slides.

  5. Dr M says:

    hi friends,
    me in same shoes for step 1. the problem is that i am an IMG, graduated last year, so almost 4 years has passed over the basic sciences knowledge required for step 1 and much things from basics in deep coma in my brains! so to wake ’em all up again for step 1, i don’t know what to do? i am swinging in my decisions whether to go to Kaplan or study by myself. if Kaplan, then which option? any clues regarding costs other the fees? if by myself, then exactly how? and in how much time?
    any tip strongly appreciated.

    • Al Jihadi says:

      Wow 4 years!!! I do not want to discourage you mate but 4 years is a very long time to do step 1…if you are not a practising Dr and you did something else that is not related to medicine…I would advise that you redo basic science at a medical school before going for step 1…it will help in refreshing all the info and also boost your confidence for the boards…All the best

  6. Wajid says:

    So cool and very true this little passage about the kaplan prep. So much money waisted for nothing and without a guarantee to do well on the boards…Why waiste so much money on course that can help you fail when you can do it on your own and have a greater satisfaction for success?

  7. wass says:

    guys i need to get some advice about when to take my step 1 ! currently i`m 2nd year in med school .. and i have a lot of questions so if anyone wants to talk … this is my skype ID wass7771 add me ASAP :P

  8. TIRTH says:

    hi,I am also an img and just started studying for step 1..just completing kaplan physio notes for 1st time..i first read step 2 kap nts al subs just in 20 much advisable is it to gv step2 ck b4 step 1?i want ur opinion

  9. Anak says:

    I am done with my step 1 &2 without having kaplan class. But must listen kaplan lecture notes 2 to 3 times and then start doing USMLe World. I am sure you guys will score good. I know kaplan are very expensive so if you r fresh grd then do this things.

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  12. lisa says:

    can anyone give me actual scores on those ppl who did “self-prep” and what kind of residency programs you got into? and i will use this to compare to the scores ppl who take the courses, kaplan or others; and compare…that is fair no?

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  14. I am not an expert on this field. But I thought i would share an experience of a friend who took the Usmle step 1 exam. He took up an online course, WizIq,to prepare for the exam. He informed me of the vastly interactive sessions between him and many other other students during the virtual class. I have found out the link for the benefit of this blog.

  15. I want some advice in choosing USMLE..USMLE in chennai

  16. Jann says:

    I got this site from my friend who told me concerning this website and now this
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  17. Riverton1988 says:

    Hello everyone .I wanted to preapare USMLE step 1 but i caouldnt do it by myself .it’s really difficult process and i think i won’t be able to do it alone .Is it good idea to join KPLAN courses or it’s just waste of m money ?Did anyone take that courses?

  18. DANISH Ahmad says:

    eventually i enter in the world of usmle

  19. Foster says:

    I see that these posts are VERY old and some from 2010? How did you do on USMLE Step 1? Any advise would be helpful and What review methods work the best for a high passing score?

    Foster Cullum, DC

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