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

February 23, 2007

“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


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