COVID-19 & USMLE® Boards: What You Need to Know

Osmosis Team
Published on Jul 16, 2020. Updated on Mar 14, 2023.

This year, the Federation of State Medical Boards® (FSMB®) and National Board of Medical Examiners® (NBME®) announced a number of changes to the United States Medical Licensing Examination® testing process in response to the pandemic. There are a lot of questions about their plans and how it will affect this year’s applicants. Read on for Osmosis’s definitive guide!

What changes has the USMLE made to board exams testing in light of COVID-19?

Testing for the USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 Clinical Knowledge and Step 3 exams was temporarily suspended in March 2020. Bulk cancellations of test appointments have been rolled out, and even though some testing resumed on May 1, more cancellations are expected. On May 26, the USMLE announced that Step 2 CS exams would be cancelled for the next 12–18 months.

Some Prometric testing sites have reopened starting on May 1. In order to adhere to social distancing guidelines, however, Prometric has reduced the capacity of test sites to allow test-takers more space. Prometric has also announced enhanced test-taking measures that all candidates should review before appearing for the exam. 

Prometric randomly selected tests for cancellation. The USMLE program has extended the eligibility period of applicants who have been affected through December 2020, and no action needs to be taken on your part if your test was cancelled and your eligibility is set to expire before your reschedule date. 

Osmosis illustration of a student taking a supervised test.

What is the USMLE’s plan for students hoping to take Step exams in 2020?

USMLE has created a plan to expand test center availability in three phases. The organization hopes to alleviate some of the stress and uncertainty that candidates are feeling, as well as open the pipeline of this vital process.

Phase 1: Opening testing centers at medical schools (June 2020)

The first phase involved setting up testing centers at medical schools that have appropriate space and are in regions of high demand. These test centers had Prometric testing equipment delivered and set up in accordance with their social distancing and test integrity policies. This expansion was intended to help address the limits of testing capacity around the country.

Phase 2: Event-based testing (July–August 2020)

The USMLE is exploring the option of creating large testing events at medical schools around the US. By testing large groups at once, these events could address some of the testing backlog that has been generated by cancellations. The events would be proctored and adhere to social distancing guidelines. The organization hopes to hold a few rounds of these events over the course of the summer.

Phase 3: Remote testing (August–November 2020)

The organization is also exploring the feasibility of allowing remote proctoring for exams. This option includes a level of complexity that surpasses the other phases, so the USMLE is not making any promises on this one. They state that the earliest possible roll-out of remote proctoring would be in August, but could be much later—or not possible at all.

Will my USMLE exam dates be pushed back because of COVID-19?

Many students have already had their exams pushed back or cancelled. Prometric has indicated that, while the bulk of cancellations has already been made, there will be more delays and cancellations moving forward. With so much uncertainty about centers reopening and USMLE’s plans, it is hard for them to definitively state that no more tests will be canceled. 

If your test is canceled, you can reschedule with no fees. Now that centers are starting to reopen, you can go to Prometric’s website to find available test times.  

What content changes are being made to USMLE exams?

Late in 2019, the USMLE announced that it would implement some changes to the exam’s content. The exam will have more items addressing communication skills, legal and ethical issues, systems-based practice, and patient safety. These changes were to be rolled out in two phases in May and June of this year. With the upheaval caused by the pandemic, these changes have been postponed until September 2020 at the earliest. 

The organization will make an announcement giving six weeks’ notice before any future changes to the content.

Will Step 1 move to pass/fail?

The short answer is yes (more on that in our blog about the NRMP’s announcement). However, that change is scheduled to be made starting in January 2022. At this time, there is no plan to move the new grading system earlier. Especially with all of the confusion, cancellations, and changes to the proctoring of the exam, the organization does not feel it would be good to introduce yet another new aspect of the exam. The USMLE wants to add the least amount of disruption to the current situation.

What if my program uses Step 1 as a benchmark?

Many medical school programs require that students pass the Step 1 exam before allowing them to enter clinical training. While the test is used for medical licensure, and that step is still distant for medical students, medical schools have found this exam to be a helpful indicator of success in the clinical setting. The programs have the flexibility to make changes to the process themselves, so it’s best to check directly with your school to see whether this exam will still be required at this point.

Osmosis illustration of a professor writing

How will social distancing guidelines be enforced at Prometric test centers?

Prometric has announced a significant list of rules that will be enforced for test-takers during the COVID pandemic. Most importantly, candidates will be required to bring and wear a mask for the entire time they are at the test center. Anyone who does not come equipped with a mask will be marked as a no-show, and will not  be allowed to take the test, nor to reschedule for free. Other precautions include:

  • Test-takers will be allowed to wear gloves

  • Prometric staff will wear protective masks

  • Points of physical contact will be minimized

  • Adhering to social distancing during the registration process and exam

More information can be found on Prometric’s site.

Osmosis illustration of students taking Step 1 at a test center while social distancing.

What does the COVID-19 pandemic mean long-term for USMLE boards?

Unfortunately this means that there are likely to be more disruptions as the pandemic runs its course. The USMLE is being proactive in assessing how to address the challenges and uncertainties of the situation. The organization recognizes that not all students will be affected in the same way, and have indicated their commitment to enhancing the fairness and integrity of the exam.

We know that taking these exams is a huge step in the arduous journey toward your medical license. Along with the FSMB and NBME, Osmosis welcomes your questions as we all move forward together. We will do our best to give you the resources to address some of the uncertainty you’re feeling. We’re all in this together!

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The United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE®) is a joint program of the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB®) and National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME®). Osmosis is not affiliated with NBME nor FSMB.

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