Study Tips

5 Essential Wellness Tips for USMLE® Step 1 Prep

Ashley Kennon
Published on Aug 4, 2020. Updated on Sep 15, 2020.

USMLE® Step 1 is an intense test and it will take a lot out of you. Read how one medical student still managed to find balance during dedicated Step 1 preparation and avoided burnout altogether.  

Step 1 is a big test and it’s a big part of your residency application, so be prepared to study long and hard. But please, please, please, take care of yourself in the process. I got my Step 1 score two weeks ago, so here’s some advice from someone who just came through the thick of it. 

Many of your classmates are likely to spend 12+ hours a day, 7 days a week, studying constantly to score that super-star high score. Unfortunately, that schedule also comes with weeks without sleep, proper nutrition, exercise, socializing, and let’s be honest, probably no clean laundry. I had many friends who gave 110% studying for this test, leaving them physically, mentally, and emotionally sick because they didn’t set aside time for their daily needs. 

I’m going to say something revolutionary—don’t give Step 1 your all. Give it a reasonable effort. Your health and wellness are important, even during dedicated. 

Here are my best wellness tips for Step 1.

Osmosis illustration of a medical student stressing out about USMLE Step 1.

1. Find a rhythm that works for you. 

Study for 30 minutes with a 5-minute break. Or 50 minutes with a 10-minute break (I recommend this one!). Or at maximum, 1.5 hours with a 15-minute break. And during your break, try to stand up, stretch, and walk around a little bit. Do something that wakes your body up and gives your mind a rest.

2. Adopt a set of minimums, and stick to them! 

The minimums I recommend to all students are as follows: 

  • Sleep six hours a night

  • Eat two meals a day

  • Do something active for 20–30 minutes

  • Do something that makes you smile. 

Don’t forget the basics too, such as personal hygiene, household chores, and calling or texting loved ones. 

Minimums are not meant to be averages—they are meant to be boundaries to protect your physical and mental health. I recommend adopting a core of minimums and adding additional ones specific to you and your own needs.

Osmosis illustration of habits you must maintain during Step 1 Study: brushing your teeth, laundry, flashcards, texting loved ones, and eating a balanced diet.

3. Study with fellow med school friends. 

It’s easy to become isolated during dedicated, but as your study style allows, try to find study activities that you can do with one or two friends (i.e. flashcards or questions). Just try to stay socially connected to others. 

4. On the days you are burnt-out, take a rest day. 

Yes, rest days are okay! Trying to study through a burnout is not an efficient use of time, and often just worsens fatigue. When your mind and body are telling you that you need a break, listen! Give yourself a morning or day off to do something that relaxes or excites you. Planning some time off in your weekly study schedule will help keep your spirits lifted.


5. If you ever find yourself wanting to quit, don’t despair! 

Instead, take some time to remind yourself why you started med school in the first place. Think about the people and experiences that motivated you to pursue medicine. Imagine the kind of doctor you want to be someday, the type of clinic you want to work in, and think about the impact you want to make in the medical field

Look up residency programs that you are interested in to remind you that there’s really cool stuff waiting for you after Step! If you have the time or opportunity, try shadowing or volunteering to regain the perspective that patient contact can give. Or you can do like me and watch patient videos to remember how much positive change a doctor can make in another person’s life. 

In short, you entered medicine because you are passionate about something or someone. Rekindle that passion and keep working hard!

Osmosis illustration of balancing studying with exercise.

Why it’s important to prioritize self-care

Full disclosure: I didn’t score as high as I hoped. However, I can confidently say that by following these tips I was able to live a healthy and balanced life during Step 1 dedicated. 

I was able to study and take my test without burning out, I was able to maintain a healthy diet and sleep schedule, and I stayed invested in the relationships and activities I valued. So while I wish high scores to all my friends and fellow med students, I wish health and wellness to them even more so! I hope that when USMLE Step 1 becomes pass/fail in the next couple of years, one of the outcomes is happier, healthier medical students.

I believe that as future doctors we need to live the healthy lives we promote to our patients, even during stressful times like Step 1. I also believe that as future doctors we cannot put off learning and practicing self-care techniques. Throughout medical school, residency, and even in full practice the burnout pressure is ever growing. We need to practice caring for ourselves now, as medical students, to develop the self-care and coping skills we will need to guard against burnout now and in the future. 

Regardless of where you are in your medical or Step 1 journey, be healthy, be active, be connected, and be motivated! Take care of yourself and best of luck on Step 1!

About Ashley

Ashley Kennon is a third-year medical student at UTHealth McGovern Medical School. She was born and raised in rural Houston, Texas. She wants to do a Med/Peds residency and then an Adolescent Health fellowship, so she can work as a primary care doctor for teens and young adults. In her free time, Ashley enjoys walking outside, listening to fantasy books on Audible, and practicing with her synagogue’s Israeli dance team.



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