by / Wednesday, 21 September 2011 / Published in USMLE Advice

Question banks are undoubtedly one of the most important tools in your USMLE Step 1 prep arsenal.  Failing to use a question bank altogether is a grave mistake, and failing to implement a qbank perfectly is almost equally as bad.  Lately I’ve had numerous students come into my Step 1 self-study course who have failed Step 1 already and upon examining how they were using qbanks, it is not a big surprise.  Although I’ve only limited this advice to the students in my live prep course and my self-study course, I feel as though not sharing this information with everyone is just plain wrong.   

So here it is, a thorough look at the best way to use a question bank for your USMLE preparation.  Whether you are preparing for Step 1, 2, or 3, this strategy is going to save you time, save you money, and significantly boost your USMLE results.

But before I give you a plan for a solid USMLE score, please please please don’t burden yourself with your qbank percentages as compared with what others are scoring.  Many other students aren’t using the qbanks the right way, so this is all falsely inflated percentages anyway.

Here is the best way to use a question bank for success:


Step 1 – Choose only 1 qbank

If you’ve ever used more than one qbank, you have probably noticed that the same concepts are tested over and over again.  Spending hundreds on more and more qbanks is just a waste because they are all very in-tune with the information that the USMLE is currently testing.  Your best bet is simply to take your time going through a single qbank and learning absolutely everything you can from it.  Which one is best?  It depends who you ask, but the ones that are always talked about:  UWorld, Kaplan, these are always safe bets.  I personally have used UWorld for all of my Steps and it was always spot-on.

Step 2 – Go through your qbank once to learn

The first time through your only goal is to figure out what concepts each question is asking you about.  Thus, if a question mentions Down’s syndrome, once you finish the block don’t just read the learning objective at the end of the question, but go and read everything you can about Down’s syndrome.  It isn’t enough to just memorize the learning objective in the explanation, you have to go out and learn everything you can about the underlying concept behind the question.

Also, the best way to do this is to attack a block of 40-45 questions at a time all the way through.  Don’t stop after each question to learn the answer, instead, go through a whole block and then come back and learn the answers all at once.  The reason why you should do this is because let’s say you do question #5 in your block and it is about cardiomyopathies, and you stop and read the explanation and gain some short-term information.  Then, you keep doing questions and you come to question #34 which is also about cardiomyopathies, but you just read about these in question #5 and it was still sitting there in your short-term memory and you just so happened to answer the question correctly.  If you are in fact weaker in the subject of cardiac medicine, but got the question right, you have fooled yourself into thinking you are stronger in cardiac pathology that you truly are, and while you overall percentage may look more impressive, you are doing yourself absolutely ZERO favors in properly preparing yourself for the USMLE.

You should be happy when you get many questions wrong when you just start studying because this will give you more opportunities to learn and correct the mistakes you would have otherwise made on the real exam.  The more you get wrong now (and learn the reasons why), the better your score will be on the real USMLE exam(s).

Step 3 – Go through the qbank a 2nd time to re-inforce your knowledge

If you took the time to go through the qbank properly (as explained in step 2), then you should be very well on your way to a solid score.  The real test now comes as you go through your qbank for a second round, but the trick here is to NOT do it like 99% of all other students are doing it.

What they do:  Go through and quickly answer questions based on memory from the first time through.  They get most of them correctly, think they know way more than they do, get a strong percentage, and falsely elevate their self-confidence and falsely inflate how much they truly know and understand.

What you will do:  You are going to treat each question as an essay question, not a multiple choice question.  What this means is that you are going to cover up the answers and not even worry about what they say, and you are going to read the vignette and explain to yourself (as if you were teaching someone), exactly what the answer is and why it is that way.  When you read a vignette and can actually explain why the answer is the way it is, then you will know you truly have a solid understanding of the material on the USMLE.

If you follow these steps, not only will you notice that you learn the information much better, but you will also make things much easier on yourself.  As you see, this is a very simple plan, and the simpler a study plan is, the easier it will be to follow it and implement it.

Follow this strategy instead of what everyone else is suggesting and you will be well on your way to a successful USMLE exam.

Best of luck!




  1. Juan says : Reply

    Your post about how to use q banks for the usmle
    has been really helpful!!
    thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and strategies in order to help others!!

    God bless you!

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