The most difficult part of studying for your USMLE is not deciding what to study, but deciding what to ignore. There are a wide variety of resources available to help you prepare for your exam. Each of these resources has surveyed the knowledge of a given field and extracted the content that seems most relevant to the authors. Faced with this range of choices, you have two key decisions to make. First, what material will you choose to study? Second, what will you focus on within that selected material?

When selecting what material you will study, we recommend the “Goldilocks Rule”. You may recall the fairytale about Goldilocks and the three Bears. One bowl of porridge was too hot, one was too cold, and one was just right. When you select your study materials, those offering too much detail are not likely to help you focus. On the other hand, those offering the most distilled version of knowledge (all of the USMLE in one book) are likely to give you inadequate coverage. Your job is to select material that is “just right”; that give you enough detail without becoming overwhelming.

Whatever you select, pick one primary study source. The vast majority of students tell us that the Kaplan Live Lecture Notes give them everything they need for their exam. If you don’t think so, then pick another source.  But whatever you do, pick ONE source. “Double tracking”, that is, trying to digest two sources at once is a losing strategy for most people. Students with two or more sources quickly feel overwhelmed and lose focus on what is essential with in the double mass of material presented. Pick one source and learn it well.

With your study resources selected, you have a second choice to make. What will you focus on within the set of materials you have selected? The simple fact is that even within a set of content that distills the knowledge you must know to the essentials, you cannot learn and remember everything. If you try to, you will not succeed.  You will end up with gaps in your knowledge, and these gaps will be, essentially, random. A better strategy is to use your native intelligence and CHOOSE. That hard part about study is not deciding what to focus on, but deciding what to ignore. As you study, classify the material you encounter in to three groups. That which is Essential, that which is Important and that which is Secondary. What is it that you must know; what should you know; what would be nice to know?

If you have a hard time making this distinction, pretend you are going to give a lecture based on the material that you are reading. If your lecture time is short, what are the key aspects that you must mention, what would be nice to mention and what can you leave out because you just do not have enough time.

Making these kinds of choices, if you are not used to it, can be emotionally unsettling. Trying to learn everything gives you the emotional comfort that whatever is tested you till know. Making choices to not study certain things will cause you to not look at details you may well need during your exam. But wait; don’t feel bad about what you do not know. You are forgetting all the things you will know because of what your choices did give you time to study. You cannot know everything. The feeling that you can know everything is comforting, but it is the comfort of a false reality. Choose where to put your efforts. Make decisions about what you will focus on early. Success comes, not from trying to travel all roads, but from picking the right route to get you where you want to go.

Steven R. Daugherty, Ph.D.

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