Time Management Tips for the USMLE Exam

“If only I had more time,” is a common lament of students as they walk out of the USMLE. The simple fact is the USMLE is a timed test and time matters. No, time by itself does not determine your score. But the time limits that govern each exam could restrict your potential and lower your score.

Making the most of every minute requires efficiency. Here are three tips to help you get the most out of your limited time:

  1. Practice a question routine. Learn and practice a question answering routine before you take your exam. Develop a set behavioral routine in which you do the same steps with each and every question you encounter to reduce wasted effort. A practiced habit for answering questions will free you from focusing process and allow you more time to mentally absorb the question and think though the content issues you encounter. A practiced question routine means more questions covered in less time.
  2. Spend the bulk of your time on the question stem. As you consider each question, spend the most time on the question stem where it will do you the most good. Each question can be seen as having two parts. The question stem, which presents material in a clinical case format, and the options, which list the available answer choices along with a corresponding letter. A good rule of thumb is that 75% of your time on any question should be spent reading and thinking about the question stem, and only 25% should be spent on the options. The key to each question in the question stem. Read it carefully, but only read it once. You do not have time to read the long question stems on the USMLE twice. Then, when you turn to the options, be decisive and make your choice.
  3. Make yourself choose faster. If you find yourself chronically short of time, the best solution is to train yourself to choose faster. Do not short change your time reading the question stem. You need time to take in the information provided and to gather the clues provided. The way to gain more time for yourself is to make yourself pull the trigger, force yourself to make a choice as soon as you can. Research suggests that the time we spend on the question options can be divided into two parts. The first part we spend considering our choices and actually making our decision. The second part of the time we spend reconsidering, double checking, and doing other things to try to make ourselves more comfortable with the choice that we have really already made. This search for comfort does not improve answer, but simply wastes time. At this stage we are not seeking a better decision, rather we are feverishly trying to feel good about the decision we have already made. Train yourself to give up this search for comfort. Make your decision, live with it and move on!

How do you learn to deal with the distraction that time limits induce? The most basic solution is to make sure you do all of your practice questions under time constraints so you can become accustomed to the feeling of the seconds slipping away. The clock is always running. You can’t stop it! But you can get used to the feel of the time limits and learn to pace yourself accordingly.

Time limits cannot be discarded on the USMLE. They are real, and they matter. But, adequate preparation and practice can convert the terror of time into a simple part of your question answering routine. You cannot slay the beast of time, but you can tame it. The question is simply, who will be the master? Will you learn to control your time, or will time control you? The right choice to this question is clear. By learning to control your time on your exam, you are learning to control your own destiny. And if you do that, then nothing, not even the pressure of time will keep you from achieving the success that you deserve.

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USMLE Faculty and Curriculum Director at Becker