Failing USMLE Step I and how to get beyond it.
For many second year medical students, the prospect of taking USMLE Step 1 is looming “large” on the horizon. You have completed three semesters of pre-clinical science and the first step toward licensure as a physician rapidly approaches. Along with the exam and its preparation comes the thought of what will happen if you fail this exam. Statistics show that somewhere around 1/4th of people who take this exam, will not pass on the first try. While failing this exam happens, it’s better to consider that 3/4ths of the people who take this exam will pass.
So what happens if I fail?
If you fail, you generally have the option of re-taking the exam. Most medical schools in this country will have you do some remedial work and will have you sit for the exam a second time with little consequences (from the school’s standpoint) other than damage to your ego. If you fail Step I once, you can still practice medicine and you can still graduate from medical school. You have likely knocked yourself out of the moderately competitive to competitive specialties but you can still have a very satisfying career in the less competitive specialties.
The first thing that you have to do, if you open your test score report and find that you have not passed, is immediately figure out where you were deficient. The USMLE score report comes with a breakdown of where you lost points. You should immediately start your review in your weakest subjects/items. The next thing that you want to do is speak with your Dean of Education so that you can get an idea of the time frame that you have to submit a passing score. Some schools want a passing score on Step I before you can begin third year clinical rotations and some will allow you to complete a rotation that you have started.
Don’t make the grave mistake of attempting to do clinicals and study for Step I. If you failed this exam once, you need to put your entire attention into a thorough and adequate preparation for this exam. You can’t afford two failing scores here and thus, drop/delay your clinical rotations until you have passed Step I. It’s not going to be easy or quick in terms of preparing for a retake so don’t try to rush this process. As bad as one failing score looks, two failing scores can really kill your chances for a solid residency match.
Get the idea out of your head that you “are not good at standardized tests” or “that your career in medicine” is over. You just cannot afford this type of thinking. Your whole attitude needs to be focused on the task at hand, which is, passing Step I. If you cannot focus for a couple of days, then take that time to relax and let yourself come to terms with your circumstances but, depending on your school’s schedule, you likely need to get back into the study mode fairly quickly. Take some time to come to terms with your non-passing score but don’t let a non-pass set you into a “tail-spin” that prevents you from doing your best on a second attempt.
The other mistake that many medical students will make is believing that because they were able to do well in their medical school coursework, they are a “cinch” to pass Step I. This is not always the case for as I have been involved in academic medicine, it’s not always the students with the weaker academic records that fail but those who have a “false sense of security” because of their academic record. Make no mistake, Step I takes some preparation and review no matter how you scored in your coursework. Be prepared to give Step I, the attention that it needs no matter how much you want to enjoy your time off from coursework.
Another thing that you likely need to do is enlist the assistance of your Dean of Academic Affairs. There is no medical school in this country that has never had a student fail Step I. Your Dean of Academic Affairs can offer some assistance in getting your study methods on track. There may be great resources available at your school that you will be able to access since you have a failure on Step I. Be sure to find every resource (many likely free) that is available to you.
Another mistake that many students make is looking at the pass rates of a previous class and thinking that there is no way that you can fail. If the Class of 2008 has a 100% pass rate and you are the only member of the Class of 2009 that fails, that 2008 pass rate hasn’t helped you much. Passing or failing Step I is a personal matter and not class (or school) dependent. Either you have prepared well and performed well or you have not. These are individual characteristics and not school characteristics.
What kind of residency can I get with a failure on Step I?
If you pass on the second try, score some solid performances in your clinical rotations and perform well on Step II, you have a shot at a very good residency. No, you are likely not going to match into Derm, Ortho, Rads and Ophtho but you have a shot at solid programs in just about everything else if you post a good performance in things after your failure. Sure, it’s not the best situation that you have failed this very important exam but your career is not over. There is still a substantial amount of “medical school” in front of you that will provide an ample opportunity to show that a non-pass on Step I (on your first attempt) was an aberration rather than a characteristic of how you perform. Some options may not be there for you but more options exist than you would believe. You simply have to get this behind you and move on with what you have left.
Getting and keeping your head together
Again, your first priority is to do whatever you need to do to pass this exam. You cannot afford to wallow in blame but need to gather your reserves and get busy. Sure, it seems like everyone you know passed without difficulty but you didn’t pass and you have to pass this exam. The thing “is what it is”. The reality is that while this hurts; it’s not fatal. You can take this opportunity to learn what kind of reserve you have and how to thrive in adversity. These are characteristics that any residency program director would be happy to have in an incoming resident. Get your thinking together; enlist the help of your Deans and get this exam behind you. Performance on one license exam does not define your entire medical career unless you allow this performance to define your and your career. Sure, it’s important but in terms of percentages, most people pass comfortably on the next try and move on to good clinical rotations and residency spots.
If you find that you failed Step I, get your resolve together to:
- Get in contact with your academic Dean and Dean of Students.
- Find out what options are there for you to allow you to focus on getting ready for your retake.
- Put that non-pass into perspective and behind you; what have you learned “not” to do?
- Get the idea that your “medical career is over” and that you can’t match into a good residency program out of your head.
- Prepare efficiently and properly so that you do not find yourself failing your re-take (or any other licence step ) exam.
This is not about you as a person, physician or anything else. You simply didn’t pass Step I and you resolve to prepare and pass with a significantly better score on the retake.