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    What is the USMLE Exam? 

    By Cait Williams

    Cait Williams is a Content Writer at Scholarships360. Cait recently graduated from Ohio University with a degree in Journalism and Strategic Communications. During her time at OU, was active in the outdoor recreation community.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

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    Updated: June 6th, 2024
    What is the USMLE Exam? 

    Whether you’re in medical school, a senior in high school who wants to become a doctor, or someone who is looking to go back to school to become a doctor, the USMLE is something you should know about. So, let’s begin and answer all the burning questions you have! 

    What is the USMLE? 

    Let’s start with the basics. The USMLE stands for the ‘United States Medical Licensing Examination.” This three part exam is taken partly while you’re in medical school and after you graduate as well. That means that unless you’re in medical school, this isn’t something you need to worry about just yet. However, it never hurts to be prepared, so let’s jump into each part of the USMLE! 

    Step 1 

    The first part of the USMLE is an entirely multiple choice test. It is designed to test all of your basic knowledge that you will use as a doctor. Each section of the test will have no more than 40 questions. The total number of questions is around 280, but will not exceed that number. 

    Duration: 8hrs (seven 60 minute tests with breaks)

    Focus: Basic sciences such as anatomy, physiology, biochemistry, biology, pharmacology, immunology and psychology 

    When taken: Usually at the end of the second year of medical school  

    Step 2 CK 

    The second part of the USMLE, known as the “clinical knowledge step,”  is slightly longer than the first step. This exam takes everything you’ve learned in medical school and clinicals and asks you to apply your knowledge to patients in a clinical setting.  

    During this exam, you will use interactive testing software to simulate patient scenarios. A tutorial of this exam software is available on the USMLE’s website and should be reviewed prior to your exam.   

    Duration: 9hrs (eight 60 minute tests with breaks) 

    Focus: Patient assessment and clinical knowledge   

    When taken: Usually at the end of medical school 

    Step 3 

    The third step of the USMLE is the last thing that stands between you and being a certified physician. This two day exam requires you to step into the role of a general practitioner, regardless of your specialty, and manage patient care from start to finish.  
    The first part of step 3 is called the “foundations of independent practice,” and the second part of step 3 is about advanced clinical medicine. The test is a mix of multiple choice questions and online simulations.  

    Duration: 2 days (roughly 7 hours for day one and 9 hours for day two) 

    Focus: Management of patients in ambulatory settings and care for patients from start to finish 

    When taken: Usually after one year of residency has been completed post medical school graduation, also known as your intern year  

    Also see: What is a medical school residency?

    Do MDs and DOs take the USMLE? 

    Yes, MDs and DOs can both take the USMLE in order to become fully independent and licensed practitioners. However, DOs have the option to also take another exam called the COMLEX. COMLEX stands for “Comprehensive Osteopathic Medical Licensing Examination of the United States.” MDs are not eligible to take the COMLEX and must take the USMLE. 

    Can you retake the USMLE? 

    Yes, each step allows you four attempts! Prior to July of 2021, the USMLE allowed six attempts per step, but changed their attempt limit to four based on data that they had about previous exam takers.  

    Does it cost money to take the USMLE? 

    Unfortunately, taking any step of the USMLE does cost money. Prices for each step of the exam are available before you pay for it. While taking this exam is not cheap, it shouldn’t scare you away. Do your best to prepare and remember that you are so close to being a fully independent physician! Also, each step of the exam is spread out, which means you should have ample time between each step to financially prepare.  

    Where do you take the USMLE?  

    The USMLE can only be taken at approved testing centers within the United States. Each section of the USMLE has its own information on their website. This page includes a link where you can enter your zip code and find the nearest testing center. Keep in mind that the nearest testing center for you may be several hours away and require travel.  

    Related: How to go to medical school for free

    How do you prepare for the USMLE? 

    There are lots of ways that you can prepare to take the USMLE! First, make sure that you take each step when it is recommended that you take it. Taking any part of the exam later or sooner than recommended may put you at a disadvantage.  

    Second is to take advantage of the USMLE website! They have each step of the examination outlined, including common questions and all other necessary information. They even include tutorials and PDFs of sample questions. Finally, you can also order study materials. There are tons of study materials for each step of the exam readily available online and that you can order!  

    Who is eligible to take the USMLE? 

    Medical students who are enrolled in, or have graduated from, accredited MD and DO programs within the United States and Canada are eligible to take the USMLE. Students who attend a medical school outside the US and Canada need to have attended medical schools that are listed in the World Directory of Medical Schools. 
    If you are still unsure whether you are eligible to take the USMLE, speak to someone in your medical school or contact the USMLE directly.  

    Don’t miss: Top 10 tuition-free medical schools

    Closing thoughts  

    Thinking about all three steps of the USMLE at once is a lot! Remember though, that this is an exam that you will take over several years. Your knowledge will build as you take each step. These exams aren’t designed to trip you up, rather they will help equip you to be the most knowledgeable physician you can be! Look at the USMLE in parts and handle each section as it comes. 

    If you’re reading this article and have only just begun the process of thinking about becoming a doctor, this may all feel extremely overwhelming. If that’s you, it’s great to read things like this to prepare yourself. However, you should also take a step back and focus on what is most important to you at this time, such as choosing a pre-med major, how long it will take to complete your medical school training and how you’re going to pay for medical school.  Best of luck on your journey to becoming a doctor! 

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