The Not-So-Secret Way to Ace USMLE Prep

The Not-So-Secret Way to Ace USMLE Prep

There is a way to increase your information recall in order to ace USMLE prep.

It’s not a magic pill. It’s not a secret brain training trick. It’s not even Picmonic’s research-proven, unforgettable study cards (though combined with Picmonic, it’s nearly a sure bet).

The not-so-secret way to ace your USMLE Step 1:

USMLE prep

Not during the exam of course, but leading up to it.

According to Harvard Medical School, during sleep, the brain goes through a process called memory consolidation. This solidifies new information, enhancing later test recall and results. Without this process, you may as well be stuffing information into a bucket with holes in the bottom – the info will not be there when you look for it.

We know you’ve heard it before from parents and professors, but sleep really is vital. Picmonic’s study tools will improve the retention of materials and increase your test scores, but you need sleep to solidify what you learn. In short, our unforgettable graphics and mnemonic devices can only do so much.

But how do you get that elusive sleep when every spare moment you have is dedicated to studying? When you have time to sleep, how do you turn off your brain to actually fall asleep? And when you have to pull an all-nighter, how can you make it productive and effective, so you don’t have to miss a second night of sleep? We answer these questions below.

4 Tips to Get Better and More Sleep

USMLE prep

1. Knock it off with the vampire status. 

Who knew hitting the books all day in the university’s basement library could actually confuse your body? If your body doesn’t spend an adequate amount of time outside in the sunshine, it may not receive signals that it’s daytime and may begin to confuse its sleep and wake cycles – especially if you’ve thrown it a curveball by pulling some all-nighters. To reset your body’s natural cycles, spend at least 30 minutes outside in the sun. Plus it will help with that ghostly pallor of your skin, Edward.

USMLE prep

2. What goes in, plays out. 

What you put into your body will affect you and your sleep quality, sometimes hours or days down the road. Here are some simple rules to follow when it comes to sleep-supportive ingestion habits:

  • Don’t go to bed completely stuffed or hungry. (If you’re stuffed, a walk around the block may help ease this.)
  • Eat small meals regularly throughout the day.
  • Limit caffeine after lunch and stop drinking it entirely at least three hours before bed.
  • Keep quick snacks, like an apple, on hand to reach for instead of that coffee cup.
  • If you enjoy coffee for the ritual of it, fill your cup halfway with decaf.
  • Nicotine is also a stimulant. Limit use of this before bed. Or just quit…

For more tips on how to fit proper nutrition into your crazy schedule, read our med school food hacks blog.

3. Find your zen.

USMLE prep

In this crazy world of ours, it’s hard to find the stillness that the human mind and body crave. As children, we sit in wonder watching an ant lugging its loot back to the hill. When we’re very old, we rediscover this fascination with and delight in life. But don’t wait until you’re old and gray to give yourself moments of Zen. Take a yoga class, meditate for 15 minutes or even just sit for five minutes composing a mental gratitude list. Train your brain to relax and rejuvenate itself, and deeper, more restful sleep will follow.

4. Say goodbye to your little friend.

USMLE prep

We had to end with this one, because it may be your least favorite, but arguably the most helpful. Our phones and computers come to feel like a lifeline, but we’re asking you to let go of that lifeline…for the 30 minutes before you go to bed.

That means no last-minute texting, playing games, flipping through your calendar or scrolling through Picmonic’s awesome Instagram account for a half hour prior to bed. This gives your brain time to wind down from the stresses of the day and detach from the impending stresses of the next day.

5 Ways to Rock an All-Night Study Session


Sometimes, in med school and especially during USMLE prep, an all-night study session is unavoidable (especially if you are a Professional Procrastinator). More than one all-nighter in a week though can be detrimental to your health, and your retention ability will suffer diminishing returns. So, make your one all-nighter most effective with these 5 steps.

1. Examine your motivations.

Are you SURE you need to stay up all night, or all your falling victim to peer study group pressure? No amount of free pizza and red bulls is worth staying up all night unless you have to. Consider if there is another way to accomplish your studying goal, and remember, it’s not the amount of studying that matters – it’s results. However, if there is no other way, move on to the next steps.

2. Get prepared.

Before you start, assemble your supplies. You’ll need lots of water, snacks high in protein and low in sugar (you don’t want that spike and dive in blood sugar), and your best study music. We recommend Pandora stations without words, such as Acoustic Guitar, House, Caravan Palace or William Joseph. Of course, no preparation is complete without your Picmonic library of unforgettable pictures and stories.

3. Set your pace.

Plan out your timeline for the night to help stay on task. Set timers and reminders to drink water, eat snacks, get up and move around, and let your eyes have a break from the computer.

4. Move. 

One of the best ways to keep yourself awake and keep your brain plugging along is to get your blood flowing. Set a two-minute timer and do some jumping jacks or pushups every 40 minutes or so. Getting up and moving will help reinvigorate you.

5. Stay positive.

If you are the stereotypical, type-A, perfectionist med school student, self-criticism may come easily. Don’t beat yourself up about the fact that you’ve gotten into a situation that requires you to stay up all night. What’s done is done, the best thing to do is move on and make the most of your all-nighter. Stay focused and committed to the end result, and maybe you’ll even finish early. The next day, don’t push yourself too hard – your body and mind are tired. Also, try to get a short nap in before you operate a vehicle.

The Number One Rule of USMLE Prep

Though we allow (not advocate) for all-night study sessions, there is one thing you must promise yourself: You will never, ever pull an all-nighter the night before an exam. Your concentration and information recall will suffer from the lack of sleep the previous night, so plan your all-nighters as far as possible in advance of the USMLE exam.

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