Last updated on October 13th, 2023
The United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 3 is the third in a series of exams for physicians who have the goal of assuming independent responsibility for patient care. It is a crucial step for physicians-in-training on the journey to independent practice. Both the completion of an internship year and a passing score on all 3 steps of the USMLE exam are requirements for licensure to practice medicine. As with the other steps of the USMLE, deciding when to take USMLE Step 3 and planning your test date into an already busy professional schedule will be critical for your success.
When Do You Take USMLE Step 3?
The majority of medical school graduates and foreign medical graduates will take the USMLE Step 3 exam soon after graduating from medical school and as their final assessment prior to starting PGY-3. Typically, this will take place towards the end of one’s intern year and could help determine what residency program a physician is accepted into. Medical students should check with their institution’s Graduate Medical Education (GME) office to see if there is a specific date by which the exam must be completed. They should also review their rotation schedule and meet with their chief resident(s) to determine the best time to schedule the exam. Ideally, you should schedule the test date at the end of a less time-intensive outpatient rotation so that you will be able to use those extra hours and weekends to study and prepare.
USMLE Step 3 is offered year-round, except during the first 2 weeks of January and on major U.S. holidays. It is advantageous to have completed as much of internship year as possible before taking Step 3. The exam, particularly Day 2: Advanced Clinical Medicine, will test your ability to practice medicine and make clinical decisions in real (albeit simulated) time.
Unlike previous step examinations, USMLE Step 3 is administered over the course of two separate days at the test center. Due to the challenging nature of Day 1 (Foundations of Independent Practice), it is recommended that the exam be taken on non-consecutive days. However, Day 2 of Step 3 (Advanced Clinical Medicine) must be completed no more than 14 calendar days after Day 1 and must be scheduled at the same testing center.
USMLE exam scheduling and eligibility requirements
In order to be eligible to schedule an appointment at one of the Prometric test centers, you must register with the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) and receive your Scheduling Permit for USMLE Step 3. You must be a medical school graduate to be eligible for Step 3 of the USMLE Exam. If you apply for the exam prior to the date of graduation on your diploma, your application will be canceled. Please note that it can take up to 12 weeks to verify degrees before gaining approval to take the Step 3 exam at a Prometric test center.
Medical Students: How to Prepare for USMLE Step 3
Preparation for USMLE Step 3 will be fairly similar to previous step examinations. However, it does differ in some meaningful ways. A good first step is to familiarize yourself with the topics listed in the Step 3 content outline on the official USMLE website. In general, you must be comfortable with delivering general medical care and appropriate patient management across a wide breadth of care settings in the medical profession (internal medicine, ambulatory, emergency department, inpatient, etc.).
It is useful to assess your baseline clinical knowledge prior to actively studying for Step 3. The best way to do this self-assessment is via a practice examination or shelf exam (available through NBME). This will yield a baseline score so that you know how close you are to passing on test day. A baseline practice exam has the additional benefit of diagnosing your “problem areas” when it comes to specific topics you will need to prioritize before taking the final examination. As with Step 1 and Step 2CK, the best way to prepare is by doing practice questions (and especially by reviewing the questions you get wrong).
Do not overlook the importance of preparing for the Clinical Case Scenarios (CCS) you will encounter on Day 2 (Advanced Clinical Practice). This is perhaps the most commonly underestimated section of the Step 3 exam. The user interface is not very intuitive: even if your medical knowledge is on point, a lack of familiarity with the CCS software will threaten your score. The best way to avoid this is to download and familiarize yourself with practice clinical case scenarios and learn how you will be virtually prompted to triage, perform physical examinations, order labs and imaging, etc. An understanding of how each CCS is timed and scored is essential for the successful completion of USMLE Step 3.
Using Step 3 to Prepare for a Medical Career
After gaining medical licensure, as you practice medicine throughout your career, you will encounter many unique patient cases demanding astute clinical skill and advanced medical knowledge in addition to the ability to critically appraise medical evidence and efficiently apply medical knowledge. A crucial element of independent practice is spotting hidden biases in medical research and guarding against subtle influences of the pharmaceutical industry. You must be able to easily navigate biostatistics such as odds ratio, positive predictive value, and number needed to treat. For these reasons, USMLE Step 3 heavily emphasizes epidemiology and biostats: you will encounter approximately 7-10 questions of this type during EACH question block. These may take the form of a pharmaceutical advertisement or research abstract, similar to what you will encounter throughout your medical career. Honing these skills now will undoubtedly benefit you as an independent clinician.
USMLE Step 3: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
As you schedule and plan your preparations for USMLE Step 3, it is understandable that you may have many questions. The transition from medical school to residency training can be grueling, with even more demands on your time than you previously thought possible. However, with careful planning and persistence, you will undoubtedly prepare for and successfully pass the final step of the USMLE!
When is USMLE Step 3 taken?
Most physicians schedule Step 3 during a lighter rotation during their internship year of residency training. Inquire with your institution’s GME office to see if there is a set deadline to pass the exam.
What score do I need on USMLE Step 3 for an internal medicine residency?
Any score above 230 is generally considered good and should get you into one of your desired residency programs, though the higher your Step 3 score, the more likely you are to stand out as a candidate.
How do I prepare for Step 3 of USMLE?
The best way to prepare for USMLE Step 3 is by utilizing question banks, self-assessment exams, and practice clinical case scenarios (CCS). Fortunately, there are many USMLE resources available to help students maximize their USMLE Step 3 exam score.