Best USMLE step 1 books

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Anyone who wants to practice medicine in the United States needs to pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE). The test is taken in 3 steps, and most take step 1 during med school.

USMLE Step 1 is an extensive one-day exam with questions from all the basic medical courses. Remembering everything can be a daunting task. This is where short format, straight-to-the-point review books come in handy.

There are several books to choose from, but I recommend the complete set of USMLE step 1 lecture notes from Kaplan medical. It is expensive, but it provides everything you need to know for the test in a well-formatted, 7-piece set. Click here to head over to Amazon to check it out and its current price

In addition to Kaplan’s complete set, there are several general and subject-specific review books to choose from. Continue below to see the most popular options and read my individual reviews.

Kaplan USMLE step 1 lecture notes, complete set

As mentioned above, This complete study bundle from reputable Kaplan medical provides everything you need to prepare for the step 1 exam.

The bundle is made up of 7 separate volumes, each covering different subjects on over 2700 pages. The individual volumes are:

  • Pathology
  • Pharmacology
  • Physiology
  • Biochemistry and medical genetics
  • Immunology and microbiology
  • Anatomy
  • Behavioral science/social sciences

Despite the massive page count, these books are not a heavy read as they are organized and formatted for high yield studying.

To aid students in quick comprehension and retention of the material, the books frequently use of colored diagrams and charts. In addition, each chapter is wrapped up with a super helpful summary and study guide.

Because all the books follow the same framework, it makes it more fluent and improves the overall bridging and clinical correlation across the subjects.

Don’t be too intimidated by the steep price. On average you are paying the same as you would for individual review books on the subjects covered. You can check out the current price and get yours by clicking this link to head over to amazon.

First aid for the USMLE Step 1

If you are looking for the student favorite, this is the one. This book has been a part of any medical student’s library for years, and there is no wonder why. It is the best complete review book that is comprehensive, spanning over 800 pages, yet succeeds to remain concise and high-yield.

This feat is achieved by a combination of clever formatting with frequent use of diagrams and illustrations, must-know topics with helpful mnemonics, and high yield review sections/tables, and a consistent framework that makes it easier to digest.

Another important aspect of this book is that it is written with the user in mind.

This is evidenced by the fact that the book is co-authored with students who have excelled in the step 1 exam and who can provide fresh insights and feedback which makes the book relevant for current medical students.

Another great thing about this book is that it is more affordable than the Kaplan set. You can click this link to head over to Amazon to check out the price. There you can also read all the reviews from hundreds of satisfied medical students from all around the world.

Crush Step 1: The ultimate USMLE step 1 review

This review book is a newcomer, compared to the first aid review book, currently being printed in its second edition.

In addition to its experienced authors, who scored within the 99th percentile on the USMLE Step 1, the book is reviewed by a review board consisting of current students and residents to ensure relevance and accuracy.

Like the first aid book, it aims to be a comprehensive, yet compact, and comprehensive review in preparation for the USMLE.

The material is presented on over 700 pages which includes numerous color images, helpful lists, and quick-reference tables in order to help students retain and recall information quickly.

Another great feature is that one can find review questions at the end of each chapter test to aid the retention of high-yield facts.

Furthermore, students are also provided with test prep strategies that try to aid readers to identify and understand question stems rather than just relying on memorization.

Unlike a strict organization revolving around the individual subjects (pathology, anatomy, etc), this book focuses on the organ systems (cardiology, neurology, etc).

That being said, the book has separate chapters for some individual subjects/topics like Biochemistry, embryology, microbiology, and immunology.

It is currently priced at a level comparable to the first aid review, however, In addition to the physical book an eBook version is included with purchase. This allows you to search all of the text, figures, references, and animations.

If you find the prospects of this book intriguing you can click this link to head over to Amazon. Here you can get a preview and see the current price.  

USMLE step 1 made ridiculously simple

While most complete USMLE review books have done a good job compressing the material down to 700-800 pages, this book has managed to do it on a little over 400.

That being said, this book cant is said to be as comprehensive as the other available options, however, it is not meant to be.

Like the other books in the made ridiculously simple series, their take on the USMLE Step 1 aims to extract core concepts, compress it and present it in a lighthearted and enjoyable manner. This is evidenced by its cartoonish cover and illustrations and its use of simple tables.

In fact, in the introduction of the book there is an amusing cartoon set in a bookstore where the clerk tells a stunned student in front of a massive book “this is the most complete book for the USMLE, unfortunately, no one can carry it out of the store”.

So if it’s not a complete, comprehensive review, what is it good for? Like I will tell you now, and the book highlights itself, this book is a source for revision in the days leading up to the exam.

At this point, most students start to get anxious, which makes studying from conventional monotone textbooks and review books so much harder. This can make for a lot of inefficient study time, however, turning to this book with its lighthearted yet high yield approach can help you tie things together and give you confidence for the exam.

In addition to the book, you are also given online access to 1000 quiz-like questions to aid in your preparation.

Regardless of which books you choose to prepare for the exam, I can recommend this book to replace them in the stressful days leading up to the exam.

You can check out its cartoonish appearance and presentation yourself by clicking this link to head over to Amazon. Here you can also see the current price and get your very own copy.

Individual review books

If you decided to go for the Kaplan bundle, there is no reason for you to get review books for the individual subjects. However, they might be a great supplement to broad review books like the first aid USMLE step 1 book. 

While you might not need all of them, you should definitely consider getting a separate review book for physiology and pathology.

There are several review books out there, but I want to focus on those that are written with the USMLE student in mind. These tend to be relatively short and include USMLE study aids like Multiple choice questions, etc.

There are 2 review book series that stand out. The broad review series (BRS) books and the rapid review series.

If you are considering getting more than one of these review books, I highly suggest picking from the same series as they tend to use the same formatting and follow the same framework across different subjects.

Personally, I prefer the BRS series as I find their formatting more visually pleasing and less strenuous to work my way through. In addition, the BRS books contain USMLE style questions following each chapter.

For the rapid review series, the MCQs have to be accessed online. Nevertheless, I highly recommend you check them out yourself before buying.

Question bank books:

I would not necessarily recommend getting a question book as there are plenty of online USMLE question banks.

On the other hand, the online question banks are rather expensive, and you might find having a selection in print easier to carry around.

If this includes you, Kaplan has its 9th edition question book with 850 USMLE stype questions from 2019. You can click this link to check it out on amazon.

Which subjects are the most important? 

According to the Federation of State Medical Boards (FSMB) and National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) who is behind the test. Step 1 is necessary to “assess whether you understand and can apply important concepts of the sciences basic to the practice of medicine”.

That makes for a pretty wide curriculum, as basic medical sciences encompass many subfields and topics that are covered over several years in med school.

Despite the vague statement regarding the necessity of the test. The official USMLE homepage provides a relatively detailed outline of the step 1 specifications.

Here they also provide a really insightful table showing the “discipline specifications”. This is essentially a table showing the most important subjects for the test in terms of percentages.

  • Pathology 45-52%
  • Physiology 26-34%
  • Pharmacology 16-23%
  • Biochemistry & nutrition 14-24%
  • Microbiology & immunology 15-22%
  • Gross anatomy & embryology 11-15%
  • Histology & cell biology 9-13%
  • Behavioral sciences 8-13%
  • Genetics 5-9%

While these percentages might be subject to changes, and all the subjects are important to some extent, it gives a pretty clear picture of which subject you should emphasize.

It is quite evident that you should put prioritize pathology, physiology, pharmacology, biochemistry, and micro + immunology.

Buying options (cheap, Fair, expensive)

You might have figured already, USMLE books and resources are expensive, especially for a student wallet.

When it comes down to it, you don’t have to buy any additional books if you have a solid selection of textbooks at hand for the individual subjects.

That being said, these are not geared towards studying for the USMLE. Because of this, you might be less productive when studying, as these books contain a lot of information which is not as relevant for the test.

Cheap/Budget option

Regardless of your appetite for USMLE books, I recommend that you buy access to a reputable USMLE question bank. This will cost you north of 100$, depending on the length of your subscription and addition features, etc. 

In addition to this, my budget recommendation is getting a general USMLE step 1 review book (e.g. first aid) in addition to the USMLE made ridiculously simple. Also, remember to use the books you already have for the various subjects. This should total between 150-200$.

Fair value option

If you are unsure whether the budget package will be enough, you can add a couple of subject-specific review books.

I recommend prioritizing a pathology and physiology book. However, if you don’t feel confident in other subjects you can get one for those too.

Just keep in mind that the more review books you get, the closer you get to the price of the full Kaplan set.

As to which review book to get, I would recommend the BRS review books, but you should check them out for yourself and get the one you like best. Depending on how many you get, this will cost north of 250$.

Expensive/premium Option

If you have the money for it I would recommend getting the Kaplan set and use it together with the question bank.

In addition, you might also consider getting the USMLE step 1 made ridiculously simple for last-minute revision. This will cost you north of 350$.

Final words

There is no definitive answer to which books are the best and how many you should get.

If you have kept up in class and have a decent comprehension of the subjects, a lot of the USMLE Step 1 material is already familiar. Nevertheless, it is always good to have a task/subject-specific study aid. 

I hope found this guide and the recommendations helpful. To all of you reading this before taking the USMLE Step 1, I wish you the best of luck. If you have any unanswered questions, comments, or other inquiries, be sure to contact me through the email on the about page.