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Best USMLE Prep Courses & Resources (Steps 1-2-3)
Our expert guide to the best USMLE prep courses and study materials
The USMLE is a series of three grueling, high-stakes exams, and your career as a doctor turns on passing each step. As such, choosing the right prep course for your USMLE studies can often be a make or break decision, and aspiring physicians shouldn’t leave anything to chance. In order to help you make a more informed decision on which prep course is right for you, our team of test prep experts has reviewed just about every USMLE prep course on the market and ranked the best ones here.
Kaplan takes our Editor’s Choice designation for a host of reasons. With hundreds of hours of live class time, on demand video lessons, thousands of exam-like practice questions in their Qbank, and first rate textbooks, their USMLE prep package as a whole is simply unrivaled. From a high level view, the course curriculum is neatly organized by USMLE topic, and Kaplan provides a clear-as-day study plan to guide you through all of the essential study material in the most efficient manner. In addition, the Kaplan curriculum has a certain cohesiveness and natural flow to it that you simply don’t get with other courses.
Their core lesson work, offered through both the live classes and on demand video lessons, is curated by some extremely well-respected faculty members, and it shows. Kaplan does a masterful job distilling an enormous amount of study material down to a reasonable amount, making it easy to comprehend and retain. More on the live classes below, but these virtual classroom sessions are a particular highlight of the course.
While our team wasn’t crazy about the delivery format of some of the on demand video lessons, this was about the only complaint we could find with the Kaplan USMLE course. And in any event, the content of these lessons was absolutely on point. What’s more, the practice work backing up the instruction is some of the best we have seen. The practice questions are incredibly exam-like, and are accompanied by some excellent text explanations. All in all, designating Kaplan the editor’s choice pick is a no brainer – this is about the most robust and surefire USMLE prep course on the market.
Best-in-Category Live Classes
As mentioned above, Kaplan offers some of the best live class work in the industry. Their classes are led by top rated faculty members, who rotate in and out based on area of specialty. On this point, we loved Kaplan’s decision to employ a team of specialists to teach their classes, rather relying on one or two generalists to teach everything. And as for the instructors themselves, we found the vast majority of them to be excellent in terms of both substantive knowledge and ability to communicate clearly.
The virtual classroom sessions meet nearly daily over several weeks and are jam packed with both content review and test taking strategies. The instructors frequently stop to ask questions and poll students on their thoughts, keeping the classes engaging. It is clear Kaplan does not want their classes to be monotonous lectures, and they make a point of emphasis to keep a group atmosphere and students participating.
Additionally, Kaplan is right near the top of the market in terms of class time. In total, Step 1 students will enjoy over 270 hours of live class time, while Step 2 students get 210 hours, and Step 3 students will meet for around 100 hours. This is a massive resource for those students that need the accountability and commitment that comes with scheduled, live classes.
Awesome USMLE Prep Books
The second highlight of the Kaplan USMLE course is their set of awesome prep books. Step 1 students will receive a 7-volume set, Step 2 students a 5-volume set, and Step 3 students a thinner 2-volume set. In addition, Step 2 students get a handy review book, which boils all of the Step 2 content down to a manageable cram book.
These books are absolutely fantastic. They are detailed, well-organized and clearly written. The books are neatly organized in an outline-style format, which keeps the text concise and to-the-point. There are no rambling passages or lengthy diatribes, which we loved. In addition, mixed in throughout the text are high-yield summary boxes, calling out and summarizing the most critical points.
In addition, these books are littered with a ton of color pictures, illustrations of processes and systems, illustrations, tables and more. The graphics in these books are abundant and extremely well-done. This is a huge advantage to visual learners, and makes these prep books particularly accessible to students who prefer to learn by text or visuals.
For many students, the best way of tackling the USMLE is to absolutely immerse yourself in prep work for a few weeks, grind out some long days of studying, and quickly knock the exam out. If this sounds like you, then you will likely love the PASS Program. The PASS Program was founded nearly 25 years ago as a live on-site, fully immersive prep course. The idea was to offer a bootcamp style prep option, allowing students to get in, cram hard for a few weeks, and nail the exam so they could move on with their medical schooling and career. And honestly, not much has changed as of today, except that these courses are now offered virtually as well as in-person.
The PASS Program offers one of the most immersive and hands-on experiences in USMLE prep. At the top end of their course offerings, you can opt to take the class live in person, at their company-owned central facility in Champaign, Illinois. This option even goes as far as offering student housing and optional evening sessions. You really can’t find old school, bootcamp style prep like this anywhere else. Or for those students who want live classes, but prefer the comfort of their own home, you can take the live online version of the class, which allows to you attend the very same classes virtually.
The classes meet daily and are jam packed with content. Every day starts with a test taking strategy session, where you cover a specific exam taking technique and see how it plays out through a series of carefully selected practice questions. The rest of the days are filled with content review, drills and general USMLE immersion. It should be noted that the PASS program also offers a self-study on demand option, but honestly, our team thinks the true value with the PASS Program lies in their deeply engaging class experience.
Whether you attend in-person or virtually, the PASS Program classes are some of the best in the game – mostly as a result of great teaching. Almost all of your class sessions are led by program founder Dr. Francis Ihejirika (just Dr. Francis for short), who has been teaching to the USMLE for more than 25 years himself.
He clearly lives for helping students prep for the USMLE and has one of the best understandings of the ins and outs of all three steps of the exams that we have seen. He has a booming, commanding voice and lectures are never dull. Dr. Francis is passionate, expressive and generally cares about the material he teaches. It is a very refreshing change of pace compared to other courses where instructors just go through the motions.
Dr. Francis frequently calls on students to participate, asks questions of the class and generally keeps things engaging. When combined with some very written lesson plans, this is one of the most formidable and immersive class packages available in USMLE prep.
For the bargain hunters and cost sensitive preppers out there – Lecturio will likely be your jam. They steal a spot on our list of best USMLE prep courses for a few reasons, but most notably for their high value, bang for your buck pricing. More on their pricing structure below, but know that value is the main seller here.
But do not think for a second that just because Lecturio carries a low price tag that they are some sort of discount prep option – not even close. Despite its affordability, Lecturio somehow manages to offer one of the better USMLE prep packages on the market. Included with your premium subscription to their service, you get over 3,400 USMLE practice questions, hundreds of hours of on demand videos, 3 full-length practice exams and some helpful e-books.
This is a LOT of prep for a little price. And the quality is shockingly good. As discussed in more detail below, we loved their short and engaging video lessons, as well as their practice questions and accompanying explanations. In fact, their detailed problem explanations are some of the best we have seen, with thorough analysis and illustrative graphics.
Bang for Your Buck
As mentioned at the top of this section, Lecturio is all about value, value, value. Their Premium 3-Month Plan runs for just shade over $100, and the prices go up from there – but not drastically. The Premium 1-Year Plan runs right around $300, the Premium 2-Year Plan a bit under $500, and even their crazy-long Premium 4-Year Plan costs just over $700. You may have found yourself reading those numbers twice. As I said – value.
Relative to other courses, this is a steep discount. For reference, the analogous SmashUSMLE 3-month course is almost 6x that cost. Now to be clear, this course doesn’t have quite the same depth of curriculum that you get with Kaplan and the PASS program; but all things considered, this course offers serious bang for your buck.
Great On Demand Video Lessons
Despite the extremely affordable price point, Lecturio offers hundreds of excellent on demand video lessons. These video lectures are the real substantive highlight of this course. The videos are quick hit in nature, allowing for maximum comprehension and retention of material. Yet despite their short durations, the videos are still full of excellent content.
The lessons are led by a host of experienced professors, doctors and medical researchers, many of who are extremely well-regarded in their field. Lecturio offers subject matter experts across a wide range of scientific and medial disciplines, giving students top notch lessons from people who are masters of their specific niches.
Throughout all of the videos, your instructor appears onscreen and lectures to the camera. As they speak though, bullet points, graphics and other key lecture material appears to the side of them onscreen. And the camera will frequently jump to a digital whiteboard to demonstrate the most critical of points that need visualization. In other words, the production value of these videos is through the roof – which is really surprising given the budget nature of their pricing structure. Anyway, we won’t question it – we’re just happy they invested so much in the quality and value of these helpful video lessons.
When exams are as difficult and high-stakes as the USMLE is (at every step), we always try to find one course that offers students some serious support. Some students just need a certain level of personalized support and coaching, and that is exactly what SmashUSMLE is all about. One of the smaller USMLE prep companies out there, they make a name for themselves by being focused on individual student success. This is definitely not a one size fits all approach to USMLE prep. They tailor your prep to you and support you through the whole process. But more on this support below.
In addition to such personalized features, SmashUSMLE doesn’t shy away from the lesson work and study materials. They offer over 450 hours of on demand video lessons, as well as 4,000+ practice questions and explanations. The video lessons are led their founder Dr. Adeleke Adesina, who has been teaching to the USMLE for about a decade and has a clear mastery of the material that is tested on all steps of the exam. While the lesson delivery isn’t our favorite, with a traditional lecture in front of a whiteboard approach, the content is rock solid. And Dr. Adesina himself is a great lecturer, knowing when and where to relate concepts to clinical experiences. He is always providing helpful insights from his time as an ER doctor.
Though we liked SmashUSMLE’s lessons and practice work, it is really their personal support that lands them on our list of best USMLE prep courses. When you sign up with SmashUSMLE, one of the first things you will do is have an initial phone consultation with one of their on-staff doctors. You will discuss your goals for the exam, your strengths and weaknesses, and how you learn best. From there, your advisor will help you create a customized course of study that fits your needs.
This level of personalization is fairly unheard of in the USMLE prep space. And even after the initial phone consult and study plan creation, your advising continues. You will meet with your MD advisor frequently, and can always ask questions between times. SmashUSMLE is very open to questions, as their main priority is your success (in fact, they claim a 97% pass rate). That said, this is not full-fledged 1-on-1 personal tutoring that gets into the nitty gritty. This coaching is excellent, but if you want a truly frequent, in-the-weeds tutoring, that will cost a bit more.
For experiential learners who love to learn by doing, there is often no better means of studying than just hammering tons and tons of practice questions. Generally, these types of students can’t stand lectures or reading assignments and just want jump in, do it, and learn from their mistakes as they go. It is for these students that BoardVitals exists. BoardVitals offers some of the deepest and most robust question banks in the USMLE prep industry.
Offering no live lectures or on demand videos, BoardVitals sole focus is high-quality, exam-like practice. And that is exactly what they deliver. The practice questions are about the most realistic we have seen. They really match the content, structure and style of real USMLE exam questions. And with over 3,200 practice questions to work for Step 1, 1,200+ questions for Step 2, and 1,300 or so questions for Step 3, it is hard to imagine students running out of practice. In terms of price, this is all offered for just around $100 to $200 depending on which step you are on, and the length of access you need.
In addition to the practice work, BoardVitals does offer a couple of very cool features that you don’t even get with some of the higher end courses. The first noteworthy function is their “Ask a Clinician” tool. If you get stuck on a question and just can’t figure it out, or don’t understand the accompanying explanation, this feature allows you to shoot their team of in-house USMLE experts a question. We found the response times to be very quick, generally same day. And wrapped around the entire course is a 100% pass guarantee. Fail your exam, and you can repeat the course free of charge. This is an incredible insurance policy that you don’t even get with the giants in USMLE prep.
Fantastic Question Explanations
Even more impressive than the library of well-written practice questions are the text-based explanations that accompany each problem. These solutions are crazy detailed, and go to great lengths to explain the content being tested, the rationale behind the correct answer, and why the incorrect choices were not right. BoardVitals has done a masterful job artfully explaining everything you need to know about each question, and this is where the learning process comes in with BoardVitals.
The most useful portion of each explanation is the “Vital Concepts” section, which summarizes the key facts being tested through the question. If you review every text explanation that comes with each problem – both when you get a question correct or incorrect – you will cover a ton of great content. In our team’s opinion, these explanations are much more robust than you find with other courses. In fact, many of them contain helpful illustrations and graphics, to demonstrate a key process or system visually.
Do I need a USMLE prep course?
Yes. Just like you needed a prep course to study for the MCAT, you will also need a prep course for each step of the USMLE. There are a number of excellent options to choose from, ranging widely in price and features.
How much does a USMLE prep course cost?
USMLE review courses can cost anywhere from just over $100 all the way up to $6,000. These courses vary widely in features, scope of study materials, practice work levels, and more.
Will a USMLE prep course help me pass?
Yes. Every year, hundreds of med school students make the mistake of relying solely on their class work or clinical experience to help prepare them for the USMLE. The better option is to study with a commercial prep course that provides prep materials targeted to your exam.