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PASS Program USMLE Review
Our detailed breakdown and review of the PASS Program USMLE prep course
Since its founding close to 25 years ago, the PASS Program has helped over 10,000 students pass Step 1 and Step 2 of the USMLE. Although they started as a small, in-person prep class at a facility in Illinois, the PASS Program has since leveraged the growth and power of the internet to offer live online and self-study on demand USMLE prep courses. With such a long history of student success, but recent changes to the nature of their offerings, many students want to know if this course is right for them. As such, we take a deep dive into all of the features of the PASS Program and examine the effectiveness of this USMLE course in this detailed review guide.
For Steps 1 and 2 of the USMLE, the PASS Program offers students three types of prep options. These offerings include a live on-site class, live online class, and an on-demand home study package. The live on-site class is PASS Program’s longtime flagship prep offering. Since the late 1990’s, the PASS Program has brought students in from all over the country to attend live classes taught by Dr. Francis Ihejirika, founder of the PASS Program.
These classes are hosted at PASS Program’s central facility in Champaign, Illinois, and offer a traditional bootcamp type experience. You can opt to stay in company operated student housing, and will meet almost daily for lectures. While the material is current, this method is about as traditional as it gets in terms of prepping for a high-stakes exam. That said, this old school approach actually still works extremely well for a large segment of students.
These live, in-person courses are offered in 5-week, 8-week and 12-week increments. Respectively, they cost approximately $3,000 for the 5-week Step 1 course, $3,750 for the 5-week Step 2 course, $5,000 for the 8-week Step 1/Step 2 course, and $6,500 for the 12-week Step 1/Step 2 program. The cost for student housing is separate, and not included in these amounts. While these prices are much higher than competing USMLE prep course costs, bear in mind that this in-person course is about as comprehensive and intense as they come, leaving nothing to chance on the exam.
The PASS Program also offers a live online version of their 5-week, 8-week and 12-week live courses. This is not a separate course from the on-site experience – it is just a different format of the same class. You are part of and attend the same classes as the students in Illinois, but instead stream the class from your home.
The PASS Program tries hard to make their virtual students feel like they are a part of the actual class by incorporating a “raise hand” function into the online platform, as well as dedicating an online instructor to manage questions. This live online course runs approximately $2,200 for the Step 1 ($2,750 for Step 2) 5-week course, and $4,300 and $5,500 for the 8-week and 12-week courses respectively.
Finally, for students who do not have the flexibility to attend classes in-person in Illinois or live online, the PASS Program offers a self-study, on demand package. This includes just the core components of the PASS Program coursework – 6 months of online access to on demand video lectures, a coursebook and access to the quizlet (i.e. practice questions). This home study course will run you right around $900. This is still on the expensive side of USMLE prep courses, particularly as compared to Lecturio’s value pricing, but does offer some great resources.
Course options and pricing current as of date of publication.
Evaluation of Lessons and Curriculum
The PASS Program does not mess around when it comes to prepping for the USMLE. I have taken and reviewed a number of USMLE prep courses, but none take it as seriously or as far as the PASS Program. They go as far as bringing students in from all over the country to a central facility in Illinois, where you eat, breathe and sleep USMLE prep for up to 12 weeks. In other words, if you want to minimize risk of failing Step 1 or Step 2 of the USMLE, the PASS Program is likely your best bet.
Though I took the 8-week live online course, a significant number of students attend each session in person. Determining whether to attend in-person or live online will depend on your needs, learning style and personal circumstances. Either way, the classes and study materials are the same – it just a matter of whether you need the commitment and accountability of studying in-person, or if you are self-motivated enough to stay focused and study from home. If you’re like me and do just fine staying focused for hours on end despite distractions around you at home, you’ll likely be fine with the live online version.
In any event, this course starts and ends with its founder, Dr. Francis. It is clear from day one that Dr. Francis has been doing this a long time. He has an absolute mastery of the topics tested on the USMLE, including all organ systems and the top diseases which you’ll see. He is energetic, passionate and has a great knack for communicating complex topics. And believe me when I say you’ll never fall asleep in this class – Dr. Francis has a booming voice and is easily excited about these topics, which he is clearly passionate about.
Not to mention, he regularly calls on students in class (live online students who do not like participating can take a sigh of relief). But to those students on-site, know that you will have to participate to some degree. Don’t let this deter you though – the class setting is very collegial and friendly. It’s clear from day one that everyone is learning together, in a true team fashion. So don’t get embarrassed, jump right in and participate.
Each class starts off with a session about test taking strategies and techniques. Dr. Francis (or sometimes another doctor filling in, like Dr. Chacko or Dr. Parth) will pick a few random exam questions and demonstrate some test taking technique. The idea behind these morning workshops is to teach you how to be smarter and more efficient in how you take the test, and not just prepare for it from a knowledge-based perspective. You don’t have to know 100% of the material to pass – there are a number of techniques that can be employed to simplify answering questions. Dr. Francis hammers on his theory of finding the concept or clue in the vignette and quickly eliminating incorrect answer choices.
I absolutely loved this aspect of the PASS Program course. So many other courses focus on substantive review and provide little, if any, attention to strategy. So it is refreshing to see a course teach you how to take the test in addition to just what you need to know for the test. I found many of Dr. Francis’ little shortcuts and techniques to work beautifully. In my opinion, these morning sessions added some of the biggest value in this course.
But it isn’t all just learning shortcuts and test taking tricks. You still need to learn the hard material, and that is where most of the rest of the day is spent. Each day you’ll cover a primary topic and a number of smaller subtopics underneath that. This part of the course is a fairly traditional lesson, with Dr. Francis employing a whiteboard in class. You follow along in your lecture notes, and take your own notes as you listen to Dr. Francis.
Again, Dr. Francis is a great lecturer. He not only has a clear mastery of the subject matter, but he is also a skilled teacher. He makes the material relatable through stories, clinical experiences, studies he’s read and other anecdotal tools, which act as memory aids. He can be loud and expressive at times, and this helps to keep otherwise dry and difficult material at least somewhat interesting.
I thoroughly enjoyed this portion of the class as well. Learning the hard content is one of those necessary evils, and Dr. Francis does a great job. The lecture notes are detailed, so you don’t have to fill in a ton of personal notes, and you can focus on his lesson.
For those students learning at home through the on-demand course, the PASS Program also offers some high quality on-demand videos. All of the course formats provide you with access to these video-based lessons for roughly 6 months after your normal class ends (except the self-study on demand package, which simply provides a straight 6 months of access). These video lectures are very similar to the class sessions, but offer onscreen text, graphics and hand drawn notes.
Dr. Francis appears in the bottom right corner of the screen and lectures on the topic, while on screen notes from the lecture handout and his occasional hand drawn notes on the whiteboard take center stage. These videos are very much like the class sessions, but a bit more polished and with the added digital features of onscreen graphics.
While I found these videos to be well thought out, they were not the best I have seen. I actually think Kaplan’s and Lecturio’s are better. But that is mostly because of the production value and format of these videos. They just feel dated and old school, whereas the other prep companies have more updated delivery formats. The content of these on demand video lessons is otherwise on point though.
Beyond the video lectures, you will get access to a ton of practice work with PASS Program. Not as much as you get with SmashUSMLE (who offers 4,000+ practice questions through a handy test bank), but enough to get sufficient practice in. I liked the PASS Program practice questions and found them to be very realistic of what you will see on gameday. They closely resemble actual USMLE questions in terms of content and structure.
What’s more, you also get a number of video explanations with the PASS Program’s questions. Accompanying all of the on-demand videos, there is a short quiz to test your knowledge of the material on the topic. After you are done, you are given solutions to the quiz questions in video form. I really liked this feature and found it to be helpful. In fact, I wish every question they offer had a video made and recorded in the online portal.
Beyond the video explanations, I liked the text-based explanations as well, though not as much as other courses. At times, these explanations were just a little thin in comparison. That said, I did like the explanations in the PASS Program Clues booklet. That resource offers a number of practice questions and answers, along with corresponding explanations. I found these explanations to be very good, and this book to be an overall helpful tool.
All in all, I really enjoyed my live online class experience and was thoroughly impressed with the coursework of the PASS Program. As mentioned, the highlight for me was the morning strategy sessions, though the content review and drill sessions were helpful as well. The on-demand videos are a little underwhelming, but mostly just because of the delivery format. Otherwise, they do hold their own. Overall, I was a big fan of the quality of the PASS Program USMLE prep package.
PASS Program USMLE Prep Book
When you sign up with the PASS Program, they will ship you a hardcopy book full of course notes. In total, this book has more than 600 pages of fact-intensive content review. Let me just say – it is a dense, heavy book. It is brimming with substantive material and is almost like a USMLE notes bible.
The book is largely grouped by topic to follow along with the class, so you can take notes in it as you follow along. In my opinion, this is a well written and extremely thorough book. But I wouldn’t recommend using it in a vacuum – it is best complemented by the live course.
PASS Program Practice Tests
Just about every PASS Program course option comes with two full-length NBME practice exams. The first one is taken very early on in the course as a diagnostic to test your baseline knowledge and skills. It also pinpoints your weaknesses and gives you something by which to measure your progress. The other full-length practice exam is taken near the end of the course. For me, it was taken during my second to last week in class.
But no matter when you take your second practice exam, it is helpful. There is nothing better than replicating exam-like conditions with a practice test, so I was grateful to have two full-length opportunities.
User Interface of the Online Portal
The student portal of the PASS Program is pretty basic. There are no bells or whistles, or sleek designs. It just gives you access to your quizlets, on demand videos and other features in a straightforward fashion. Don’t get me wrong, it is absolutely functional, and I liked that about it. But it is not pretty.
The load speeds were generally fine and I have never had an issue streaming my classes or watching on demand videos. If user interface is a big deal to you, you probably won’t be happy with what the PASS Program has to offer. But if you don’t care about such things, then you’ll be just fine.
The PASS Program Private Tutoring
Almost all of the live PASS Program courses offer private tutoring. You will meet with one of the PASS Program instructors once, twice or three times per week (depending on your course) and discuss your progress. This is huge advantage that other USMLE prep courses do not generally offer as a standard feature of their course.
Your tutor will be up to date with your performance on practice questions, and will want to know how you have been coming along in class. For me, my tutor seemed very interested in making sure I as happy with the class and my progress. The first part of most sessions was dedicated to reviewing my progress, then opened up for a freer flowing discussion on topics I wanted help on and where I could improve.
This tutoring fits right in with the nature of the PASS Program course. The PASS Program is very focused on individual student success, so it is not surprising that they offer such a resource. Overall, I enjoyed my tutoring sessions and they make for a nice bookend on rather long weeks of studying.
Content Access Period
You will have access to your online PASS Program course materials for six months after the course ends. The exception here is the on-demand course – given there is no live class, the content access period is just 6 months. This doesn’t apply to individual class recordings though – these are generally only accessible for 30 days after each class session. That said, the on-demand video lessons will remain open for the full 6 months.
Is there a Mobile App?
Unfortunately, as of the writing of this review, the PASS Program does not offer a mobile app. This is too bad, as a number of other USMLE prep providers offer such a resource. Sometimes it is nice to watch a video lecture on the go, or work some practice questions when you have free time. So the fact you don’t get that here is a bit of a bummer.
Is there a Pass or Money Back Guarantee?
While the PASS Program does not offer a cash back promise if you fail to pass your Step 1 or Step 2 USMLE exam, a number of their courses carry a course repeat guarantee. Meaning, if you fail to pass your exam, they will allow you to repeat the course free of charge so that you can try again. This applies to the live on-site 8-week and 12-week courses, as well as the live online 8-week course, but no others.
In order to be eligible for the guarantee you must attend 80% of lectures and fulfill some other requirements, so please read the fine print, but know that as long as you attend all your classes and do all the work, you should qualify easily.
Verdict: PASS Program USMLE Review Course
The PASS Program USMLE prep course offers one of the most rigorous and comprehensive prep packages on the market. Taking an old school approach to prep with 5-week, 8-week and 12-week classes – offered both live on-site in Illinois and live online – the PASS Program packs a coursework punch. Across your multiple week package, you are granted access to daily test taking strategy sessions, heavy content review and tons of drills and practice work. In addition, many of their packages offer weekly, private 1:1 tutoring.
This level of prep work and hands-on approach to student success is not without cost though. The PASS Program carries one of the largest price tags in the industry, so if you are cost sensitive, this may not be for you. The other primary issues with this course center around a dated on-demand video lesson delivery and the fact that there is no mobile app or cash back guarantee. But these relatively minor issues aside, this is an intensive and engaging course, which we feel confident will work for most students. This course gets high marks for its massive levels of live class work, solid study materials and student-first focused approach.
Depending on which course option you select, the PASS Program USMLE prep packages range in price from around $900 up to $6,500.
How many live classroom hours do I get with the PASS Program?
The PASS Program offers 5-week, 8-week and 12-week USMLE course packages. These course options provide 175, 280 and 420 hours of live class time, respectively.
Is the PASS Program USMLE prep worth it?
Although it has a high price tag, the PASS Program USMLE prep package is highly effective. With hundreds of hours of live class time, on demand video lessons, a 600+ page coursebook and tons of practice material, you are almost sure to pass your USMLE Step 1 or Step 2 exam.