Monday, July 23, 2012, I took the epic 7-hour USMLE Step 1 exam in Berlin, Germany. For my fellow classmates, and others who are interested, here's some info about the city, the testing center, and what to expect.
I arrived the day before (Sunday) on the early train from Poznan and got checked into my hotel. I thought I was registered at the Radisson Blu but it turns out there is more than one Radisson in Alexanderplatz. I was booked at Park Inn by Radisson which is actually closer to the Prometric testing center and directly on the Alexanderplatz square. If you've ever seen the base-jumpers in Alexanderplatz, they're jumping off this hotel. I requested a room on the other side of the hotel from the jumpers though, which was a wise idea. The hotel was very nice, simple and comfortable.
After getting a little settled, I went out to explore and make sure I could find the testing center.
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It took me 10 minutes to walk there and find it--it's so easy! It's a great location and is so easy to access walking, if you're staying anywhere near Alexanderplatz, I wouldn't bother with public transportation at all.
She led me into the office where you check in and out of the testing room so I could get registered with her colleague. I handed over my passport and my scheduling permit. He verified my contact info, took a digital photo of me, and scanned my passport. He then gave me two laminated cards and had me write my exam ID number on the top of the card--you enter this ID when you start the exam and after every break. The cards are similar to what we're used to except that they have lines like graph paper, are double sided, and you get two. The dry-erase markers are regular marker type pens with a pretty fat tip--when you practice writing out what you want on your sheet, recognize that you'll be writing it in marker, not normal pen or pencil. Unlike NBME boards though, you do get an eraser. The person who registers you will take your boards to your testing station.
After registering, I went back out to the lobby and chose a locker. The lobby has a clock on the wall, free coffee, tea, hot and cold water. There are tables and chairs, bathrooms, and the lockers. You can leave the testing center on any given break, but you must buzz in to get back inside which can take a few seconds from your precious break times.
I was the only student there at the time, and they said I could start early if I wanted. At 8:35am, I went to sign in for the first time. You get a sign-in sheet that is for your whole exam. You sign in with the time while the check-in person compares your signature to that in your passport and looks at your photo and then at you. The only things you can take in the exam room are your passport, locker key, and earplugs--which they will inspect. Then you must turn out your pockets (if you have them) and submit to a wand metal detector scan. The last part is that they will ask to show your socks. (Apparently, they had a student try to sneak in his iPhone in his socks.) You'll go through this whole song and dance each and every break you take. (Unlike other Prometric offices, the Berlin center will not take your fingerprints for signing in and out because apparently collecting digital biometric data in Germany is illegal!)
For the first entry, the registrar will walk you to your testing station, show you the headphones, and watch you log in for the first time to make sure it works. It takes you straight to the 15 min tutorial. I took about 5 minutes to write down everything I wanted on my dry-earse board and then hit the button to end the tutorial and start the exam.
I'm not sure what to tell you about the exam. It's tough. There's a lot of reading. There's pictures, a few videos, a couple heart sounds--though you generally don't need the videos or heart sounds to be able to answer the question. My first two blocks felt a bit rough, so I took a break after the second one. I went out to the lobby, ate a banana and did push-ups. The rocky theme song was running in my head and after some shadow boxing, I went back in feeling pumped and I feel like I did a lot better. Just keep in mind that YOU CAN DO THIS! Anxiety is your enemy; know that you can do it.
I took a lot of little breaks after almost every block. Since the testing center was almost empty, I could sign in and out quickly and save time. On my lunch break, I went outside to soak up some rays and ended up soaking up more cigarette smoke than sunshine. The atrium of the building is a really nice place to eat your lunch though. While there are tons of little restaurants around the place, I'd suggest having something in your locker to eat--it will save you so much time. I packed a huge varied lunch because I didn't know what I'd feel like. There's a great little 24-hour market right across the street that has red bull, chips, candy bars, or whatever snack foods your heart desires. It's also an internet cafe with super cheap rates.
When you finish the exam, there is a short survey. Mine asked me if I regularly used medical journal articles to help my understanding of biostatistics (which my exam was full of). I collected my things, and went to sign out. The registrar will take your dry erase boards and print out a sheet that verifies that you took the exam. Then you grab your things from your locker and start drinking.
If you have any questions, please feel free to ask. I have email access and am more than willing to help! Good luck studying and GO DO IT!
Here's photos of the intersection, so you can see what kind of places are near by.