Friday, July 27, 2012

USMLE Step 1: Thoughts on Berlin

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.
It's at 49 Torstrasse which is right by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz U-bahn station. The entrance is just around the corner to the left in the above picture. It's a pretty big intersection with lots of bikes, cars, trams, and such. You'll see the Rossmann drug store as a landmark.
This is the entrance. When you arrive, the outer door swings open automatically in a futuristic we-were-expecting-you kind of way. Go straight to the next set of doors, which you have to open manually, into the atrium. Prometric is in wing C of the building.
You can take the elevator up one floor to level Z (yeah, Z, not 1. I don't know why either) or, if you go to the right of the elevator, there is a door to the stairway.

At this point, you do have to buzz in. There is a ringer to the left of the door. Press it hard enough until you hear a tone. I arrived at 8:25 for my 9am exam. A lady came to the door to ask, "Can I help you?" I said I was here to write a test at 9am and she was a little short until she found out it was the USMLE. At that point, her demeanor completely changed and she welcomed me in with open arms and was very very nice.

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.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Many thanks for your very valuable instruction regarding USMLE.
Can you please recommend me which Q bank you used.
Thank you

Corsair said...

You're welcome!
The most recommended QBank seems to be USMLE World. I did not use it, though, in retrospect, I should have. I used Kaplan QBank and was a beta-tester for another new QBank.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Corsair
Many thanks for you advice.
All the information you have given to us are so usefull, We all appreciate your kindness and your efforts.

Anonymous said...

Hi Corsair,
You have mentioned that there were a lot of Statistics questions in the exam. What book do you recommend?
2. How can we a get a place in Germany in order to do the USMLE exam, can we take in any month?
I appreciate if you give me an answer.

Corsair said...

Hi! My exam had a lot of biostatistics, yes, but that doesn't mean every exam does. It's best to be as evenly prepared as you can. In terms of a book for cramming, First Aid is considered the gold standard. The Kaplan series of review books are also quite good--but for review, not for learning the material in the first place.

For your second question, do you mean a place to stay in Germany or a seat at the testing center? I just found a hotel that I could use my air miles to pay for that was near Alexanderplatz. If you stay anywhere near Alexanderplatz, you can walk to the testing center the day of your exam. As for getting a seat, you have to apply through ECFMG and then sign up online at Prometric. They have seats available almost every week of the year--usually 2-3 times per week.

I hope I've answered your questions! :)

Anonymous said...

Many Many thanks for your replies.
They really help me alot.

Anonymous said...
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Paul Kremer said...
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Anonymous said...

Dear Corsair.
First thanks for all your very valuable information. On the test day
how can I jump over the informative part of the exam and how can I get more free time ( Pause time)?
Is it possible for you to write the tel. Nr of hotel you stay in Germany.
Best regards.

Corsair said...

Hi Ana,
It's easy to skip over the first part by just quickly pressing the "next" arrow. You can gain almost 15 minutes of break time by doing this. Almost all of the information is also available on the USMLE website so you can review it before you go.

Unfortunately, I don't have the phone number for the hotel, but the link in the text works. Since then I've stayed at several hotels in the Alexanderplatz area and I have been happy with all of them.
Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Hello.Do you remember how cold it is in the prometric center in Berlin? Are we allowed to have a cardigan with us if we feel cold? thanks.

Anonymous said...

Hi Corsair,
Many thanks for your very valuable information. I took finally step 1 USMLE in Berlin, and passed, which made me very happy.
Have you done USMLE CK? Do you recommend First Aid CK or other books, in this case which book do you recommend for USMLE Step2?
Which Q bank did you choose and how do you appreciate it, is it good or it is too detailed, or not relevant.
I will appreciate your kindness if you write some words about CK, USMLE Step 2

Yours sincerely

Corsair said...

Congrats Ana! You are on your way! Yes, I have finished Step 1, Step 2 CK & CS, and have matched this year into a US residency. As for CK, the text most of my friends and I used was "Step Up to CK". I used the uworld question bank again for CK as well. It's a lot of information, but you can do it.

Good Luck!