So it’s Wednesday afternoon. After weeks of waiting, you’ve been checking your e-mail today Q3minutes or hitting refresh on the NBME site repeatedly, and finally find what you’ve been seeking: the link to the PDF that you think determines everything.
You hastily open the file to find…. a large block of text. After the second it takes you to realize the date and your USMLE ID number at the top have nothing to do with your actual score, your eye catches a glimpse of the following:
A good sign! You’ve joined the >90% of MD students (and about 80% of DO students trying for an allopathic-residency program) who passed. Congratulations! Chances are though, the page opened up just short of showing the box directly underneath the pass/fail: your score. In your excitement, you struggle with getting the mouse accurately (or was it precisely?) to the scroll bar to find….. two numbers? One of them a three digit score, the other a two digit score. So… you were aiming for some three digit goal, but now that you have passed and your score is permanent, what does it actually mean?!
In med school, the right answer usually starts with “it depends.” Let’s start with the three digit score, as that’s the important one that gets sent to residency programs with your application. As you know by now, certain medical specialties are more competitive than others. We’ll discuss interpreting below expected or failing scores in another post, but for now, you should start by checking out The National Residency Match Program (NRMP) and Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) document on charting match results. It comes out around September each year and gives a breakdown of the previous year’s match statistics. Right now, you’ll be most interested in the section that shows the average and distributions of Step 1 scores by specialty.
As for the two digit score, this is the number that is most likely to be misinterpreted. The first thing to know is that this is NOT a percentage nor a percentile. The former refers to the number of questions correct on the test divided by the total, and the latter (percentile) refers to how well you scored in relation to other students. The two digit score is neither. Don’t feel too confused – if you got this far, you already know you’re pretty smart. The two digit score is a near-arbitrary number, whereby the National Board of Medical Examiners deems the number 75 to be the cutoff for passing. This roughly corresponds to a three digit score of 188. Is it useful? Not really. It’s more historic than anything, and the confusion surrounding it is the reason why it is no longer sent with residency applications to program directors.
If you are interested in learning more about USMLE Step 1 percentages and percentiles, we strongly recommend checking out the MedStudentBooks.com USMLE Step 1 Percentile Calculator to help make some more sense of your score.
Congratulations to all those who passed – you’ve quite literally taken your first step to becoming a physician.