Step 1 scoring moves to pass/fail: Hospitalists’ role and unintended consequences


The National Board of Medical Examiners recently announced a change in the United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) Step 1 score reporting from a 3-digit score to a pass/fail score beginning in 2022.1 Endorsed by a broad coalition of organizations involved in undergraduate (UME) and graduate medical education (GME), this change is intended as a first step toward systemic improvements in the UME-GME transition to residency by promoting holistic reviews of applicants. Additionally, it is meant to tackle widespread concerns about medical student distress brought about by the residency selection process. For example, switching to pass/fail preclinical curricula has resulted in an improvement in medical student well-being at many medical schools.2 It is the hope that a mirrored change in Step 1 may similarly improve mental health and encourage a growth mindset towards learning.

Dr. Ernie Esquivel

Dr. Ernie Esquivel

On the other hand, many residency programs rely on USMLE scores for screening potential candidates, especially as application inflation has burdened programs with thousands of applications.3 The change to a pass/fail Step 1 score will likely shift emphasis and stress to the Step 2 CK Exam, essentially negating the intended effect. Furthermore, for schools still reporting NBME Subject (shelf) Exam scores and Clerkship grades, there will likely be a greater emphasis placed on these metrics as well. The need for objective assessment methods are seen by many as so critical that some GME leaders have advocated for instituting entrance exams or requiring a Standardized Letter of Evaluation as a prerequisite to residency application. Finally, medical students jockeying for competitive residency positions may also feel pressured to distinguish themselves by boosting other aspects of their portfolio by taking a research year or applying for away electives, which risks marginalizing students of lesser means or with family responsibilities.

Dr. Dennis Chang, associate professor and interprofessional education thread director (MD curriculum) at Washington University in St. Louis

Dr. Dennis Chang

Ultimately, the change to a pass/fail Step 1 exam will likely do little to address the expanding gulf between the UME and GME communities. Residency program directors are searching for students with qualities of a good physician, such as interpersonal skills, “teamsmanship,” compassion, and professionalism, but reliable, objective, and standardized assessment tools are not available. Currently our best tools are clinical evaluations which are subject to grade inflation and implicit racial and gender biases. Furthermore, other components of a residency application, such as letters of recommendation, Chair’s letters, and the Medical Student Performance Evaluation (Dean’s letter), are regarded to be less informative as schools move toward no student rankings, pass/fail grading schemes, and nonstandardized summative adjectives to describe medical students overall medical school performance.

Dr. Brian Kwan, a hospitalist at Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System and associate professor at the University of California, San Diego

Dr. Brian Kwan

Finally, medical student distress in the residency application process may stem from the perpetuation of elitism that extends from medical school to fellowship training and academic hospital medicine. Rankings of medical schools, residencies, fellowships, and hospitals serve to create a hierarchical system. Competitive residency applicants see admittance into the best training programs as opening doors to opportunities, while not getting into these programs is seen as closing doors to career paths and opportunities.

With this change in Step 1 score reporting, where do we as hospitalists fit in? Hospitalists are at the forefront of educating and evaluating medical students in academic medical centers, and we are often asked to write letters of recommendation and serve as mentors. If done well, these activities can have a positive impact on medical student applications to residency by alleviating some of the stresses and mitigating the downsides to the new Step 1 scoring system. Writing impactful letters and thoughtful evaluations are all skills that should be incorporated in hospitalist faculty development programs. Moreover, in order to serve as better advocates for our students, it is important that academic hospitalists understand the evolving landscape of the residency application process and are mindful of the stresses that medical students face. Changing Step 1 scoring to pass/fail will likely have unintended consequences for our medical students, and we as hospitalists must be ready to improve our knowledge and skills in order to continue to support and advocate for our medical students.

Dr. Esquivel is a hospitalist and assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York; Dr. Chang is associate professor and interprofessional education thread director (MD curriculum) at Washington University, St. Louis; Dr. Ricotta is a hospitalist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston, and instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School; Dr. Rendon is a hospitalist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque; Dr. Kwan is a hospitalist at the Veterans Affairs San Diego Healthcare System and associate professor at the University of California, San Diego. He is the chair of SHM’s Physicians in Training committee.


1. United States Medical Licensing Examination (2020 Feb). Change to pass/fail score reporting for Step 1.

2. Slavin SJ and Chibnall JT. Finding the why, changing the how: Improving the mental health of medical students, residents, and physicians. Academic Medicine. 2016;91(9):1194‐6.

3. Pereira AG, Chelminski PR, et al. Application inflation for internal medicine applicants in the Match: Drivers, consequences, and potential solutions. Am J Med. 2016 Aug;129(8): 885-91.

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