Mar 14, 2024

The PLAB Test vs the USMLE


As an international medical student or graduate, you’re most likely deciding where to pursue your medical career. The most common options are either the UK or the US. And that means you need to pass the medical licensing exams in these countries. Let’s talk more about the PLAB test vs the USMLE and how they fair against each other.

The PLAB Test vs the USMLE: What to Know About Each

The PLAB Test

The Professional and Linguistic Assessments Board (PLAB) test is a two-part assessment to ensure that Overseas International Medical Graduates (IMGs) have the relevant knowledge and skills to practice medicine in the UK.

PLAB 1 is a 180-item multiple choice written exam that must be answered within three hours. It evaluates your knowledge of best practices, equipment routinely available in the UK, and common clinical medicine content.

PLAB 2 is an objective structured clinical exam composed of 18 scenarios. This focuses on real life settings, like mock consultations, and acute ward settings.


The United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) is a three-step test of your clinical knowledge and skills to allow you to practice medicine in the US. You can take the first two steps while still in med school. However, Step 3 is only available after you graduate.

Step 1 is a 280-item multiple-choice test that assesses your foundation of basic sciences such as anatomy, behavioral sciences, diseases, pathology, and therapy.

Step 2 tests your clinical knowledge of patient care, including health promotion, disease prevention, legal and ethical issues, and safety. The test traditionally gauged your clinical skills like gathering information, performing exams, diagnosing and analyzing results, and communicating with others. However, Step 2 CS was discontinued - as the USMLE board looks for alternatives to accurately assess clinical skills, we still encourage a deep breadth of knowledge in this area going into the exam.

Lastly, Step 3 evaluates your performance of unsupervised practices and independent patient care.

medical student studying for the PLAB test vs the USMLE

How They Compare to Each Other

Both of these medical licensing exams have similar goals – to ensure that medical graduates have the in-depth knowledge and skills to practice safe medicine in their chosen territory. It also assesses how much you have learned from med school, as tests are generally based on resources and evidence and not your local arrangements.  

The primary difference of these two is their geographic scope. As noted, the PLAB test is to provide license to practice in the UK. The USMLE is for the US.

Another significant difference between these tests is the time commitment. The USMLE prep time can take around 1.5 to three years in total. This means it’s challenging to study while you’re working. Similarly, the whole exam lasts about 25 hours, usually taking five days of testing (if taken at the same time). On the other hand, the time for PLAB test is shorter. It takes around two to five months of prep time. The test lasts about 380 minutes (about 16 hours) in total.

Also, if you fail the PLAB exam, it doesn’t have a long-term effect on your job prospects as employers will not question your attempts. Also, you can retake the test up to five times. With the USMLE, you can retake the exam as many times as you want, until you pass. However, assessors will see how many attempts you’ve had and it could impact your application. If you pass but with a low score that you are not satisfied with, you can only retake the exam after seven years.

Finally, a noteworthy difference is the job prospects after taking these tests. When you get a match after passing the USMLE, you can start a training job in the US. For many, the first job begins three to five years after starting their test prep. On the other hand, when you pass PLAB 2, it can take a year or two before finding a training job.

Ultimately, choosing which path to go between the PLAB test vs the USMLE depends on your medical career goals.

If you need help during your decision process and anything else that includes your clinical experience, C.H.H.A is here to guide you. Contact us today to learn more.

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