You will find many different opinions about when is the optimal time to take Step 2 CK. I believe this decision should be based on one main question: What can you do between June and August to best strengthen your application? I know it is frustrating to have such a broad answer, but I think that is the best answer, and it takes into consideration a few of the following factors: 1 – Step 1 score, 2 – away rotations, 3 – letters of recommendation, 4 – study time needed to do well (please note that I am not giving score cutoffs…that is up to you/your mentor to determine into which category you best fit).
If you did great on Step 1, then Step 2 is somewhat less of a priority for ophthalmology applications. While other specialties may look more heavily on Step 2 performance, the reality is that Step 2 is not looked at nearly as carefully as Step 1 is for ophthalmology, largely because not everyone has taken Step 1 by the time they apply so it is difficult to compare performance between applicants. If you rocked Step 1, you will likely rock Step 2 (smart people are smart). If you are in this group, it may be a good idea to strengthen your application in other ways (research, away rotations, etc). In my opinion, someone that rocks Step 1 has more to lose by taking Step 2 early (May-July) than they have to gain by rocking it, so it might be best to take it after your application goes in.
If you did poorly on Step 1 but still think you have a shot at matching into ophthalmology, then your answer to the main question of how best to strengthen your application will likely be to improve your Step 2 score. Take it early enough that you will at least have a score that you can report to your potential programs by the time they start screening applications. If you get it to them when they have already invited for interviews, it is too late, as they likely already screened your application out by having a somewhat lower USMLE score than they typically invite. My recommended timeline would be to report your score by mid to late September or early October if you hope they will have it in time for reviewing your application. If you just want them to have it by the time you interview, then give yourself a month before the bulk of interviews take place to take the exam.
If you didn’t rock Step 1 but you didn’t do poorly either. Blast…welcome to the group in which most of us find ourselves, in the cluster of 1-2 standard deviations from the perpetually-increasing mean. Unfortunately, the decision isn’t quite as clear for this group in my opinion. Again, what can you do to best strengthen your application?
Are you weak in research? Do a research rotation
Are you somewhat weak in clinical grades or have had little clinical exposure to ophtho clinically? Do an ophtho rotation
Will an away rotation at some other rotation be the best use of your time? Go away
Will a rotation at your home program and a subsequently awesome letter of recommendation be the best for you? Stay home
If at the end of the day you feel that doing well on Step 2 is the best use of your time to strengthen your application, then that’s your answer.
Whenever you decide to take Step 2, take into account how much time you needed to study for Step 1 and if you felt that was enough to do well. Were you ready for Step 1 in 2-3 weeks of hardcore studying? That might be all you need for Step 2, or even less. Did you need 4-6 weeks or more to really feel ready? Plan accordingly, but keep in mind, if you study for this much time during May-July/August, you are doing so at the expense of giving your all in some other area of application-strengthening, and it may be best to take Step 2 a bit later (after application goes in) so that you can submit your newly-strengthened application in other areas before you get your hardcore study on.
Sorry for the generalities, but you are unique (ahh precious) and the strategy of how to schedule your fourth year must also be unique. As evidence of this, among the four classmates from my school applying for ophtho, one took Step 2 in June, one in October, one in December, and one in January.
What was my story? I was in that blasted middle category of standard deviation clustering about the mean. I felt as though the time it would take me to study well enough to do well on Step 2 was not worth the application-strengthening of June-August, and thus chose to take Step 2 after my application had gone in. I did 8 weeks of research in June-July, sent in the application, did a month of ophtho at home program, then studied for Step 2 from mid-September to mid-October and took it the third week of October right before interviews started. I got my score back in enough time to be able to tell programs my score if they asked me at interviews. For what it’s worth, however, out of the 13 interviews I did, I think only two asked about my Step 2 score.