What’s the UCAT?
For those who do not know, to apply to study a medicine/dentistry degree at a UK university you have to sit one or two entrance exams. Most universities require the UCAT and some require the BMAT so it depends what universities you are applying to.
The UCAT (University Clinical Aptitude Test) is a computer-based test taken at UK Pearson Vue Centres (the same place you take theory driving tests). It aims to test a range of mental abilities deemed important for undertaking medical and dentistry degrees and careers, across the following 5 sub-tests:
The UCAT is notorious for being very pushed for time, with the questions not being particularly difficult to work out but very difficult when you only have 30 seconds (when the first 15 of these is your brain screaming “OH MY GOD I HAVE ONLY JUST READ THE QUESTION AND NONE OF IT WENT IN AND I HAVE ONLY 15 SECONDS LEFT TO THINK OF AN ANSWER”).
It doesn’t help that there’s an intimidating timer counting down in the bottom corner of your screen, which seems to be counting down seconds much faster than I ever knew a second lasted for. At the end of the 30 seconds, most questions ended for me with a “mm I haven’t selected a B in a while so I’ll tick that” guess (read on to see what I wish I did instead).
It’s very normal (and expected) to not be able to get through all the questions in each section, but never leave a question blank. If you realise you have any questions left unanswered for a section leave a few seconds to go through them and just blindly guess without even skimming the question. You are bound to get some lucky guesses out of those which could give you the difference between getting a place at medical school and not.
I, as many other medical applicants, thought it was likely I was going to get a place at medical school. I’d done well in exams most of my school life, I’d achieved excellent GCSE grades, I’d written a great personal statement and had got impressive work experience under my belt. The remaining hurdle was the entrance exams. Before I started revising for the entrance exams, I thought I’d do well considering I’d done well in almost all of my exams I had sat in my academic life so far; they can’t be THAT difficult. Oh how wrong was I.
Articles I’d read online and people I’d spoken too all seemed to agree that you should start revising for the UCAT at least 4-6 weeks before your test date, trying to fit in 2-3 hours of studying per day. I remember starting a month before my test date, but honestly I know I wasted the entire first week “researching” the format of the UCAT and reading horror stories online about how ridiculously hard it is, in the name of “revision”.
Frustratingly, as is the case with the preparation for each stage of the medical school application process, there is always pressure to buy expensive resources.
There are some free resources you can access online and you could get away with just using these. I used the free question banks on the UCAT official website which are useful but limited and not enough for preparation. They only have questions too, not any tips or guides on each section. Having just checked, they seem to have added some handy guides and tutorials on each section which were not there when I took the test. The Medic Portal and Kaplan among others also have free resources.
I purchased the ISC Get into Medical School UCAT practice questions book (second hand on Amazon is much cheaper!), a recommendation of many medical students I had spoken to at various university open days. This was handy for outlining the step-by-step thought process you should take with each question type and had some practice questions. However, this book was outdated as it was written for the previous UKCAT exam, so I was wary of using it. I have heard some people say that the questions in this book are harder than the real thing so getting used to these types of questions will set you up well for the real exam. I told myself I would do this once I got through the practice questions that were on Medify but I underestimated how many (over 10,000) questions there were on Medify so I never got round to the ones in the book.
I bought a 30 day plan from Medify, a popular online resource for UCAT preparation which most of my preparation for the exam consisted of. I found their individual section guides very helpful on how to tackle all the different question types that are likely to come up, and time-saving tips. However, their verbal reasoning questions were much easier for me than in the real test. I scored the best in Verbal Reasoning out of all the sections in my Medify mocks but scored the worst in the real test. Many of my friends shared the same experience. The Official UCAT question banks for Verbal Reasoning were more realistic.
I used Medify in the following way by going through each test section separately (for example, doing all the following steps for Verbal Reasoning then moving on to Quantitative Reasoning):
- Read the guides on how to answer each question type. I made written notes on the tips I thought would be very useful and for me to go over again at a later date.
- I tried some practice questions under no timed conditions to improve my technique.
- I did a mini-mock on the section, under timed conditions.
Once I had done this for every section, I then went on to the full 2 hour mock exams.
I started doing full mocks when I had 2 weeks left until my test and structured it so that I did a mock every other day. In the ‘rest days’ I did some practice questions on the sections I’d been struggling with. In total I did 7 mocks (2 from the UCAT official site that I saved for last) and 5 from Medify.
After completing each mock, I painstakingly went through each of the 233 questions, over half of which I got wrong most of the time, and tried to work out the correct answer. The worked solutions were extremely helpful for seeing what I did wrong and changing my perspective on each questions. The worked solutions for the UCAT official site tests were inconsistent and it felt like the person who wrote them gave up and couldn’t be bothered, and I often went away still not knowing how to get to the answer. It felt like when you ask your friend how they managed to work out a question in maths class and they reply with a huge sigh and start blurting out numbers to you and you pretend you get it now to save the embarrassment.
I thought doing 7 mocks was enough, but I probably should have started doing mocks much earlier, completed more of them and analysed better. Understanding where you went wrong in your approach and timing is crucial for improving after each mock. I believe I should have spent more time analysing my results but my problem was that I was already exhausted after doing the 2 hour exam that I couldn’t be bothered. My advice for my pre-UCAT self would be to save the analysing task for the next day for a fresh perspective and really put more effort into dissecting my methods and the worked solutions.
I thoroughly did NOT enjoy this preparation process because my progress after each mock was not linear and some mocks I found MUCH easier than others and so I scored well and then the next day I scored terribly. This is normal though once I realised the majority of my answers are guesses anyway and luck obviously fluctuates. It was a fluctuating process of my inner thoughts saying “you’ve got thissssss, you’re improving” to “you’re going to fail”. I achieved the worst mock result out of all seven of my mocks on the day before my test date: how encouraging.
My advice to my previous self and to you
- Learn the keyboard shortcuts, for example to flag questions to avoid the precious seconds wasted moving the cursor.
- Really get to grips with the on-screen calculator and learn tricks with this (e.g. memory button) to save time. Ensure you never do any practice with any calculator other than the one you’ll get on the day.
- Practise speed-reading techniques in contexts other than UCAT question answering.
- Try your hardest to forget how the previous section went when you move on to the next. I recall being so shocked at how awful verbal reasoning went that it knocked my confidence for the remaining sections and I think I almost gave up a little as I knew I had done badly on the first section. Equally, do not become complacent if you found a section easy.
- Perfect my ‘flag and move on’ difficulty threshold, rather than just trying each question and either working it out or guessing when the time slot was up.
A resource I wish I used:
Ace the UCAT
Preparation guides for the UCAT can often…
- be expensive
- provide generic advice on whole sections not question sub-types
- feel impersonal
One resource I wish I used in my preparation was the Ace the UCAT Course E-book, which isn’t any of these things.
Why I love it
A medical student, who ranked in the top 99th percentile with an average score of 835 and Band 1, created this extremely useful and affordable guide to UCAT preparation.
What I like the most about the e-book is how unique the advice is; there are many tips I never came across that I believe would have significantly improved my score. Especially with the advice on prioritisation and flagging which I wasn’t very good at.
It goes through a variety of sub-type questions, and outlines a methodical approach to each one. It is this analysis of how you approach a question which I lacked in my preparation.
I also appreciate that it is written from the perspective of someone who knows how difficult the UCAT is, and so resonates with what you are likely to be going through when preparing. I don’t recall feeling this personal touch when using Medify or the book during my preparation. Other providers like Medify carry a commercial feel which allows them to charge more too.
The Ace the UCAT Course e-book is priced at £14.99 so it is a much more affordable option than popular schemes like Medify. As stated on the Ace the UCAT website:
“Many UCAT course providers are large corporations that offer expensive, exploitative UCAT courses: The reason medicine and dentistry applicants continue to go on these courses, (the way I did), is that we really, really want to get into medicine, and the high prices create an illusion of high quality. A few hundred pounds seem worth every penny when you think that it will get you into medical school. But the fact is that a course being more expensive does not make it better, and the same, or even better information, can easily be provided at a much lower price.“
However, it does not include any practice questions but only tips on how to approach them so is best used alongside another practice questions resource. But considering the wealth of practice questions out there (free ones online, or whether you choose to pay for Medify or a book) this e-book is invaluable for knowing how to approach these questions and tips on how to structure your preparation schedule. Ace the UCAT also offer unlimited full bursaries to anyone who has ever received free school meals, another bursary or universal credit so no applicant should miss out due to financial reasons.
For more information about the e-book and to purchase it yourself, visit www.acetheucat.com or on social media:
Instagram – @ace.the.ucat
Twitter – @AcetheUCAT
Facebook – Ace the UCAT
It may not go well
I felt so disheartened after my UCAT that I didn’t do as well as I wanted. It was one of the few times that I didn’t do particularity well in an exam, and this was arguably the most important exam I’d sat so far.
Remember that this style of exam suits some people better than others, and that in no way does it mean that you are not fit to be a great doctor.
I find that some ways the UCAT tests your abilities are too extreme to extrapolate to whether this will prove you’ll be a good doctor/dentist. For example, Abstract Reasoning tests your ability to identify patterns and relationships between shapes to see whether you’d be able to diagnose a patient from test results and distracting data etc. I think this is silly: just because you may not be good at recognising that the shape belongs to Set B because there are an odd number of sides and 3 lines of symmetry does not mean that you will not be good at diagnosing a patient’s condition. Knowing this, hopefully you will still be determined to pursue your medical career.
It is not the end of the world.
Luckily, UCAT exams are sat between July and early October, meaning you can still change your options before the UCAS deadline or sit the BMAT. Whereas the BMAT is sat after the UCAS deadline so you can’t change your options, you can adjust what universities you are applying to depending on your UCAT score. The Medic Portal website along with individual university entry requirements are good places to find out whether you have a shot at getting an interview with your UCAT score.
I hope this was helpful!
The Conscious Medic