Can the UCAT (UKCAT) be prepared for?

March 30, 2016 - Brian Holmes

The simple answer: YES.

To understand why, consider the nature of the UCAT (UKCAT). It’s fundamentally different from other exams, such as GCSEs or A-levels, that you may have taken or revised for. The UCAT (UKCAT) consists of over 200 questions that you must answer in 2 hours, without a break. There is very little time to answer the questions in each section – less than a minute per question – as indicated in the table below.

Section Timing Questions Timing per Question
Verbal Reasoning 21 minutes 44 28.6 seconds
Decision Making 31 minutes 29 1 minute
Quantitative Reasoning 24 minutes 36 40 seconds
Abstract Reasoning 13 minutes 55 14.1 seconds
Situational Judgement 26 minutes 68 22.9 seconds

Note that in Verbal Reasoning and Situational Judgement, there are also passages that you will have to work with – if you actually read these passages, then it will reduce the timing per question. For example, we at Kaplan advise students to spend 30 seconds reading each Situational Judgement scenario and then 10–15 seconds answering each question. Such pacing is very tight, but it is possible to keep up with it and answer all of the questions (and the vast majority of them correctly), if you prepare.

Thus, the two most important considerations in preparing for the UCAT are improving your skill at answering UCAT questions with speed as well as accuracy. Think of it a bit like training to drive in an F1 grand prix: it’s not simply a matter of driving as fast as possible, but you also have to stay on the track and not spin out or crash. When students start to prepare for the UCAT, they usually struggle in one or both of these core UCAT skills. They may be able to answer questions correctly, but not nearly quickly enough; alternately, they might be able to work quickly, but only by making far too many mistakes.

A key challenge that may affect your speed is the temptation to treat the UCAT as if it’s like other exams. For example, on a GCSE test paper, you will normally be told how many marks each question is worth; you can then budget your time accordingly, spending more time on questions that are worth more marks. On the UCAT, each question is worth one mark, regardless of difficulty. To the untrained eye, it may be tough to distinguish the straightforward, quick questions from the time-consuming, objectively difficult ones. Thus, it’s very easy to get ‘sucked in’ to a question that takes 2 or 3 minutes to answer correctly. As you can see from the average timing per question, spending 2 or 3 minutes on one question would ensure that you would miss several questions later in the section – you wouldn’t even have time to glance at them or click an answer.

To improve your speed in the UCAT, it’s necessary to answer some questions in each section through elimination or even guessing, rather than doing the straightforward work. To be clear: It’s always possible to answer a question the straightforward way, such as doing all the maths to set up and solve a Quantitative Reasoning question. However, it’s often faster to answer a question by eliminating all the wrong answers. Most UCAT questions have three, four or five answer choices, so if you can eliminate two answers, you will either have the correct answer (in the case of many Verbal and Abstract questions) or be left with a very good guess.

Whilst guessing is not a strategy that you would use on a GCSE or A-level, it is a legitimate and valuable technique for ensuring that you answer all the questions in each UCAT section. If you are running out of time in a section, for example, it’s better to ensure that you click an answer for all remaining questions than to try to work out one or two of them, and then leave several items blank. Again, because the questions are multiple-choice and there are relatively few answer choices, you have good odds of answering correctly by guessing blindly. For example, if there are four answer choices, you have a 25% chance of correctly guessing the answer by picking a random letter from A to D. If you leave the question blank, you have 0% chance of getting the mark.

To combine guessing with elimination, then, you can see the value in preparing yourself for those tough questions that are ‘black holes’ that would otherwise suck you in for several minutes, at the expense of quicker, easier marks later in the section. Based on the average timing per question, for example, it’s clear that you should not be spending more than a minute per question in any section of the UCAT. Thus, once you notice you’ve spent a minute on a question already, you need to decide whether to keep going or to cut your losses. After a minute of work, you might be able to eliminate at least one or two answer choices as clearly wrong. For example, you might see that a Verbal statement is clearly not True, or an Abstract test shape clearly does not match Set B, or that one or two Quantitative answer choices are obviously too large or too small. This is not the ‘perfect’ or ideal approach, but in the practice of medicine or dentistry, you will sometimes encounter situations where you have to make hard choices very quickly. By preparing for the UCAT, you can hone your skills at knowing when to eliminate and when to guess, and to do so with improved speed, accuracy and confidence.

In preparing for the UCAT, you will also benefit from getting to know the test format and interface. It’s one thing to read about this on the UCAT website, but it’s quite another to spend time answering questions in the testing interface (or a direct simulation, like Kaplan’s) and familiarising yourself with the nuances of the question types in each section. There are three key points to look out for:

  • The onscreen calculator: You will want to get very comfortable with its functionality and its limitations. We at Kaplan strongly advise that you practise using the number pad or keyboard to enter numbers and complete calculations with the onscreen calculator. It’s faster than using the mouse. Also, at some UCAT test centres, you may be given a testing station with a touch-screen monitor. We must strongly advise that you should not touch the screen to use the calculator since we have heard too many stories about the screen not registering the correct numbers (or not registering numbers) which can be quite vexing when you are trying to work quickly.

  • The ‘Flag for Review’ function and the end-of-section review screen: When you answer the final question in a UCAT section, you will be presented with a review screen that will give you several options. You can click on any individual question number from that section, which will then pull up that question, so you can review your work; this will also indicate whether you had flagged the questions for review. Furthermore, you have the option to review all the questions in the section, to review only the unanswered questions, or to review only the questions you flagged for review. Clicking on either of the latter two options will then pull up the first question that was unanswered (or flagged for review), and then you can use the Next/Previous buttons to move forward/backward through the questions that were unanswered (or flagged for review). There is also the option to return to the review screen. This functionality is incredibly useful at ensuring that you have clicked an answer for every question. However, you must practise using it under timed conditions, since it is likely you will have very little time to actually use the review screen in any section of the test. Be prepared to use the review screen under extreme time pressure – will you be ready to use it with less than a minute, for example?

  • Wrong answer traps: These will be waiting for you in every section of the UCAT. These can include answers for students that reason incorrectly, that set up the maths or calculate with an easy-to-make error, or ‘strong but wrong’ answers, to give a few common examples. To avoid such traps, you must practise with as much test-like content as possible, and embrace and learn from your mistakes. Any mistake you make in your revision is one that you can avoid on Test Day. You are highly likely to fall into a few wrong answer traps along the way; each will help ensure you have stronger, sharper footing on the actual UCAT.

Last but not least, let’s look at how UCAT revision is different from revising for a GCSE or A-level. As we have seen, the key considerations on the UCAT are speed and accuracy, along with familiarity with the test format and interface. When you revise for a GCSE or A-level, you’d normally be reviewing your notes and working through a revision guide. The UCAT isn’t really a content-based test, in that sense; however, each section of the test requires UCAT knowledge or skills for success:

  • Verbal Reasoning: scanning, rather than reading (a UCAT skill)

  • Decision Making: logical reasoning (a UCAT skill)

  • Quantitative Reasoning: formulae (UCAT knowledge) and fast maths (UCAT skill)

  • Abstract Reasoning: pattern categories (UCAT knowledge and UCAT skill)

  • Situational Judgement: principles of medical practice (UCAT knowledge)

Other than the formulae required for Quantitative, these areas of UCAT skill and knowledge are not things you would have learned in school. They are very particular to the UCAT, both in the nature of the skill/knowledge required and how it must be applied, quickly and accurately, to get the maximum possible marks on Test Day. Building your UCAT knowledge and skills is the goal of your UCAT preparation, so ensure that you have the time and resources to prepare properly and effectively.

We have a number of UCAT course options available to suit every study style, location and budget. 

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