These are by far the most popular choices of admission test amongst medical schools across the UK and are designed to test various areas of your thinking skills, medical knowledge and clinical aptitude.
It doesn’t end there, though, as many universities now have their own admissions tests. It all seems very daunting and many students really fear these 2-hour exams that will take place in addition to their A-Levels.
The UCAT is a compulsory computer-based entrance exam required by most UK medical schools. It tests various aptitudes, such as mental abilities and ethics. These skills are key in the clinical context and help universities pick out the best candidates. Each university uses your score differently – some may put a heavy emphasis on the UCAT, whilst others look at your entire application.
You can take the test only once in a cycle. The test must be sat the same year that you apply through UCAS.
If you are a UK or EU student that is facing financial difficulty, the UCAT bursary scheme allows you to sit the exam for free. Even if you have already paid for the exam, the bursary voucher can be applied retrospectively. The scheme opens in early June 2021 and closes late September each year.
If you are eligible for extra time in school exams, they you are more than likely to be eligible for the UCATSEN. This is just the UCAT exam, but with 25% extra time (or even 50% if you usually receive this) in each section. There are also other access arrangements for the UCAT exam e.g. some that allow for rest breaks if you are eligible.
Registration for the UCAT usually opens early june each year and you can start booking your test from late June. You then have from late june to late July to sit your examination with the result of the test delivered to your chosen med schools in November.
The UCAT exam is made up of the following elements:
Verbal Reasoning – Ability to understand critically understand written information
Decision Making – Ability to make decisions using complex information
Quantitative Reasoning – Ability to critically understand and interpret numerical information
Abstract Reasoning – Ability to recognise and identify patterns
Situational Judgement – Ability to make real world decisions, it tests professional judgement
Verbal reasoning is the first of five subtests and is designed to test a candidate’s ability to read a passage of text and to decide whether certain conclusions can be made from the information presented.
As candidates have 21 minutes to read 11 passages, each with 4 related questions meaning that overall there are 44 questions, it also tests a candidate’s ability to read quickly and efficiently, critically evaluate written information, prove causality and identify reasoned conclusions.
Why is verbal reasoning important?
In clinical practice, doctors have to be able to read and draw conclusions from scientific articles and apply the information to improve their clinical practice. They must also be able to read these articles and interpret them carefully, so that they can communicate the information clearly and accurately to a patient. Furthermore, as doctors have to sift through lots of reading material on a daily basis, it is really good practise to be able to pick out and summarise key points efficiently from the information given, especially when working in a time- pressured environment.
What is the format of the verbal reasoning sub-test?
In this component, candidates will be given a 200-300 word passage, which they will have to read and answer 4 questions per passage.
There are two types of verbal reasoning question; true/false/can’t tell and free text. These are described in further detail below.
True/ false/ can’t tell questions
Alongside the passage presented on the screen, you will be shown 4 statements, which make up the 4 questions. Based on the passage alone, you must decide whether each of the 4 statements are true, false or can’t tell. When deciding, my top tip would be to make sure it is purely based on the passage and not based on your own knowledge.
Free text questions
In this type of question, after reading the passage of text given, you will be given 4 incomplete statements or questions. You must then decide which free text option is most appropriately applied to the statement/question. As this subtype of question is usually the type candidates find trickier, another top tip of mine would be to make sure to practise this subtype frequently until you feel more comfortable with them. It also tends to take longer to answer this subtype than the true/false/can’t tell questions, so for some candidates, the strategy of answering the true/false/can’t tell questions quicker and leaving more time for the free text questions works best. However, this is a personal choice, so practising questions will allow you to develop a strategy that best suits you.
Having to answer 44 questions in 21 minutes may sound very daunting, as this seems very time pressured. Timed practice is key. The more verbal reasoning questions you do, the quicker you pick up time-saving techniques.
Another useful preparation strategy for VR is reading articles (e.g. online scientific articles or in the newspaper) as efficiently as you can, and then summarising their content into a couple of bullet points at the end. This will enable you to practise your critiquing skills regularly and you will get much faster at reading the passages and answering the questions in the exam. A way to use this method to test yourself even further is to get a friend/ family member to read the article first and pick out a piece of information that they want you to find in a certain time period. It’s a good way of switching up your revision to avoid boredom and burnout.
Similar to the above, practicing your speed reading is vital. Speed-reading tests are available for free online. Make a note of your baseline reading speed and work actively to improve this.
Another thing to be very careful of in these passages is wording. Words such as ‘always’ and ‘sometimes’ crop up a lot in the passages and can help you narrow down the free text options that best suit the statement given. Read with a critical eye! Always consider if something is explicitly stated or just implied. Is an opinion being presented as fact?
Words to look out for:
Remember that in the UCAT, all questions are equally weighted. In the verbal reasoning section, some passages will be significantly longer than others. This means that learning when to move on is vital. You do not want to waste time on longer passage questions and miss the chance to answer the questions with shorter passages.
One strategy is to first quickly flick through all of the questions in the first 30 seconds or so and then initially answer all the sections with the smaller paragraphs. These would usually be the T/F sections. Once complete, you can then move on to answering the questions with larger passages later on during the test. This way, you’ll have a high accuracy rate for the easier questions and score higher in the test rather than fumbling through all of the questions and panicking towards the end.
Always read the questions posed to you first. This way, once you know the question, you can search for key words in the passage to help you find the correct section of the passage to answer your question. This focuses your reading a lot more and will save you a lot of time in the exam.
Once you have identified the key word in the question, scan the passage for that same keyword and place your finger on it. Then read the sentence before, during and after that keyword when answering any of the true, false, can’t tell questions
Key words may be abbreviations, names, dates, or capitalised words. With practice, identifying key words will be easier.
Remember not to consider any prior knowledge that you may have. Don’t make any assumptions either!
The decision-making section is the fourth section and requires you to use logic and reasoning to solve textual and visual data-related questions. It is the newest UCAT section and replaced decision analysis in 2017. It consists of 29 questions that are to be answered in 31 minutes.
It is made up of multiple-choice questions (4 answer options – only one will be correct) and yes/no type
questions (5 statements – you must mark ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for each). Questions may involve interpreting information in the form of text, graphs, and diagrams.
You’ll have access to a basic on-screen calculator for this section.
Why is the decision-making section important?
Although it may seem unrelated to the rest of your medical school application, this section is important in testing some clinically relevant skills. The questions require the use of logic and an ability to work under time pressure to reach a conclusion or solution to a problem, and they assess your ability to evaluate arguments, gain information using statistics and make an educated
decision based on the information provided. These are skills that are transferrable to a career in medicine as pressured, important decisions based upon logic and reasoning are common in the field.
Also, the graphs and charts that are included in the decision-making section prepare you for the statistical and visually presented data that you may encounter and be expected to analyse in interviews, as well as in your role as a future clinician.
What is the format of the decision-making section?
There are six types of questions that could come up in this section. They are:
Information is presented in the form of text, tables or graphs and candidates must select the correct conclusion based on this.
Candidates are given a series of statements and based on these, must decide whether a list of conclusions is true or not. Multiple answers may be correct in this type of question.
Candidates are presented with information in formats such as written text, graphs or charts and are expected to interpret this. A list of conclusions is then provided, and you must drag and drop ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers depending on which of the statements follow from the information given.
These questions involve evaluating the strength of arguments for and against a solution to a particular issue and choosing the strongest one. Your own beliefs should not be considered here; you are expected to be objective.
Here, you will either be presented with a Venn diagram and asked which conclusion follows, or information will be provided, and you must select the most appropriate Venn diagram that best represents this data.
Candidates will be given a short passage containing statistical information, usually centred around probability, and are asked to select the best response to the question.
This type of question typically involves decimals and percentages, as well as being primarily about probability, so make sure to refresh these topics in preparation.
The quantitative reasoning section of the UCAT is the second section of the exam. It tests your numerical problem-solving skills using evaluating numerical data sets and multiple choice questions.
It consists of 9 scenarios, each usually with 4 questions, totalling 36 questions which need to be answered in 24 minutes. This equates to, on average, 40 seconds per question.
It is important to note that certain question types take slightly longer to complete. However, this will be balanced out with questions you can complete quickly, so don’t start panicking if you take a little longer on a question. If you do get stuck on a question and are unsure of how to complete it, simply flag it, and move on.
Questions in quantitative reasoning include the use of graphs, charts, shapes, and tables with data that you need to be able to extract and then use to answer the questions.
You’ll have access to a basic on-screen calculator for this section.
Read the question first as you are often presented with lots of excess information that you do not need. Read the question carefully as the test is designed to try and trip you up so pay attention to all the key words.
After reading the question, then look at any data provided. Keep an eye out for extra information in bullet points that some candidates ignore but could be essential in answering at least one question. Make easy eliminations throughout, looking out for units and orders of magnitude.
Make sure you are confident with your basic maths: e.g. percentage changes/direct and inverse proportions/averages/ratios/rates.
However, don’t feel disadvantaged if you don’t think you’re good at maths. While this section does test numerical skills, the arithmetic required is not complicated so don’t fret! Still, as you will be assessed on your ability to interpret data, practice basic arithmetic and mental maths skills. For example, working out percentage profit. GCSE Maths past papers will come in handy!
Get used to using the online calculator. However, relying on your mental maths is also important as using the calculator for every calculation will slow you down. Practicing your mental maths will help you complete more questions with as little use of the calculator as possible, which will increase your speed and help make sure that you do not run out of time! The best solution is to work out easier calculations mentally then use the calculator for the harder calculations. Experiment with how often and when you use the calculator during practice questions to get the best results.
If you are using your keyboard for calculations, ensure ‘Num Lock’ is on to be able to use the number keypad. This is faster than clicking the numbers on the calculator itself. Remember, timing is everything. You can practice using the calculator online before you complete your test. Make sure you do this to familiarise yourself as you may be slower than you would expect!
Learn key conversions! Whilst most of them will be provided in the exam, if you already know 1 mile ≈ 1.6km, then this will help you to complete a question involving the conversion between the two faster, saving you more time for other questions!
Be prepared to skip extremely long and difficult questions. There may be one or two questions which are extremely long and/or difficult and will take 3 or 4 minutes to do properly. Remember that in the time it would take to do these questions, you could attempt 4 or 5 easier questions, and all questions are worth the same number of marks! Flag these and come back to them at the end (if you have time).
The abstract reasoning section is the third section and tests whether you can identify particular patterns amongst abstract shapes. You will be given shape- based patterns and sequences and assessed on your spatial awareness and reasoning.
There are 55 questions, divided into 13 question sets, to be answered in 13 minutes (1 minute per set) and 4 different questions types within this section.
The four question types:
1. Two sets of shapes labelled Set A and B. You are given five test shapes and must decide whether each shape belongs to Set A, B, or neither.
2. A series of shapes. You must select which of the four test shapes would follow in the series.
3. A statement, involving a group of shapes. You need to determine which shape completes the statement.
4. Two sets of shapes labelled Se tA and B. You must identify which one of the four test shapes belong to Set A or Set B (this is similar, but slightly different, to question type 1)
In summary, the most important way to improve your abstract reasoning section is to practice. Learning rules is one thing, but when you have practiced a lot, the rules will be second nature and it will become far easier to spot similarities and differences between sets and question shapes.
I’d also say that in the exam, if you can’t find the pattern after a few seconds, because this subset is so time pressured, you have to just make an educated guess and move onto the next question where your time will be used more efficiently as you hopefully will be able to identify that pattern. Our advice would be: if you can’t find the pattern in 45 seconds, flag the question and come back to it.
With educated guesses, I’d say the best way to do this is look at the 2 sets as a whole – almost ‘zoom out’ on them – and ask yourself simply which one do the given objects look most similar to. You will not always get the questions right using this method, so where you can, it is vital to find the patterns, but it is also vital not to waste time so finding a balance is a really good skill.
Questions in the popular question books you may have seen or used are often much harder than the questions in the real exam. Bear this in mind if practising with these as it is easy to feel you aren’t good at this section, when really it’s because the questions are much more difficult.
Familiarise yourself with the different question types. This section assesses your pattern recognition abilities. The more practice questions you do, the quicker you’ll be able to recognise the common patterns. Examples of patterns could be the number of shapes in each box, colour pattern, symmetry, shapes rotated clockwise or anticlockwise.
Some people find the acronym ‘SCANS’ helpful in this section. It can remind you what to look for specifically:
Don’t rush to time yourself when you first start practising. It will take a while for you to recognise and learn the patterns. Have a system and list of questions for each set of shapes to rule out obvious patterns. For difficult sets, sometimes taking a step back and not focusing on any one box can make the pattern a bit clearer. Give it a try!
The Situational Judgement test (SJT) is the final component of the UCAT.
The SJT is designed to test an applicants’ non-academic ethical decision-making and moral judgement in various clinical ethical scenarios. It will also test one’s capacity to respond to real-life situations in a way that shows both integrity and professionalism.
I would recommend making sure you check whether the SJT band is used in the selection process of the universities you are applying to; this information can be found on the entry requirement section of the medical school website.
Why is the SJT important?
The SJT can feel like another hoop to jump through to obtain the goal of securing a place at medical school, and in some ways it is, but I find a more productive way of viewing this test is that it is a fantastic introduction into the life of a healthcare professional. A lot of the time in medicine we come across scenarios that we are unsure of how to deal with, which can be daunting. However, the SJT will allow you to start to learn how to deal with certain ethical scenarios in a professional manner, which will be invaluable throughout your medical career.
I also felt that it provided a really good introduction to the sort of ethical dilemmas/ scenarios that you will be expected to engage with in the interview stage of the admissions process, so don’t think that it’s all just for the sake of one exam!
As a doctor, you’ll be working with other medical professionals, so it is important to have good people skills. The SJT involves assessing real-world scenarios, identifying important factors and appropriate responses. The questions centre on ethics, confidentiality, empathy, integrity, teamwork and communication.
What is the format of the SJT?
This section is quite different from other UCAT sections and has a different marking system. So, understanding how it works and what you are being tested is key. It is the only UCAT section that uses a 1-4 band scoring system (Band 1 is the highest and Band 4 is the lowest).
The SJT is composed of 22 scenarios, in which you must rate how important or appropriate certain responses are to the situation. Candidates will have 26 minutes to answer the 69 questions related to the scenarios. This gives you about 70 seconds per scenario and around 23 seconds per question.
There are two types of questions that can be posed to candidates; appropriateness and importance questions.
After each scenario, you are presented with an action. You must rank the options for an appropriateness question as ‘very appropriate’, ‘appropriate, but not ideal’, ‘inappropriate, but not awful’ and ‘very inappropriate’.
For the importance questions, you will rate the response options on how important it is to carry out the action in the context of the scenario, from ‘very important’ to ‘not important at all’. The questions posed can have a student as the responder, or a different healthcare professional. It is vital that you read the question thoroughly to make sure you know who is responding in the scenario. Furthermore, a statement of appropriateness or importance can be used more than once, or not at all.
SJT example: appropriateness question
Natasha, a 4th year medical student, is on a clinical placement in the Accident and Emergency department (A&E). A fellow 4th year medical student and friend of Natasha’s, Amber, who is on the Gastroenterology ward, telephones Natasha to ask if she can have access to a file of a patient in the A&E department. Amber sounds very distressed down the phone and says that the patient is her friend Harriet and she wants to know Harriet’s current medical status.
How appropriate are each of the responses by Natasha?
Answers and explanation
1A- This is a very appropriate thing to say, as it acknowledges Amber’s feelings with empathy, but also politely reminds Harriet that Natasha cannot disclose this sort of personal information, because it breaches the confidentiality in a doctor- patient relationship and the data protection act. As Natasha has given the reason for not acting on this request, it is more likely that Amber will be understanding of the situation she has put Natasha in.
2A- This is also a very appropriate thing to say. This response offers a practical solution to the scenario, without breaching patient confidentiality or the data protection act, as Amber will not have access to the files.
3D- This is a very inappropriate thing to say. Sending Harriet’s file to Amber breaches both the data protection act and patient confidentiality. This would be viewed as misconduct and could lead to disciplinary action for both Natasha and Amber.
4C- This response is inappropriate, but not awful. It is not awful, as Natasha has not breached confidentiality, as she is not sending the file, but she should know that the doctor in charge of Harriet’s medical care will not be able to disclose information to Amber either. This could lead to further distress for Amber and could’ve been avoided, had Natasha addressed the issue head on instead of passing the responsibility onto another healthcare professional.
To prepare for the SJT, I would recommend reading the ethical guidance section on the General Medical Council (GMC) website. ‘Good Medical Practice’ and ‘Confidentiality’ in particular can be really useful for understanding the practical procedures in place for certain ethical scenarios and a lot of the themes in SJT questions seem to be embedded in this guidance!
Unfortunately, even if you’re the most morally correct person out there, rights and wrongs in medical practice can be more complex than just doing what seems to be ‘the right thing’. This, therefore, can result in the answer you would give as the ‘right’ one, actually being the wrong answer. Luckily, practice really does make perfect and the more time you spend getting to grips with this sub-section and its quirks, the better.
Even with the uncertainty I am sure everyone feels while answering questions in this section, there are a few pointers you can always keep in mind when deciding on the most appropriate answers in this section:
Always answer the question by thinking about what you SHOULD do in the situation. You may think you would do something different so try and take the time to think about the scenario and answer it how you should behave.
Remember that SJT questions are to test what you would be expected to do as a medical student or doctor. The GMC Good Medical Practice is considered to be fundamental reading for aspiring medics! It discusses all aspects of good practice, including communication, maintaining trust, patient safety and teamwork. It is only 80 bullet points so make sure you read it! You can then apply this new knowledge to SJT questions!
Unlike school exams, there’s no grades 1-9 or A*- G, instead your score will fit into a decile/ percentile or a band, which shows you how you performed in comparison to all other candidates.
The higher the decile or percentile, the better!
As the deciles are based on the exact scores of the candidates who have taken the exam each year, it is not possible to publish deciles/ percentiles until the end of testing, meaning you can’t find your exact ranking until around the middle of October.
Applying to med schools strategically with your UCAT score
Different medical schools look for different thing in their applicants, with some focussing heavily on your UCAT score but others using things such as your personal statement or GCSE grades to decide whether you are invited to interview. This means that even if you haven’t achieved a particularly high UCAT score, you can probably still apply to various medical schools, you just have to be selective with which ones.
Applying strategically is the most important aspect of your medicine application. We cannot emphasise how crucial this is. It is vital that you understand how the medical schools you are applying to select candidates for interview, and whether this maximises the strengths of your application.