The UCAT is arguably one of the most important, yet stressful and time-pressured aspects of the application process. I can almost guarantee the UCAT will be unlike any other test you’ve ever taken, which will most likely add to your anxiety due to the unfamiliarity. However, with the right approach, studying for it can actually be made quite enjoyable. Without further ado, let’s get right into it! In this article, we’ll go over:
- What the UCAT is and a breakdown of its sections
- What is considered to be a “good” score
- How to score in the top 5%
- Key tactics and strategies
What is the UCAT
According to the UCAT website, “The University Clinical Aptitude Test (UCAT) is an admissions test used by a consortium of UK Universities for their medical and dental degree programmes.
The UCAT helps universities to select applicants with the most appropriate mental abilities, attitudes and professional behaviours required for new doctors and dentists to be successful in their clinical careers. It is used in collaboration with other admissions processes such as the UCAS application and academic qualifications.
It is also your opportunity to stand out from other applicants and demonstrate your aptitude for a demanding programme of study.
The UCAT is a computer-based test delivered in Pearson VUE test centres throughout the UK and worldwide.”
Its purpose is to assess the qualities needed to be a good doctor, which is why medical schools use it to select applicants.
The 2 hours of the UCAT exam are split across five sections:
Assesses your ability to critically evaluate information presented in a written form
Assesses your ability to make sound decisions and judgements using complex information
Assesses your ability to critically evaluate information presented in a numerical form
Assesses your use of convergent and divergent thinking to infer relationships from information
Measures your capacity to understand real-world situations and to identify critical factors and appropriate behaviour in dealing with them
The Verbal Reasoning subtest assesses your ability to read and think carefully about information presented in passages and to determine whether specific conclusions can be drawn from the information presented. You are not expected to use prior knowledge to answer the questions.
You might be wondering how this skill relates to being a good doctor, well, doctors and dentists need excellent verbal reasoning skills in order to understand complex information and communicate it clearly and simply to patients. On top of that, medical practitioners must also be able to interpret findings from published materials and apply this to their own practice. It is essential they are able to critique such materials and draw their own conclusion as to the validity of any findings.
The Decision Making subtest assesses your ability to apply logic to reach a decision or conclusion, evaluate arguments and analyse statistical information.
Doctors and dentists are often required to make decisions in situations that may be complex. This requires high-level problem-solving skills and the ability to assess and manage risk and deal with uncertainty.
The Quantitative Reasoning subtest assesses your ability to use numerical skills to solve problems. It assumes familiarity with numbers to the standard of a good pass at GCSE. However, questions are less to do with numerical facility and more to do with problem-solving.
Doctors and dentists are constantly required to review data and apply it to their own practice. On a practical level, drug calculations based on patient weight, age and other factors have to be correct. At a more advanced level, clinical research requires an ability to interpret, critique and apply results presented in the form of complex statistics. Universities considering applicants need to know they have the aptitude to cope in these situations.
Abstract Reasoning assesses your ability to identify patterns amongst abstract shapes where irrelevant and distracting material may lead to incorrect conclusions. The test, therefore, measures your ability to change track, critically evaluate and generate hypotheses and requires you to query judgements as you go along.
When considering possible diagnoses, medical practitioners may be presented with a set of symptoms and/or results. Some information may be more reliable, more relevant and clearer than other information. Doctors and Dentists need to make judgements about such information, identifying the information which will help them reach conclusions. Carrying out research involving data often involves identifying patterns in results in order to generate further hypotheses.
Situational Judgement Test
The situational judgement test (SJT) measures your capacity to understand real-world situations and to identify critical factors and appropriate behaviour in dealing with them. Questions do not require medical or procedural knowledge.
The test assesses integrity, perspective taking, team involvement, resilience and adaptability. SJTs are used widely in medical and dental selection, including selection of Foundation Doctors and Dentists, GPs and other medical specialities.
You might be wondering how time pressure plays into all of these sections. In an emergency, however, time is of the essence, and a few seconds could be the difference between life and death.
If you’re a doctor in charge of a ward and a patient comes in with deadly wounds, you need to read patient notes and establish the main points quickly (verbal reasoning), try to put the pieces of a puzzle together and find a pattern that can lead to a diagnosis (abstract reasoning), consider all options and decide what the best course of action is (decision making), administer medication (quantitative reasoning), all while remaining medically ethical (situational judgement).
So, now that you know what the UCAT is looking for, let’s talk about how to prepare for it. Firstly, we need to identify the goal. And there are really two goals you can have with the UCAT:
- You can either have a university in mind and aim to get the UCAT score required to get in there. E.g. I want to go to Bristol and I know that For 2019 entry, applicants with a UCAT score of 2730 or above were invited to interview.
- Or you’re going to do the UCAT, do your best and then see where you can apply
Once you know your goal, it’s much easier to work towards it.
How Is The UCAT Scored?
So, you might be wondering how the UCAT is scored, and again, the scoring system is probably unlike one you’ve encountered before.The UCAT score is out of 3600 for four sections, 300 is the lowest, 900 is the highest. Then you are banded 1-4 for the SJT, 1 being the highest.
A bit like when you do your driving theory test, you get your result immediately after hitting submit. You can’t know for sure where you compare against everyone in that year, but it doesn’t vary that much, so from previous years’ data, you’ll have a pretty good idea of where you stand.
The UCAT can be sat only once per admission cycle, therefore you cannot re-sit it. If you think your UCAT score wasn’t great, you can check out this article on Everything you need to know about UCAT scores
How Universities Use Your UCAT Score
Some universities will say you need to meet a certain cut off overall score. Some will weigh certain sections (e.g Nottingham undergrad counts the verbal reasoning score as double). Some will say that no single section score can be lower than 500. Some have a section average cut off score and some will just use it as one of several aspects of a point-scoring system to assess your application holistically. In other words, it varies massively depending on the university. You can find out more about exactly how each university uses the UCAT in this article.
What’s a good score?
Generally, getting a score of between 75-80% (2700-2880 in VR, AR, QR & DM, then SJT Band 1) is enough most years to get you in the top decile.
The average score for the first four sections changes each year – but is generally between 620 and 630. In 2019, the average UCAT score was 620, in 2020 the average was 628, 2021 was 625
Typically, in a given section, a score above 650 would represent a good outcome, and above 680 would normally be considered a high score.
In 2020, a good UCAT score was between 640 and 670, and a high score is over 670.
Students usually struggle the most with Verbal Reasoning, with the average score at around 570. In comparison, students tend to be most comfortable with Quantitative Reasoning, getting an average score of 665. Abstract Reasoning scores tended to fall between 630 and 650, while Decision Making scores see more variation.
For Grads, however, I would almost ignore the deciles e.g. Newcastle Uni requires a score of 2910 (significantly higher than 1st decile cut off) to just be invited for an interview. As a rule of thumb, I would recommend grads set the bar for >2900 as their goal. People who have taken our Elite Coaching Programme have managed to do this after we’ve prepared them thoroughly using our special methods to help them get a 3000+ score.
NOTE: Interim data is given out around mid-September of the first half of people who’ve sat the UCAT. This is great for applying strategically as you’ll be able to see how well you did in comparison to your cohort!
The UCAT Test statistics from 2016 to 2019 can be found here.
The scores can vary from year to year, so applying strategically and checking the interim results to see how well you performed is critical to increasing your chances of getting into medical school!
When is the best time to take this aptitude test?
There are three factors to consider when deciding when to sit the UCAT:
- You need enough time to prepare
- There should be a minimal impact on other important things e.g. MOCKs
- If anything goes wrong, you need enough time to prepare for a plan B (change of university choices, consider sitting the BMAT)
When deciding when to take the UCAT, keep these factors in mind.
Because the UCAT exam window is quite big (mid-July to the end of September), you should be able to choose a date that works well for you.
When and how to prepare (including what resources should I use for the UCAT)
There are three main phases of preparation for the UCAT:
The familiarisation phase: here just get to know all the possible questions that could come up at each phase and the fastest techniques to succeed. The fastest way to do this is through our UCAT course, our individual ‘deep dive’ sessions, or our YouTube summary series.
Practice questions untimed: The UCAT’s official website is of course the most reliable simulation of the exam, however, the number of questions on their website is limited. On our programme, we advise on the best resources to use at each stage. Just take your time at first and make sure you’re getting the questions right, and understanding why you’re getting them wrong. It’s best to focus on one section at a time, that way you’ll see more improvement. It’s best to start with the section that you feel least confident in, that way you will have more time to prepare for it! Keep practising untimed until you’re consistently getting 80% right in each section.
Start doing timed practice: This is where we start to crank up the intensity, anything from 3 weeks to 3 months before the exam.
- It may be worth starting with a mock exam just to get an idea of where you are
- Use the official UCAT mocks sparingly. The most important thing is to REVIEW YOUR MOCKS! You need to understand not only what you got wrong/right, but WHY you got them wrong/right.
- Start with a manageable time on the timer, then slowly speed up and work your way to the real-time as per the actual exam.
- Keep track of your score! That way you can see your improvement and have a good idea of how you’ll do on your actual exam!
How long should I prepare for?
Use your performance in the mocks to guide you on this. Typically you need anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months to prepare, although 3 weeks is cutting things awfully close. Keep in mind that the UCAT is a skill that needs to be developed, and that takes time. The time it takes to learn a new skill differs from person to person, so while it might take others a month to reach their goal, it may take you three.
When should I start preparing? What should I do now?
If it’s more than 4 months from the exam date, you could start casually learning the techniques and the types of questions from each section and just doing practice questions as brain teaser type exercises. Basically doing phases 1 & 2. People typically struggle most with verbal reasoning, so it would be a good idea to start there. Our UCAT course is probably the best resource to bring you up to speed quickly!
How much time should I spend each day?
Well, you’ll have to adjust to the test’s two-hour duration. You can prepare by doing a number of 2-3 hour study sessions. Keep in mind that 10 minutes of Yoga Nidra meditation on YouTube has been shown to boost retention by up to 50%!
Doing anything more than 2-3 hours in a study session is a bad idea since you lose focus and thus, efficiency. As a result, you retain less information.
Although it might seem like a good idea at the time, studying 24 hours a day, seven days a week leads to fatigue and a lower score on the day of the test. Rest is very important when it comes to the UCAT. You need to give your brain time to get accustomed to a new way of thinking!
Preparing For The UCAT Is Like Sprint Training
Think of the UCAT like sprint training. It’s two hours of intense brain-melting questions.
Now I’m not saying it’s a sprint, I’m saying it’s like sprint training. What would Usain Bolt have done when he trained? Would he train by sprinting for 5 hours solid? No! What would happen if he did that? Over time his speed would just get slower and slower. He would train by sprinting, taking long rests, sprinting, resting.
But you can’t do that for 5 hours a day because you’ll not only go mad, but you’ll reach what they call the point of diminishing returns, which is when you’re practising and you’re actually getting worse. It’s because your brain is tired. Your skills aren’t getting worse but your performance is. That’s why you hear some people say when they’re practising that they’re actually getting worse. That’s a sign you’ve overdone it.
What you want to do is get used to and get comfortable with the sprints. Condition yourself to perform well. This is why testing yourself against the timer, under pressure, is the best way to do it.
So what I would say, is: work out what you think you need score-wise, then do a mock test EARLY ON! This will give you a gauge of how hard you need to work. With this method, we know where the goal posts are and where we’re at. Like any goal setting method is you see where you want to go, get a reality check of where you are now, then work out how you can close the gap.
However, keep in mind that if you want to perform at a level 9, you have to train to a level 10. This is also an important lesson for medical school.
The Key Tactical Question
Do I work on the sections I am weak at or do I double down on the ones I am strong in?
This goes back to your original goal. Are you just trying to get the best score you possibly can, or is there a specific uni/target that you need to hit? If you’re not fussy about the medical school you want to apply to, you can afford to play it quite smart. Would a day spent on your weak VR performance take your score from 540 to 550, or would the same amount of time spent on the QR take you from 620 to 660 and improve your overall score even more. (Just bear in mind that some universities say that no one section can be below 500, so don’t be too extreme with this tactic). On the other hand, let’s set your heart is set on, say Nottingham, and — as previously discussed — they value the VR very highly. It would bode well to focus on the VR for them, as any improvement would effectively count as double points. So again, remember your main goal and be smart and effective with your efforts.
- Lay the groundwork and get 80%- really understand the foundations; the types of questions; the most speedy and effective techniques and WHY they work… Our UCAT course is the best for this step.
- Take one section at a time. You’ll see much quicker improvement by focusing on one rather than splitting each section evenly and practising them all at once.
- Keep on practising all sections. Once you feel you’ve mastered one section, move on, but keep the previous section on ‘maintenance’
- Practice on a screen. The temptation for people is to practice with a book. The UCAT however is a computer test. It feels different and is different. You need to get used to doing the questions FAST, so therefore it’s better to practice on the medium on which you’ll be sitting the test.
- Find a way to make the UCAT enjoyable! They are like little brain teasers, the same way people enjoy doing puzzles and Sudokus. Try and make the way you approach the UCAT the same and it will be a much more pleasurable experience.
Some Key Dates
|24 May (9:30 am BST)||Account registration opens
Bursary and Access Arrangement applications open
|20 June (6 am BST)||Booking opens|
|11 July||Testing starts|
|20 September (12 noon BST)||Access Arrangement application deadline|
|22 September (12 noon BST)||Booking deadline|
|29 September||Last test day|
|30 September (4 pm BST)||Bursary Scheme application deadline|
|15 October||UCAS deadline|
|Early November||Results delivered to universities|
We hope you found this article useful and somewhat of a guide to scoring highly in the UCAT. If you’d like us to coach you individually to get a high UCAT score, you’re welcome to apply to our highly successful Elite Coaching Programme.