Ten tips for making the most out of the UCAT
Preparing for the UCAT is an incredibly stressful time in your life. The exam is literally designed to be almost impossible to ever get full marks, which is why no one has ever been able to manage it in the years it has been used as a clinical aptitude test for medical school applications (the best ever was 3530 in 2015). However, it’s difficult nature does allow it to serve its purpose of filtering out the thousands of applications received every year for each medical school. A large proportion of medical schools will have a threshold that you must surpass in order to get to interview stage. You could be the best in all other areas of your application, however without reaching the required UCAT threshold you will not be invited for an interview. Doing well in the UCAT relies upon tailoring your revision in the correct way so that when you do come to practice, your performance consistently improves.
These tips are designed both to allow you to remain calm in the lead up to the exam, enabling your revision to be purposeful and efficient. I am not suggesting that these tips are critical to do well in the UCAT, however they helped me when I was in your position and certainly very stressed. If you do choose to follow these steps I have no doubt you will be able to absolutely smash the exam on the day. Despite finding the preparation very challenging, I managed to achieve top decile and a band 1 SJT.
My TOP TEN TIPS:
1. Use a question bank. I personally used Medify, we are not sponsored by medify, it simply is the best resource out there. It has tens of thousands of questions (plenty to be getting on with) to help you improve at every section of the UCAT, and gives you feedback to monitor your progress. Moreover, it gets you used to the computer element of the exam, which is especially important in quantitative reasoning so that you can get used to doing the calculator quickly. That being said, there are many free question bank alternatives which do the same thing, for example passmedicine have a free 6 month subscription.
2. Always practice against the time limits you would get for a specific number of questions. The questions themselves are not difficult, the challenge lies in doing these simple questions against a short timeframe. Once you get the hang of how to approach them, start timing yourself.
3. Start small on the questions and build. There is absolutely no point setting out to complete the full number of questions for a particular section if you have not practised them yet. It will just be demoralising because your brain will not be able to keep up with the rate required, and as such you won’t finish the long list of questions you set yourself. Start by attempting 5 questions within its adjusted time limit, and only when you start to get the hang of the speed required for those questions start practicing 10 questions at a time (within the adjusted time allowed). Continue to increase slowly until you can manage a full set of questions within the timeframe.
4. Only attempt questions from one section on a particular day (at least at the start of your revision schedule). This is to stop your brain from going completely crazy with your revision. You won’t ever get the hang of a section unless you dedicate enough time to it, which is why it might be sensible to try your best at one section over the course of a day. The important thing is to focus on each section, bit by bit, and only move on when you feel comfortable that you have improved. Once you have been through all the sections over the course of several days, you can then go back and repeat the process again.
5. When marking, make sure you know what the answer is and how you get there, before moving on. It is common to not get questions right within the time limit, try to remain calm and not let it frustrate you when marking your questions. You need to know how to at least be able to get to the answer, even if you haven’t got the question right, otherwise you’ll never improve. Mark the question - understand the answer and how to get there - move on.
6. Take breaks. This is a hard exam and there is no point fooling yourself thinking that you can revise for 4 hours straight and still maintain good scores. The high performance required to manage the questions correctly at the time required, depends on your brain being fresh. As such, whatever you do to relieve stress should be scheduled into your revision plan at regular intervals. This could be as simple as listening to your favourite song, chatting to a friend or having a cup of tea, but the key thing to do is to something that YOU find relaxing.
7. Healthy body, healthy mind. This point cannot be understated. It is easy to forget how much calmer and more focused one can feel by doing some exercise. Research has shown that aerobic activities such as running, cycling and swimming boosts focus; even if you’re not a fan of these sports, going for a walk can make a big difference. Moreover, by paying attention to your diet and avoiding the foods that might predispose you to an afternoon slump, you will be more likely to maintain a good score over the course of the day.
8. Reduce your remaining workload to as little as possible. This is quite a hard one as I’m sure a lot of you are working on other parts of your application, as well as A- levels etc and might have part time jobs that you are committed to. My advice is to try and make your life as easy as possible in the build-up to the exam. Focusing intensely for a single week on preparing for the UCAT with as few other responsibilities as possible is likely to be more effective than it is to balance it over 2 or 3 weeks whilst juggling your A levels, preparing your personal statement or other prior commitments. If you’re still struggling, talk to your teachers and explain the difficult nature of the exam, I am sure they will be happy to reduce your workload for a week or two.
9. Do NOT use an acronym system for abstract reasoning. You might have heard of several acronyms that are used to try and have a systematic approach towards the abstract reasoning section. Whilst I think it is appropriate to have a vague systematic approach (this will naturally come through practising this section a lot), in abstract reasoning the factors that are listed in acronyms such as colour, position, rotation, symmetry and shape, commonly interact with one another. For example, the defining pattern could be total number of shapes, or total number of black shapes, or total number of symmetrical shapes. My point is that the opportunities are endless. Over reliance on a particular acronym and over-checking for numbers, shapes, colour both builds frustration and wastes time. The patterns themselves are almost always relatively simple; their recognition comes from ‘zooming out’ and trying to look at the entire picture. If then you think you might be able to spot the pattern, analyse the smaller specific details to try and distinguish the pattern. If you’re still struggling to get anywhere, consider using a VERY basic acronym to guide your initial approach. This process becomes easier with increased practise, which leads on to my final point.
10. Practise, practise, practise. There is no substitute for the number of questions you do. The more purposeful practice you do (ie with sufficient breaks, understanding answers and focussing on your weaker areas) the better your performance will be.
Consider different universities if your UCAT score is not as hoped. Universities that have a threshold for the UCAT will not accept your application if you have a low UCAT score. Therefore, it is in your best interests to pick a different university if you do not receive the score that you want. You need to be strategic with your application if you want to get into medicine first time, don’t be swayed to apply somewhere just because you have your heart set on it!