Each year around 30,000 students sit the UCAT. Here, a selection of high-scoring candidates who've recently sat the test talk about their experience and offer their advice on how they prepared for the UCAT.
Emma is well placed to offer advice to future candidates, her impressive score of 3460 was the joint highest score of 2017.
When asked about how she managed the difficult time constraints with the test Emma advises. “As I was preparing for each section I made sure to practise questions under timed conditions. I found that the more I practised and the more questions I had seen, the easier it got for me to answer quickly. If a question required more time to figure out than I felt I could spend, I flagged it, made an educated guess and moved on. Also, for the Quantitative Reasoning questions, practising with the on-screen calculator cut down my time by a lot.”
In terms of the amount of preparation time, Emma says: “At first I did around 20 minutes a day, but from a couple of weeks before my test date I did at least an hour a day. I tried to do a couple of questions from each section every day, with greater focus on the sections where I was scoring badly.”
To manage her nerves on the day, she said: “I tried to only think about answering each question, not about how I was doing overall or how the results would affect my chances. Practising beforehand under timed conditions and with the online simulator (practice tests) meant that the setup was less intimidating.”
Olukayode, scored in the ‘Top 1%’ of candidates in 2017, here he explains how he approached his initial preparation for the test.
“My first steps, a few months before the testing opened, were to decipher what specific skills each of the different sections required. For example, abstract reasoning requires pattern recognition; quantitative reasoning – basic arithmetic skills; verbal reasoning – being able to read and extract key information from vast texts, etc. My next step was to reflect on how good I was at these key skills.
As I hadn’t done any maths since my A levels 6 years ago, I knew my basic arithmetic skills would be lacking. I’ve also always found pattern recognition puzzles difficult so I decided that I needed to practice these skills. I downloaded an app on my phone that had basic maths questions and different brain training exercises and did these a couple of times a week in the months leading up to my test.”
When we asked him what one piece of advice he would pass onto future candidates, he offered some thoughts on the importance of reflecting on your progress. “You’ll probably get tired of hearing this, but reflection is incredibly important. After each practice session, reflect on what the questions you answered were asking for and ask yourself is there a quicker or easier way to do this? Is there a reason why the answer couldn’t possibly be any of the other options? In doing this, you become a lot better at ruling out answers so even if you feel pushed for time you can make a very good guess. Also, learn and practice the keyboard shortcuts! It saves valuable seconds!”
Rachel, another ‘Top 1%’ candidate, explains why she decided to sit the test early in the cycle towards the end of July. “I started first thinking about the test towards the end of May and began to start preparing in June, once I had booked my test. I had a very busy summer so I knew I wanted to get it done as early as possible, whilst giving myself enough time to prepare after my AS levels. Also, I had heard that people tend to do better the earlier they do it, so I decided to book my test for the end of July. I think this was a really good decision as I could really focus on the test at the start of the summer knowing I then had the rest of the summer to do other things towards my application such as my personal statement. It also then gave me time to really research universities to see where my high score would be advantageous.”
Rachel used one of the 3 timed practice tests to get a feel for how she performed in each of the subtests, this allowed her to allocate her preparation time accordingly as she explains below. “After doing a practice test I knew my strengths and weaknesses so allocated my time appropriately. I found the Abstract Reasoning the hardest section, and initially found it impossible, whereas, the Quantitative Reasoning I had no problems with, so I knew where I needed to focus my time.
I think one of the most important things is to identify the sections you find easiest and those you find the hardest to then try and improve technique and scores on your harder sections, by spending more time on them. After doing this, I created a timetable of when I was going to do everything. I started preparing in small amounts about 6 weeks before the test, and then the 2 weeks before I designated the majority of my time to preparation - about 50 hours in total.
Overall, I think the best thing is to practise the tests in timed conditions with no distractions to mimic the test conditions and the pressure that you will be in in the test. Another thing I found useful were YouTube videos, both those the UCAT website provided and others I found, to help with the subsections I found the hardest. For example, there are lots of videos looking at Abstract Reasoning technique which helped give me visual aids and helped me improve my score in this subsection.” This hard work must have paid off, Rachel achieved her second highest subtest score in Abstract Reasoning, an impressive 870.
Rahul achieved a great score of 3330 in his test, scoring 800 or over in each of the four cognitive subtests, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. He explains how he felt unprepared for his test, and decided to allow for some additional practice time.
“I originally booked it for the first weekend in September in order to give me the maximum amount of preparation time without interfering with my school work. I originally planned to spend the whole of the summer holidays doing preparation for the test but I turned out to be much less productive! I still managed to do some good work in the last couple of weeks but this wasn’t enough, I ended up getting a worryingly low score on a mock test the week before my test and I decided to postpone it by another two weeks to try and improve… better time management is definitely advised! Obviously, the time needed to prepare is different for everyone. For me, 4 weeks was a good amount of time.”
He explains how he split his preparation time: “The first 2 to 3 weeks were spent doing untimed individual practice questions on all sub-tests and then blocks of questions under timed conditions. I assumed that the official question banks would be the most realistic and probably the toughest out of all my practice resources. I completed all of the practice questions but I saved the actual mock tests for the week before my test. Doing the mock tests timed, rather than untimed, gave me sense of the pressure that I would be under when doing the real thing.”
Like many candidates, the time constraints within the test were challenging, but finding strategies to cope with these was vital for Rahul. He explains “I knew how long I had for each question but when I was in the moment, this all went out of the window. I realised how easy it was to become bogged down on one question as I stubbornly refused to just move on. I realised how important it is to just guess and skip to the next question if I got stuck. People applying to medicine are very dedicated and take pride in their work so the thought of skipping a question is not a nice one. It is important to appreciate that the questions themselves would not be so challenging if we had unlimited time. The test is made tough by the time constraints in which we have to do those questions.”
His best advice to future candidates? “I would advise everyone to have a structured preparation plan. The ‘guess and skip’ technique is also crucial. Above all, just stay calm and don’t force yourself to cram in the hours leading up to the test.” Looking at Rahul’s score, his preparation certainly paid off.
As our other top-scorer of 2017, we’re pleased that Emily was happy to share her advice on how to best prepare for the test. We asked her how useful she found the information provided on our website when preparing for her test.
“The official website was very helpful in preparing for the test. For me, the most useful part was reading the information about what would happen on the day of the test, including the page on the test experience. This meant I was prepared on the day and not surprised by the way in which things were done at the centre. It was also good to read about the calculator and keyboard shortcuts. These definitely saved me time in the test. It was really good to practice using a calculator of the same level as the one in the test as there were some aspects I was not used to, e.g. there were no bracket buttons. I also used the official practice papers as the final part of my preparation.”
She also gave some tips on how she dealt with the time constraints of the test: “Firstly, I used the keyboard shortcuts and the number pad to operate the calculator, to try and ensure that I did not waste any time that could be saved. It was necessary to practice these techniques to ensure I was familiar with them. Secondly, I tried to move on if I thought I was going to spend too much time on a question. I tried to have a rough idea of how long each question should be taking me in each sub-test (~10 seconds, ~30 seconds, etc). If I did not think I would be able to do the question in this time, then I filled in a random answer and flagged the question to go back to if I had time later.
I also practiced the questions using the time constraints that would be applied in the real test. Often this meant I did not complete all the questions. When this happened, I would go back over the practice test and complete any questions I had left unanswered; to make sure I understood how I should have worked out the answers. I also did a lot of working on the whiteboard in some of the sub-tests. I think this allowed me to move quickly through a question without losing track of the numbers I was thinking about.”
Emily achieved an impressive joint-top score of 3460.
Ayaz first heard about the UCAT during his first year at college, but decided not to focus on it until later in the year after his exams. He then thought carefully about when to book his test. “I knew I didn’t want it to be on my mind when I started my second year at college, with all the extra work we have to do for applying to university. I had also arranged extensive work experience during the holidays, so to ensure I had enough time to prepare for the test, I booked it for near the end of the summer holidays.”
He explains how he prepared for the test: “I first began by reading into the general background of the test, such as what it consisted of, how long the test was etc. I found the Official Guide on the website was really helpful for this. I then got a book that was recommended to me, and started by first going through each section individually in a lot more detail, and making notes on any tips or tricks that I thought were useful. I also practiced some questions, however I made sure these were not in timed conditions to start with, as I knew this would stress me out unnecessarily at this stage. For each subtest I had a rough idea of how long each question should take which allowed me to practice any number of questions when I was feeling comfortable in a time frame that reflected actual test day. Also, before every practice test I would write down at what time I should be halfway through each section. This acted as a marker for me and meant if I was spending too long on a particular question I would force myself to move on as there may be easier marks I could gain towards the end.”
Like many candidates Ayaz found the Abstract Reasoning daunting at first. “But I found that by doing simpler questions first to build confidence and, more importantly, to get an idea of the patterns that constantly came up, before moving onto more difficult questions, was a system that worked for me. The biggest thing you can do to improve is practice more questions, as inevitably you will get better over time.”
As advocated by other top scoring candidates, Ayaz said that the official practice tests were the most vital resource in his preparation, but cautions: “Don’t attempt to replicate testing conditions straight away as it will only be counterproductive… I used the practice tests on the UCAT website, although only when I thought I was appropriately prepared. These were the closest replicas to the real exam, so I found them to be particularly useful, and they also helped me to get used to the format of the exam.”
Emma’s score was in the 99th percentile in 2017, and she achieved over 800 in three of the four cognitive subtests, in addition to a Band 1 for SJT.
She offers some sound tips on approaching the Situational Judgement subtest: “Look at lots of past questions, and read through the explanations or model answers that are given as feedback. Have a look at the GMC website; this provides a great guide to what the modern doctor should aspire to be. A general summary of any appropriate answer would be that the idea proposed is a local, direct solution to the problem, that doesn’t reflect badly upon the profession and always puts the patient first.”
She also gives some good advice for how to manage the challenging time constraints within the Abstract Reasoning subtest. “I developed a tactic of moving onto the next set if I hadn’t worked out the pattern within ten seconds. I would select an answer for each question in that set, flag each question, and quickly move on. This meant that all of the questions had answers (so I wasn’t throwing away marks if I did run out of time) and also meant that I had time to come back to those harder patterns and think about them at the end.
The best tactic is to be strict with yourself – if you aren’t sure, try to eliminate one or two of the other answers and then make an educated guess from the answers you have left. Move on quickly, to make sure you have time to finish the sub-test. Remember, in the actual test, as long as you put an answer for each question you have a chance.”
Adam’s score was in the 99th percentile in 2017 and he achieved full marks of 900 in the Quantitative Reasoning section.
His advice shows that different strategies can work for different candidates and, during your preparation, it’s important to find a strategy that works for you. For him, he employed the following technique for tackling Quantitative Reasoning: “In the maths section, my tactic was to answer all the easier questions first, and to skip any question that looked like it would require a lot of working. If you have time at the end, then you can attempt, or at least make an educated guess, at these harder questions.”
He also made full use of the resources on the Preparation page of the UCAT website, and has these words of advice about how to use the materials. “The official website was the resource I used the most. I did all three of the mock tests at various points before my test, and did most of the question bank questions for the sub-test areas I found hardest. It was really useful being able to see official standard questions before taking the test. The mock tests on the UCAT website are the most valuable resource you have; don’t waste them by attempting them before you’ve done any preparation. Find a bank of questions and get practice on each type before trying a mock test.”
He was also pretty pragmatic on how to keep calm on the day of the test, offering these final words of advice: “It was quite stressful, but the important thing is to realise that your score will only be affected by your natural ability and your preparation; by the day of the test, there is really nothing more you can do apart from staying composed and focused and letting your preparation do the work for you.”
Shivani’s high score put her in the Top 1% of all candidates in 2017 and she offers some great advice for approaching some of the different subtests.
“I found that each subtest required different strategies, depending on my individual strengths and weaknesses. For Decision Making, which has a wide variety of question types, I identified which types I was best at and did them first when doing papers. I would aim to get them right before going onto more time consuming questions… In Abstract Reasoning I would take each question as it came, but if I spent longer than 10 seconds trying to find a pattern, I would guess the set and come back to it… In Quantitative Reasoning I would be really selective about which questions I did (doing easier or very short ones first) and do the ones needing a calculator later… I was therefore able to work well within the time here.”
She was also structured in the way in which she approached her preparation for the test, as she describes here: “I don't work well using timetables, but I did make a checklist of areas that I thought I was weak in. I targeted each of them individually by finding tips online, and trying each of them to see what worked for me and what didn't. I planned out when to do each of my practice papers, and by doing a checklist after completing each one, I was constantly working on sections where I was lagging behind.”
Daniel performed highly on his test, scoring in the 99th percentile, despite having a very short time to prepare.
Here he reflects honestly on how this impacted on his preparation: “I had around two weeks from the start of the summer holidays, but I also had work experience on one of the weeks. Despite not having much time, I spent a good three or four hours each day practising 2/3 sections on each. By the time it got to the exam I felt as though as was as ready as I’d ever be, but maybe having an additional week or two (to not have to spend so much time each day on it) would have likely been better.”
He was also happy to share his tips of how he approached some of the subtests within the test. “In Abstract Reasoning, some of the patterns are unique, but many of them will be ones you have seen before. If you make a bank of all the different patterns you come across in your practice and familiarise yourself with these, then after some practice the pattern ‘pops out’ at you. I didn’t do what some people do in systematically considering types of patterns and seeing if they match the sets presented – instead I tried to get so used to common patterns you would quickly recognise them. But be sure not to get bogged down on a single question…
… In Situational Judgement, with practise you can come to see very similar questions which will mean you have encountered many of the scenarios which appear in the actual exam. This isn’t time pressured at all but don’t fall into the trap of getting stuck on a question and continually second guessing your answers.”
Score: 3560 London.
2015 was notable as it saw the highest score ever recorded! Isabel Griffin, from London achieved an exceptional score of 3560, beating the previous highest score of 3540 in 2013.
Isabel gave us her views on preparing for the UCAT. “I did the three official practice tests on the UCAT website. I also came up with a list of tips that people had told me or that I thought of along the way - things like reading the question first in Verbal Reasoning or looking at the simplest box in Abstract Reasoning. I also read 'Good medical practice' by the GMC, which helped a lot with Situational Judgement.”
On what was most challenging about the test she added “I think the most important thing is to practise under timed conditions, as for me the timing was the most challenging part of the test. I would also really recommend that people start practising with the online calculator as early as possible.”
Isabel, who is originally from New Zealand, says about pursuing Medicine as a career: “I like the fact that you are constantly pushed to improve your own performance and that the field is always evolving, so being a doctor involves a life of further learning. I decided I wanted to become a doctor after joining St. John Ambulance as a cadet and having the experience of actually treating patients for the first time.”