Taking on the UCAT Part 1
This blog is the first of our UCAT trilogy that aims to explain how to prepare for the UCAT, using strategies I used to achieve 3190 (average of 798).
The UCAT is an important discriminator amongst medical school applicants and it can be extremely daunting. This series of blogs will entail practical and strategic advice for doing well in this admissions test and will go through the advice that I would give to students based on my own experience
By reading and adopting a few of these techniques, we hope that you can maximise your chances of achieving a high score in the UCAT and be successful in your application to medical school.
Why am I writing this blog?
I am writing this article because I know that there are many people feeling as apprehensive and uncertain about how to prepare for the UCAT as I was 6 years ago when I was going into my final year of school.
The UCAT is the key admissions test for the majority of medical schools and cut-off scores are often used to narrow down applicants. This naturally results in students feeling a lot of pressure to do well. For me, and many others, this anxiety was amplified by the unfamiliar questioning style that appeared to have no relation to what I had spent years studying for at school.
As a result I invested a lot of time during the summer before my UCAT preparing for it. Firstly, understanding what the test entailed and familiarising myself with the questioning style, and then subsequently understanding where my strengths were and more importantly what I needed to improve on. This approach payed off for me in the end and I was happy with my end score of 3190- averaging 798 and achieving a band 1 in the situational judgement component.
One of the hardest parts of the process for me was working out my strategy. In this series I want to give an overview of what I did and learnt during my preparation, which will hopefully help some of you work out how you want to prepare. Remember, that everyone works in different ways and what worked for me won’t be exactly what you need to do but rather up to you to use to complement your own approach that you have already developed through years of exam preparation during school.
The UCAT tests your approach rather than knowledge basis
The UCAT is an aptitude test split into 5 sub-sections- verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, abstract reasoning, decision making and lastly the situational judgement test. The most important thing to realise is that this exam is not about having an extensive knowledge basis, such as in many A -level exams, instead, this exam tests your approach to problems in each of the five domains. Doing well then becomes contingent on recognising the style of question and mastering the skill of thinking like the examiner when answering.
Fundamentally, preparing well boils down to practice and becoming familiar with the question formats that come up, the common thought leaps that the questions require and importantly how to manage your time best throughout the exam.
For each sub-section, there are tips and tricks that I recommend in order to become quicker and more accurate in your answers. In this series I am going to take you through the 5 sections of the UCAT, giving you my tailored advice and then lastly share the resources that I used when preparing, how I structured my revision and my own experience of taking the test itself.
Tackling verbal reasoning
During my preparation, I found verbal reasoning one of the most challenging sections of the UCAT. It tests the ability to read and evaluate information quickly, which is more directly relatable to medicine than some of the other sub-sections. However, the volume of information given per a question can be very over-whelming and students in general struggle with the time pressure.
What does it include?
The verbal reasoning section has 44 questions to be completed in 22 minutes. This is comprised of 11 passages each with 4 questions, with either single best answer (SBA) or true-false formats. The majority of the passages will be in the SBA format (8 of 11.)
What are the key pit-falls?
The most difficult aspect of the verbal reasoning component is the time pressure. You must spend a maximum of 2 minutes on a passage- 30 seconds on each question. When the passages and the answers themselves are long, it can be really difficult to even read the material, yet alone understand and answer the questions.
How to practice?
In general I recommend four strategies to help combat the time limitations:
- Practicing speed reading techniques to pick up the key points from the passages
- Eliminating answers
- Knowing when to move on
- Practice under time restrictions
Being able to read fast already is advantageous in this section of the test, just due to the shear amount of material to read. Practising reading quickly itself is quite hard to do, but will probably develop naturally as you do more and more questions. However, what is more important is being able to identify the key words and phrases in questions in order to find the relevant sections of the passages efficiently. A key word needs to be an important component of the statement and not generic enough to appear at multiple irrelevant points in the passage. Practice finding the most effective key word, and be aware that sometimes the best strategy is to look for two key words that appear in tandem or within the same sentence.
In verbal reasoning, sometimes the answer is clear, but more often than not it is rather more ambiguous. If I found myself stuck on a question I would work backwards, first discarding ones that I knew for sure were wrong and then gradually removing the rest, or at least getting to a stage where my guess was more educated.
Th UCAT is not a negatively marked test. If you are stuck on a question just make a guess, flag the question to potentially come back to and then move on. By the end of my test I remember having a significant number of questions flagged, particularly from the start of the exam. However, by moving on quickly when I was unsure I had given myself the time needed to go back and address my flagged questions, and further by the end of the exam I was more in the flow of recognising the keywords I could have missed before in the passages.
One of the most important things to do is to actually practise questions under the exam time restraints. I found it very easy to put this off and attempt to leave it to another day, however this is a recipe for running out of time in the real exam. By practising you will also have a better internal clock that can alert you to when you have spent too long on a question or when you have more time to consider the answers further.
Specific question type advice
Of the two forms of questions in the verbal reasoning section the True-False questions are comparatively easier and should take less time to complete than the SBA questions.
For True-False questions try reading the statement to identify the key words or phrases and then search for all the times that they appear in the passage. On finding the most relevant mention, compare the sentence to the questioned statement, ensuring to always look at the sentence before and after to ensure you haven’t misinterpreted the meaning. Distinguishing between false and can’t tell answers can be difficult but go with your instinct on this and don’t waste unnecessary time overthinking your answer.
The SBA questions are more demanding as there are multiple statements to cross check with the passage. However, a similar approach of skim reading for the key words will suffice. Be careful to read the question carefully though, as it may be asking if the statements are true/false/can’t tell or they may be asking about inferences from the passage which undoubtedly take longer to ascertain.
As you do more practise questions these strategies will become more automatic, you will grow in confidence and ultimately your speed of answering the verbal reasoning questions should increase.
I hope through reading this article that you can now appreciate that everyone starts off in the same position- being scared and apprehensive about what is an unfamiliar yet important exam. What’s important is taking on the challenge of familiarising yourself with a new exam style and learning what you personally need to do to improve. I hope I’ve convinced you that it is possible to get to grips with and do well in the UCAT and that you will go on to implement some of my tips and tricks for tackling the verbal reasoning section of the exam. In part 2 of the UCAT series, I will cover the remaining sections of the exam- quantitative reasoning, abstract reasoning, decision making and situational judgement. Lastly, in the final instalment I will detail what resources I personally used, how I structured my time, improved on my weaknesses and my experience on the day of taking the test and dealing with the pressure of the exam.
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