I’m a second year medic at UCL and one of the instructors at UKCAT Crash Course. A popular question that many of my students ask is how I achieved the score that I did. I hope to offer some more general UKCAT advice for each section and share some of my thoughts and experiences of taking the UKCAT on this blog.
My experience of the UKCAT
Like many of you, I found preparing for my UKCAT exam stressful; to begin with, just figuring out what each section required was a mission in itself. Moreover, I had one attempt to do well in a test unlike any I had taken before, with seemingly no resemblance to medicine at all, just to be in with a chance of getting an interview.
I decided to book my UKCAT for the 2nd of September so that I could enjoy the first half of my summer, have enough time to prepare for the exam during the second half, and not have it clash with my A2 levels and BMAT preparation. Given how important knowing your UKCAT score is in terms of deciding where to apply was another reason why I didn’t want to leave it too late.
When it came to preparing, I started ordering books that my friends in the year above had recommended and began working through them. Getting used to the style of questions was really tough and I found managing my time to be extremely difficult. Moreover, books didn’t offer any solid strategies or techniques that I could put into practice. I therefore decided to invest in a UKCAT course with the hope that I’d firstly be able to check if I was approaching the questions the right way and secondly learn how to manage my time effectively. I subsequently took the techniques I’d learnt from the course and formed a strategy that I stuck to and honed over time using questions in the books I’d previously used. After finishing the majority of questions with 2 weeks to go till my exam, I subscribed to an online question bank and found them extremely useful and spent at least a couple of hours every day working through them.
Despite refining my techniques and doing lots of practice questions over about 4 weeks, I never felt 100% prepared to take the exam, and I don’t think you can be with the UKCAT. My aim had been to just do the best I can, stick with a strong, systematic strategy and be as comfortable with the different question types as possible. Indeed, when I saw my score about 3 minutes after finishing the test, it was a pleasant surprise and a stark contrast to my first few mocks exams, and indicated to me that good, careful preparation over several weeks can really make the difference.
Some basic advice for each section
It didn’t take long for me to realise that VR would be the hardest section for me. I found the time pressure incredibly intense and couldn’t decide whether I should read the whole passage first before answering the questions or to read the questions first and then try to derive the answer from the text. In the end, I chose to go with the latter and this benefited me in terms of time management and I felt as if I was improving with practice. During the test though, I was expecting mostly true, false or can’t tell questions to come up and nearly all my practice consisted of this type of question. Yet about 70% of the questions I received were single best answer questions (four statements given per question) that I had not spent much time on at all: I found most books and question banks did not properly represent these type of questions. Thankfully, the strategies used for true/false/can’t tell questions can be readily applied single best answer questions, but an appreciation of timing and when to move on is critical.
I found QR quite frustrating initially whilst preparing because despite there being nothing new in terms of content, it was easy to make lots of silly mistakes and/or run out of time. After familiarising myself with the most common question types, I spent time trying to work out how I could get through the questions as quickly and as accurately as possible. Simple things such as taking the time to read all the information rather than rushing straight into the questions, as well as getting used to quickly using the calculator, made a big difference, and so I actually ended up with time to spare on the day. Alongside knowing when to discard harder questions, I would say having just a few basic maths principles under your belt (percentage change, etc.) and being able to quickly spot when to use them is all that’s required for a good score. I also did a lot of simple sums in my head and wasn’t afraid to make use of the whiteboard for more complicated calculations.
From having no idea what this section was about, AR became my favourite section. This is the section where I believe you get maximum value from consistent practice with a consistent strategy. I did a huge number of AR questions and by the time it came to the exam I didn’t find it that hard working through the sets. Be sure to note down all the patterns you see: this helped me consolidate the more common patterns and allowed me to more quickly recognize them when they come up again.
Decision Analysis has been removed for the 2016 exam
Like QR, this is a section where I was making a lot of silly mistakes initially. During practice tests I found myself unnecessarily rushing through this section (most probably because I was in the mind set of working as fast as possible after tackling 3 time pressured sections). I learnt to take my time on each question being careful not to eliminate answers too quickly and would use any spare time to check my answers; this proved invaluable on the day. Just like for everything else in the UKCAT, I kept to the same strategy for each question type, and over time, working through DA questions became automatic and I found ruthlessly discarding wrong answer options was vital.
Situational Judgment Test
I didn’t take the SJT as seriously because a lot of universities had stated that they weren’t going to be using it that year. Ensure you check if this is also the case for you, and if you’re not sure, it is best to work through this section properly as you would for the other sections. For preparation, I found the GMC “duties of a doctor” very useful (short 1 page version) to get a rough idea of what the key principles are and then did some questions, making sure that I learnt from my mistakes. It is possible to distil down a simple strategy that can act as a litmus test for different scenarios, and this is covered on our course.
Practise using good strategies
One thing for sure is that if you apply a strategy to lots of questions rather than just a few, you will be quicker and more confident by the end of it. However, it is important to be aware that “practice makes permanent”, i.e. the more you do something in a particular way the harder it is to change that method. Indeed, although there are likely a several ways of going about tackling different UKCAT questions, bad habits and strategies are commonplace. Thus, it’s essential to ensure you have a good set of strategies for tackling each type of question before going ahead and doing lots of questions. In this way, your practice will make perfect!
Preparing for the UKCAT can be really daunting, and personally, I don’t know anybody who has had an easy experience taking it. Nevertheless, if you take the UKCAT seriously and set out a careful preparation and practice schedule, as well as consistently applying strong strategies to each question type to lots of questions, I truly believe you will be in for a good shot at a top score.
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