If you’re thinking of studying medicine or dentistry at a university in the UK, the chances are you’ll have to take the UCAT. Find out what it is, how hard it is and how you should prepare for it.
What is the UCAT?
UCAT stands for University Clinical Aptitude Test, and since 2016 it’s become part of the admission procedure for 36 of the UK’s top universities, and 12 more across Australia and New Zealand. It’s not necessary for all universities, however, it can be beneficial to your application if you take the exam and achieve a high score regardless.
As a medical professional, you’ll not only need excellent grades across your science exams, but you also need emotional intelligence and problem-solving abilities to treat patients appropriately. The UCAT, formerly known as UKCAT until 2019, was created to test cognitive aptitude and decision-making skills to ensure that students studying medicine have the appropriate characteristics for the roles they will go into.
The UCAT does have some similarities with an IQ test, however, they’re by no means the same, as IQ studies mental performance and cognitive ability, while the UCAT tests empathy and characteristics as much as problem-solving in a strictly medical context.
The exam itself is 223 questions, separated into 5 sections to be completed within 2 hours and aims to cover all areas that will be relevant for a job in the medical field. You can take the exam online or in a dedicated test centre after the June opening period for admissions the following academic year.
While the UCAT can be very difficult, it’s not the only exam necessary for entrance into medical school; you’ll still have to write a personal statement, succeed in your A-levels and perform well in an interview with your chosen university. Interviews can be challenging, especially if you’re not sure what questions to ask, so it’s recommended to have some coaching beforehand, so your personality can shine.
What’s the MCAT?
With so many medical and exam acronyms flying around, it can be hard to know what’s what and which you should take. Fortunately, the difference between the UCAT and the MCAT is very simple.
The Medical College Admissions Test, or MCAT, is an entrance exam for many medical schools in the USA and Canada, created by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Like the UCAT, it’s not used by every college, but it can help an application if the results are good. However, the MCAT tests more scientific knowledge and critical thinking skills than the UCAT which looks more at decision-making, problem-solving and empathetic qualities.
Hence, the UCAT isn’t necessarily harder than the MCAT or vice versa because they test different skills. But, the UCAT is a 2-hour exam, while the MCAT takes over 6 hours, including breaks, so there are obvious pressures involved in both exams.
The MCAT is broken down into four sections as follows:
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems
- Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems
- Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behaviour
How Hard is the UCAT?
Since medicine has such a high number of applicants every year compared to the spaces available, it’s a very competitive subject, so not everyone will be able to attend their university of choice. What’s more, students going on to study medicine will likely have to achieve three As at A-level, showing their academic abilities in the sciences, show off their interests and achievements in their personal statement, and achieve a good score in the UCAT, showing their problem-solving abilities and emotional intelligence.
So even if you’re academically gifted, the UCAT can be a very challenging exam. Not only do you have to answer over 200 questions in 120 minutes, but you have to think laterally and focus on the hypothetical best outcome for the patient in every scenario, which may not involve your data-driven medical knowledge.
Thankfully, with coaches like Dr Ghafoor helping prospective medical students pass the UCAT and achieve their dreams, it doesn’t have to be so hard. But it will take a lot of time and studying to get top grades.
What Section of the UCAT is Hardest?
The UCAT is split into four main sections, with an additional test of emotional intelligence and decision-making. The sections are:
- Verbal Reasoning
- Decision Making
- Quantitative Reasoning
- Abstract Reasoning
- Situational Judgement
Each section has a different number of questions and a different period of time allocated, although it’s largely scored the same, with one point per correct answer. No single section stands out as the most difficult, as each person has different problem-solving abilities and levels of emotional intelligence. In addition, this style of exam is very different from school, sixth form or college exams, so it will be challenging when you first sit a mock UCAT exam.
The verbal reasoning section lasts 21 minutes and includes 44 questions testing knowledge and capabilities under pressure. The decision-making section gives you 31 minutes to answer 29 questions to establish how well you interpret data in a medical context. The decision-making section differs slightly with the scoring system as it awards 2 points for multilayered answers and 1 point for partially correct answers. The quantitative reasoning section gives you 25 minutes to come up with the best solutions to 36 questions, and the abstract reasoning section has 50 questions to be answered within 12 minutes, testing pattern-spotting abilities in symptoms.
The situational judgement assessment takes place within 26 minutes and tests emotional intelligence based on scenarios created from modern societal problems that medical professionals face daily. This is often considered the hardest section of the UCAT because there isn’t a one-point-per-correct-answer scoring system, but rather four bands that the applicant is put into. Band one is for answers that are most like professional medical advice, while band 4 is for largely incorrect answers.
What’s the Average UCAT Score?
When you’re taking mock exams in preparation for the UCAT, it’s useful to compare your grades against others to see how you would fare in the real thing. That said, it can be a bit confusing to calculate your UCAT score from practice tests.
The UCAT has a total possible score of 3600, not including the bands of the situational judgement section, but don’t feel disheartened if you haven’t come close to this; 99% of people score lower than 3220 points. Each section has a maximum mark of 900, and 600 is considered a good score, meaning a good overall score would be around 2400, and a position in band 1 or 2 for the latter section. The average UCAT score is 607, giving a total of 2428.
However, it must be noted that each university has different entrance requirements, so you should check what grade you need to get into your ideal university before you start studying so you know what to strive for. If you’re consistently scoring less than 2400 or more than 2700 in your practice tests, you can look at which universities accept low UCAT scores and which have the highest entrance standards respectively.
How to Study for the UCAT
Since the UCAT is entirely different from standard GCSE, A-level or International Baccalaureate exams, your exam preparation should be drastically different too. As this is not a test of your scientific knowledge, it can be difficult to know how to start studying, however, the most efficient and successful route is investing in a UCAT tutor.
This will give you personalised, one-on-one lessons with an expert in the field of medicine in the UK who can advise you on how to approach specific scenarios and teach you how to make quick, informed decisions under pressure.
Although a different type of test, you should still prepare for your UCAT in the same way as you would other exams, with plenty of studying beginning months in advance, and regular breaks, rather than trying to cram information in the 2 weeks before the exam.
You should also make the most of the practice UCAT exams on the UCAT website, as these are the most similar exam questions to the real thing that you can find, so make for excellent practice.
Ready to Book a UCAT Tutor?
We want the brightest and best of our society to succeed in their goals of becoming medical professionals. That’s why at The Future Medic, we have a team of experts ready to coach you through your UCAT.