The UCAT is an important part of undergraduate medical school applications. Every year around 30,000 students sit the exam. Some do well, others falter, but the air of stress and anxiety surrounding the exam tends to create a lot of confusion around what the exam is and what needs to be done to ace it.
In this article, we will take some popular UCAT myths and debunk them for you, so you can focus on what actually matters. Let’s get started
1. UCAT Is An IQ Test
This is arguably the biggest (and the most demoralising) myth out there. The University Clinical Aptitude Test (UCAT) is an ‘aptitude test’ (the answer lies in the title). Aptitude tests are targeted assessments that test the skills you need to perform a certain task. Examples of aptitude tests may include a fighter pilot aptitude test, or a computer programming aptitude test. The commonality is that they’re designed keeping in mind your ability to perform a final task.
What task is the UCAT designed for? Clinical medicine, of course. The exam, therefore, tests more than just your ‘IQ’ and ‘intelligence’ because to be a doctor, you need much more than a sharp intellect. It tests a comprehensive set of skills, including your integrity, adaptability, and resilience. It is, therefore, incorrect that only people with high IQs and above-average intelligence can do well in the test.
A part of this myth is the notion that since the test tests something as innate as ‘IQ’ you cannot prepare for it. This couldn’t be further from the truth. As mentioned before, the UCAT tests certain key skills. Different skills are tested in different sections of the exam. Therefore, knowing what skill is being tested and how it is being tested can make a huge difference to your overall UCAT score.
On top of that, the same skills are tested year in year out. The questions change, but the fundamentals remain the same. All of this means that exam strategy becomes extremely important in tackling the UCAT. Targeted practice and consistent application of strategies ensure that you improve your score overtime. So, don’t think that you cannot prepare for the UCAT. You certainly can and it does have a huge impact on your UCAT score.
2. Practice Makes Perfect
The frustrating thing about this myth is that it is in line with conventional wisdom. Can’t we learn anything if we keep practising it? The 10,000 hour rule? The 5,000 hour rule? A lot of people believe this to be the case simply because it sounds rational. For the UCAT, it is a major trap! Some students believe that if they can get their hands on enough practice material and practice a few thousand questions, they’ll magically pick up skills to ace the exam.
While it is true that practicing will familiarize you with the content of the exam, it will not ensure consistent progress. Oftentimes, when students are practising for the UCAT, they hit a plateau in their score. Beyond that they find it very hard to improve, and this feeds into the first myth that they’ve reached the score that reflects their level of ‘intelligence’. However, the actual reason why they can’t improve is because they do not know how to, and solving one question after another is not going to help it.
Here is where exam strategy and the fundamentals become extremely important. Even though the UCAT does not test any content or syllabus, it does test some key skills that can be taught and learnt. So, it does help to get professional guidance. Not only will it help improve your maximum score, it will also help speed up your progress. So, don’t think that practice is all you can do. You need to adopt a tactical exam preparation strategy that combines learning and practice to ensure that you perform at your highest ability.
3. 700 UCAT Score Or Nothing
This one is all about the UCAT ‘cut-off’ hysteria. The chatter around, what is a good UCAT score? What is the minimum UCAT score needed to get into medicine? What if I score below a 700 in the UCAT? The misconception with the ‘cut-off mentality’ is that it ignores how medical applications work. Your UCAT score is only ‘one part’ of your overall application. Most schools look at your ‘overall profile’. This is extremely important because it means that even if you don’t do well in the UCAT, you can make up for it in other aspects of your application.
While it is true that the more competitive the program you’re applying to, the higher score you’ll need to get in. It is not the end of the world if you score below a 700. Schools generally provide guidance and statistics around what sort of score they’re looking for, but that does not mean that it is a ‘cut-off’. For instance, UNSW medical school clearly states that it’s not looking for a ‘minimum UCAT score’ - all it expects of you is to reach the 50th percentile and you could be called for an interview. Therefore, it is important that you don’t think of your performance in ‘cut-off’ terms.
It can be very demoralising to your progress and preparation if you keep thinking that your efforts are worthless because you’re not scoring above a certain ‘cut-off’. Improvement in the UCAT is incremental, you will reach your ideal score eventually. All that is needed is persistence and a positive attitude.
4. It Only Takes Two Weeks To Prepare For UCAT
This pertains to when you should start preparing for the UCAT. Again, there’s no shortage of opinions out there. Bear in mind that you can only sit the UCAT once a year during the testing period. The testing period runs for a month (July - early August), which means that you can delay or move forward your exam by 30-40 days.
In addition, you cannot take the UCAT before Year 12, so, basically, as a Year 12 student, you get one attempt at the UCAT before you send out your applications. You can, of course re-take next year and re-apply to schools, but that would involve taking a gap-year or forgoing a year in your journey of becoming a doctor. So, the stakes are indeed high! You want to make sure that you give it your best shot because you only get one.
A common opinion out there is that since the UCAT doesn’t entail any content or syllabus, it doesn’t take a lot of time to prepare for. This is not true. As mentioned earlier, the UCAT tests some fundamental skills that you want to ensure that you have enough time to learn, apply and master.
You also want to have enough mock and intensive practice to learn time management, which is one of the biggest hurdles in the exam. All of this takes time,and not everyone learns at the same pace. We recommend that you start preparing at least 8 weeks before the test date. Don’t leave it late. This will build up unnecessary pressure as you get close to the exam date and you realise that you don’t feel confident enough.
Also make sure that you’re familiar with things external to the exam that might affect your performance on the day. The UCAT can be unique in its exam day environment. COVID may have given students the option to take the test from the comfort of their home, but this is likely to be temporary, so we will not consider that contingency. At a testing centre, you will face an unfamiliar environment to your typical uni exam. You will be seated at a desktop computer with a laminated paper and a whiteboard pen. On top of that you’ll only have access to a clumsy on-screen calculator. These things can really throw you off on the day, especially if you’re nervous.
It is wise that you leave enough time to research and get comfortable with what you’re going to face. It's always a good idea to mimic the exam-day environment whilst you’re preparing. Practice mock exams on a computer, practice taking notes with a whiteboard marker, and use an on-screen calculator. These preparation techniques certainly help you perform better.
There’s no reason why you can’t start preparing early. Be focused, and plan ahead. It pays to be organised. It takes time to improve. You want to ensure that you give it your best effort. Besides, starting early will likely not hurt you as much as starting late will, so err on the side of caution.
5. Quantitative Reasoning (QR) Just Maths
A lot of students are intimidated by the QR section, particularly the ones who didn’t take specialist maths during high school or at uni. This includes students from both science and humanities backgrounds. It’s true that numbers can be intimidating for a lot of people, but the reality is, quantitative reasoning actually involves very basic level mathematics.
The content includes basic concepts from high school mathematics, such as percentages, shapes and speed. The real test is about reasoning with that basic knowledge under immense time pressure. The core skill being tested, therefore, is your problem solving ability, not the depth of your mathematical knowledge. So, it is a complete myth that the QR section is all about maths.
Having a good foundation in basic-level maths concepts can be helpful, but it is a minor part of the puzzle. Basic concepts can be learnt and refreshed as you’re preparing for the exam, so no one is at a disadvantage because they didn’t study high level high school maths or maths at uni. Students from all backgrounds can do equally well in QR.