The Truth About UCAT (Part 2): Sections Breakdown

Truth About UCAT part 2 - sections breakdown
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Welcome to the most in-depth breakdown of UCAT there is! We continue with our interview of Michael Tsai, Co-founder of iCanMed and UCAT expert to go through each of the five sections in the UCAT.

We’ll dissect what to expect from each section and the mistakes that are commonly made.

If you haven’t seen part 1 of this series yet, watch that here.

Part 2 of the interview

💬 Subtitles and ⏩ speed control available

Section 1: Verbal reasoning

What is it about?

Verbal reasoning is about analysing a lot of verbal, written information. You have to be able to pick out key information by critically identifying the premises that the question is focusing on.

It tests your ability to create sound logic based on the evidence in the text.

So usually the text itself is four paragraphs. That’s the theme we’ve always seen in the most recent UCAT exam, anywhere between 250 to 350 words. It could be about a variety of topics… The thing about this section is that it isn’t about the actual topic that you need to understand a lot about because they often talk about topics that are actually really foreign to what I would imagine a high school or uni student would actually know about. It’s more just sticking with what info you have.

Michael

The questions are multiple-choice with four answer options. It will ask you something along the lines of “according to this passage, which of the following can be most likely concluded?

They may reword this so that it sounds more like “according to the author, which of the following options will they most likely agree with?

The answer options themselves may require you to summarise the whole passage properly or require an awareness of specific references across the premises that you need to match.

So, there’s a whole combination of things but the idea behind section one is that medical students, doctors, they have to learn a lot of things all the time and it can come in many different forms, maybe medical journals, maybe textbooks… and your ability to comprehend this information in precise detail, very fast actually… is what is at stake.

Michael

How long do you have per question?

There are 44 questions per section and you have 21 minutes. This works out to 28.6 seconds per question and since you have a premise and four questions attached to one premise, you’re getting around 115 seconds per set.

💡 It is more relevant sometimes to think of the number of questions per set rather than per question. A set can be seen as a single premise or piece of text and all of the questions associated with that single premise.

If we approach the question correctly, the time it takes to critically dissect the premise would not be repeated for each question, rather we should be able to evaluate the premise once or twice, and answer most of the questions in one go.

A good candidate would be able to digest the premise within the first 50 to 60 seconds and then the rest of it, maybe 10 to 15 seconds will be allocated to each of the questions.

What’s a common mistake?

See my experience is that students always love shortcuts… So instead of reading the premise thoroughly and learning how to do that quicker with more practice, students tend to jump the whole premise and instead of getting the evidence and then going through the answer options in the logical manner, they skip to the answer options and then try to back match the information and the premise.

Michael

It’s like a doctor trying to diagnose a patient without seeing them first, it’s kind of hard. It means that if you’ve never seen the patient, they could have anything under the sun, which could be anything.

So then you constantly have to go back to check the evidence with a slightly different focus each time. But the issue is this: because usually in section one you need multiple pieces of evidence to actually invalidate or validate an answer option, and if you didn’t read the text thoroughly, to begin with, you don’t actually know where the evidence is in the first place.

So you end up having to read the entire passage anyway (just less efficiently and you’ll probably have to read it again for the next question)!

So what students found out is that when they did that in their real exam, they had to, for every single question and option instance, there are four questions and four answer options per question… they have to read the whole thing 16 times.

Michael

For the time you have, that’s just not realistic.

So it’s more about critical reading (like they actually recommend on the UCAT website) and the best way to improve your aptitude is to improve your aptitude, not by doing random shortcuts.

Section two: Decision-making

What is it about?

These questions are, as you may have guessed, about making decisions. There are various logical frameworks that can be utilised to guide your decision-making process. For example, it might require you to map out a Venn diagram of different conditions to see the areas of overlap and come to a conclusion.

Here’s a simplified example scenario to get the gist.

You’re at the RSPCA to adopt a dog. It talks about dogs of different characteristics: dogs that are fluffy, brown in colour, dogs that have a big appetite and therefore need an owner that takes them out to exercise frequently. Depending on what characteristics overlap between different groups, you could construct different Venn diagram circles that overlap them.

Here’s an example of a question that doesn’t use Venn diagrams.

You’re given six individuals who are on their way to university. Some individuals take different routes and are subjected to different conditions such as car accidents, a broken down bus on the way there, etc. With all these conditions, who gets to Uni in what order?

How much time do you have per question?

Around 64 seconds per question, but you have a variety of questions that have different premises.

💡 You can see how the time it would take per question is longer, since you might need to re-organise your information each time to create a different premise (unlike section one where the premise might remain more or less consistent with the first time you evaluated it).

Section 3: Quantitative reasoning

What is it about?

This section tests the proficiency of logical problem solving with numerical literacy. In our increasingly data-driven world, this type of thinking is now recognised as one of the most important skills for professionals to have.

It requires some very basic math and the questions might talk about, for example, proportions or surface areas, or calculating rates and how they change.

You actually don’t bring a calculator, they give you an in screen calculator that pops up and the functions there are pretty much addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, that’s it. So the challenges are basically not so much the math but realizing what math you need to use.

Michael

How much time do you have per question?

There are 36 questions and 24 minutes in total, giving 40 seconds per question.

What’s a common mistake?

So the biggest issue that people get is that they go “All right, awesome I’m in section three now I can actually do this” and they get really trigger happy and they just start punching numbers without thinking properly… about what they should be actually processing.

Michael

As a result, students often have to backtrack because they calculated the wrong thing, or they calculated something but then deleted it and forgot how to do it.

Section 4: Abstract reasoning

What is it about?

In short, pattern recognition. In this section, instead of looking at any worded or numerical references in the premise, it’s basically about shapes and puzzles. The predominant question type in this section is called a “set type question”.

For example, you might have set A and set B. Each set is a 2×3 grid and within each of these boxes, you have a mixture of shapes. These shapes might be interacting with each other or just stand-alone features in themselves.

The idea is that all the boxes in set A look like the way they do because they follow some kind of pattern. Likewise set B boxes all follow a different pattern. That pattern could be about their position in the boxes, or some relationship between the shapes within each box, or some kind of counting sequence, etc.

Your job is to deduce that pattern and then figure out what a potential 7th box would look like.

How much time do you have per question?

55 questions across 13 minutes, working out to 14.2 seconds per question.

A set with one premise of five questions attached will be roughly 70 seconds.

FYI, people that haven’t done these kinds of pretty high intensity tests or even sat exams at university, they will think “Oh my god, 14 seconds per question is… very short”… but if you know the right process and if you’re practiced in it, it’s instantaneous sometimes…

Justin

What’s a common mistake?

So I’ll say this, the biggest difference besides the whole test between UCAT and UMAT is the fact that you’ve got to know [the processes] so much better… compared to the UMAT. Because you frankly just cannot make as many mistakes. So in the UMAT if you do the math, you have roughly 80.6 seconds per question. You got 14.2 [in the UCAT]… but we found that this year a lot of students still kind of had the same timeline and emphasis and detail as they had as what people had in the past with UMAT.

Michael

Students need more mindfulness and more high-quality preparation time where they aren’t being distracted.

In the UK, they recommend students to study around a month or two before the UCAT and they start testing for the UCAT at the same time as Australia. But the big difference is that UCAT is held just after the summer break in the UK because it’s in the Northern hemisphere whereas for New Zealand and Australian students it’s during exam season.

So, many students only start to prepare a couple of weeks before the test which is sometimes not enough time to refine the skills to the right level.

Students will always say, “is there any point preparing early on?” and I generally say, well look if you prepare early on and then you realize that you’re actually pretty good at it then you at least know. But if you prepare too late and then you realize you’re screwed, you really don’t have any freedom of choice anymore.

Justin

But it isn’t just about putting in senseless hours.

We’ve got more than enough cases where students have poured in a lot of hours and they’ve got results that are maybe worse than students who try to cram for this thing, and that’s purely because of the wrong approach.

Michael

Section 5: Situation Judgement Test (SJT)

What is it about?

Section five is more scenario and situation-based. The premise usually involves a scenario that invokes a moral or ethical challenge.

For example, you have a medical student circulating the ward and they see a group of students discussing patient details in a public space with other patients nearby.

In this kind of situation, there is the potential for a breach of confidentiality and it’s our job to judge what the appropriate response might be.

💡 This kind of scenario is common in medical interviews, which is why this section is not counted for some universities, as we mentioned in Part 1.

How much time do you have per question?

There are 69 questions over 26 minutes, giving 22.6 seconds per question.

In summary

Each section has its own challenges, but the recurring trend is that proper preparation needs to be razor-focused on the correct processes.

In the next and final part of our UCAT interview series, we will see what correct preparation really looks like and wrap up some of the other common mistakes that we see students making.

Check out part 3 here.

Follow Michael and iCanMed

Michael frequently holds events and workshops around UCAT. You can follow them for updates through their social media and website below.

Professional Reviewer/Guest Expert

This article has been checked for quality and reliability by…

Michael Tsai - Co-Founder of iCanMed - UCAT expert
Michael Tsai
Co-Founder of iCanMed

As a qualified educator, professional interviewer, learning designer and assessment writer, Michael spent the last 11 years helping thousands of pre-med students with all aspects of the medical school entrance. He currently delivers UCAT workshops across seven cities in NZ and Australia, and also advises over 100 schools on preparation timelines and methodologies.

About the author
Justin Sung
Justin Sung
Justin is a medical doctor, University of Auckland graduate, published research author, certified teacher, and founder of JTT. He has assisted thousands of students into healthcare careers since 2011, making him New Zealand's individually most experienced medical entry expert. He regularly works with schools and organisations to help students and professionals learn more effectively.

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