The Truth About UCAT (Part 3): Preparing Correctly

The Truth About UCAT - How to Prepare Correctly
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When you follow the preparation of thousands of students, you realise there are definitely some right ways to prepare and some very, oh-so-wrong ways to prepare.

In this final part of our UCAT series, Michael Tsai, Co-founder of iCanMed and our guest UCAT expert, runs through the common mistakes in preparation as well as how to do it the right way.

If you haven’t seen the first two parts of our UCAT series, you can view part 1 here, and part 2 here.

Part 3 of the interview

💬 Subtitles and ⏩ speed control available.

💡 We will continue to update this information as we know more, and as trends become more established within Australia and New Zealand.

An important point about the UCAT test

💡 We’ve already covered several differences between the two tests in the previous two parts of this series which we won’t be recapping here.

A big thing about both UMAT and UCAT is that they’re not based on any preexisting knowledge. Knowing your sciences better doesn’t mean you will do better in this test.

Most people confuse this test with a knowledge based test, which leads on to issues in how they approach it in preparing for it, and as a result people go “oh, you can’t prepare for this test.” From an education perspective, if you can get better at it, it means that you can obviously prepare for it. So, the question is how do you do that?


What is the wrong way to be preparing for UCAT?

The wrongest way to prepare

The worst way to prepare for UCAT is just by using old UMAT resources.

If you wanna be the most wrongest, the most wrongest would be using UMAT resources, that’s definitely the most wrongest. I had some really upset students who were told otherwise, and they didn’t believe me until they sat the UCAT and realized it was different. But, you know, you can validate that just by looking at the UCAT website because they have sample questions.


The second wrongest way to prepare

The second worst way and the most frequently incorrect way of preparing for UCAT is by going straight into doing mock exams and questions immediately.

By doing this, you’re not giving yourself a chance to learn the process correctly.

If you don’t know anything about calculus, you couldn’t even do a calculus exam. But because the material in the UCAT feels more familiar, people feel more confident.

💡 This is a phenomenon called the illusion of explanatory depth.

Humans fail to understand the world around them and also fail to recognize this lack of understanding. The illusion of explanatory depth (IOED) exemplifies these failures: people believe they understand the world more deeply than they actually do and only realize that this belief is an illusion when they attempt to explain elements of the world. An unexplored factor of the IOED is how people may become overconfident by confusing their own understanding with others’ understanding.

Andrew S. Zeveney and Jessecae K. Marsh, The Illusion of Explanatory Depth in a Misunderstood Field: The IOED in Mental Disorders

People often say “practice makes perfect,” the more effort you put into something the better. But this is not actually true, perfect practice makes perfect. Applying the wrong technique repeatedly only makes the bad habit stronger. This is something that has been well-studied.

The perfect practice is dependent on what you do before you start practising to gain the most out of practice.

And practice is when… people can isolate key issues, instead of just saying “I’m not good at section one”… People come to me and go “I’m just not good at section one,” and you go, “why?” “I don’t know, I’m just not good at it.” So okay, if you didn’t know, it’s like going to a math teacher, going “I got this question wrong” and your math teacher says “where d’you make the mistake?” you go “I don’t know.” Because you never had any working anywhere, so that’s the biggest thing.


The win is not the number of questions, the win is how habituated the right process becomes in you. If you only have a certain number of seconds to do a question then you really are relying on a cognitive habit. One that is so well-grooved that you can run that automatically, without really having to put much effort into the way of thinking.

What does this lead to?

Practising in this incorrect way actually takes much longer to prepare.

Students feel “I’m not getting better, “it must be because I’m not as familiar” whereas it’s just frankly you didn’t know what to do to start off with.


What are the worst misconceptions about UCAT?

#1 – You can’t prepare

The first one is that people think you can’t prepare for it, and because of that I think for a lot of students who are actually really good candidates, who have good aptitudes to do well in UCAT, they kinda just are “well, too bad, I can’t prepare for it.”… and it’s like, no, it’s just the person who told you didn’t do it in the right way. And this is just being blatantly honest…


#2 – Volume of practice = success

There is a harmful misconception that the only way to get faster and better at UCAT questions is to churn through exams papers and question banks.

We’re not saying that repetition is bad in itself; we’re saying that there’s a time to do the reps. You need to get the form first, and then churn out the reps to habituate.

The questions that you do should be getting not only faster but you should be more clear cut in terms of what is gonna come next, so you procrastinate less, and you’re more confident… Another thing that I see all the time with people who prep [incorrectly] is… they have very little confidence in “yes, this is the right method for this question”. It’s like going into a math test and going “I hope this method works”.


What does this lead to?

Students can get quite emotional because their time isn’t improving, whereas they might be doing well for the usual subjects in school. They get drilled to think that it’s all about the time; it’s not about the time, it’s about the accuracy.

If you get all the questions done and get nothing right it’s as bad as a doctor who goes through a lot of patients but misdiagnoses all of them.


💡 UCAT has traditionally been a low scoring test, which means if you do it a little bit better than everyone else, it is easier to get awarded the higher percentiles.

#3 – Getting advice from anyone

So this is less of a misconception and more of a misdirection.

A lot of tutors and “coaches” do not have the professional qualifications and understanding of how the assessments are written. That means that they give tips, as opposed to processes.

So, I’ve heard crazy things like, for section one, instead of reading the whole premise, “ah, just read the first line and the last line, and you’ll be fine.”… stuff like that is just ridiculous, like “don’t bother with the middle, you don’t read it anyway” like the thing about going to the answers option and then working backwards…

If you just did it within the actual mock exams on the official UCAT website you will know instantly it doesn’t work… “it’s all about intuition… and about how you ‘feel out’ the answers.” That’s really dumb… because UCAT isn’t a UCFT, it’s not a University Clinical Feelings Test. It’s an aptitude test.


👍 General rule: Be sceptical of the validity and reliability of advice if the person you’re listening to has nothing to lose from giving it to you.

If you want someone to help you out with UCAT, get them to sit down with you and show you how they solve the questions. Evaluate their reliability on how concrete and transferrable their explanations are.

Do they teach you fundamental processes that help you get better, or just tips and question specific techniques?

How important is the UCAT for medical entry in Auckland, Otago, and Australia?


Read our article on Entering Medical School at University of Auckland.

There is a 15% overall weighting on UCAT, which we talk about in more detail here, which is percentage-wise equivalent to a core paper. However, since students typically perform poorly in the UCAT there’s a competitive advantage that can be leveraged.

If you just put a bit more effort in than everyone else and familiarize yourself with the processes… you get handsomely rewarded for it. So that’s a clear competitive advantage. The other this is… there’s a lot of time that is spent in gaining the 15% from each of these first-year papers…. whereas this is two hours.


UMAT vs UCAT at Auckland

For UMAT in the past, because of the way that they calculate the algorithm using only the raw score, not the percentile, and the fact that the UMAT used to have this very segmented distribution where basically, of the 300 people that apply they all fall within… like a 20 point range of each other… you get 100 people all with the same score… So that 15% weighting actually just ended up getting so diluted that people with 0 to 20th percentile UMAT scores would be able to get in if they did an excellent interview.


The advice that UCAT is not important because UMAT was not important in Auckland is no longer relevant.

As the UCAT is considered a more reliable and accurate test of critical thinking and The University of Auckland is using the scaled score now instead of the raw score, it is highly unlikely that the UCAT will be of equal or lesser importance than the UMAT was.


The UCAT is much more important in Otago. According to Otago University, they look at UCAT and grades, while there is no interview.

They won’t even look at your grades. If you got 9 GPA, fantastic, but they won’t even look at it unless you’ve achieved a certain threshold. And this threshold is supposedly calculated after UCAT results come out. But, this threshold applies to each of the sections, right?

So it’s like a gatekeeping tool…. you could do super well in four sections, but bum out in one of the sections and get, I don’t know, 1% and we hear about these things all the time, they’re like 0.5% off, 1% off but rules are rules.


So in summary, doing well in all sections is necessary to even be considered for grades in Otago.


There are two main ways in which UCAT is used in Australia.

  1. For interviews that occur after the second or third week of December, they will consider your UCAT scores and ATAR scores (Australia Tertiary Admissions Rank) that is corresponds to academic performance. They effectively look at school marks and UCAT marks combined, before offering interviews.
  2. For interviews that occur before the second and third week of December, they just look at your UCAT alone. For example, if a medical school wants 500 students, the 500th best UCAT will be taken.

Often, the UCAT is ranked and weighted at 1/3 of the total weighting. One third will be academics, one third will be UCAT, and one third will be the interview.

Where can we find good resources or support?

Both Michael from iCanMed and myself representing JTT are always happy to chat about whatever you need help with. If you have UCAT questions directly, I advise you to contact Michael directly.

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.

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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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