Student Experiences: My UCAT Experience

Eme Ani is an Application Adviser with Careers and Employability she also happens to be a second-year medical student at King’s and here shares her experience of sitting the UCAT exam.

What is the UCAT? 

Everyone applying to medical school in the UK sits at least one of three exams called the UCAT, BMAT or GAMSAT depending on the requirements of the medical schools they choose to apply to. I chose to sit the UCAT, University Clinical Aptitude Test, which is “an admissions test used by a consortium of UK universities to help select applicants for their medical and dental degree programs in collaboration with other admissions processes such as the UCAS application and academic qualifications.” Personally, I didn’t want to deal with the stress of preparing for multiple exams hence I only applied to schools requiring the UCAT.

The UCAT consists of 5 sections and is 2 hours long. These sections are:

  • Verbal reasoning (44 questions, 21 minutes),
  • Quantitative Reasoning (36 questions, 25 minutes),
  • Abstract Reasoning (50 questions, 12 minutes),
  • Decision making (29 questions, 31 minutes), and
  • Situational Judgement (69 questions, 26 minutes)

The first 4 sections are scored from 300-900 while Situational Judgement is graded from Band 1 to Band 4, the former being highest and the latter being the lowest. It is an extremely time pressured, computer-based exam and I don’t say this to scare you, but from first-hand experience, it has proven to be the most challenging aspect of medical and dental school applications for most students. This is why I’ve decided to share my experience and some tips- to help and reassure future medical school applicants. 

My personal experience with the UCAT 

I have applied to medical school twice. Once in 2014 and the other in 2020 and the former was VERY unsuccessful. For some background for context: I am a 2nd year medical student who has previously completed a degree in biomedical science. (Here is where I encourage you to never give up on your dreams and to “dust yourself off and try again if at first you don’t succeed).  

 Would it shock you to know that even though I have applied to medical school twice, I only ever wrote the UCAT once? Well, back in 2014, two or three medical schools didn’t require applicants to sit any of the application tests and I applied to those only. This was because I was traumatised. By what you may ask? Well, every Monday after school at my sixth form, all prospective medical and dental students attended UCAT classes and the more classes I attended, the less confident I became. I never seemed to be able to think quick enough to answer questions and always ran out of time and failed during practice tests. My brain just didn’t seem wired for this exam, and I accepted that as my lot. I eventually developed so much anxiety about the UCAT that I decided that I would rather shorten the list of medical schools I could I apply to than to sit this exam. 

In 2020, determined to get into medical school, I knew I had to confront my fear of the UCAT. In 2 short months I went from being terrified of this exam to scoring in the top 10% of my cohort. I have gone through the effort of narrating my background to let you know that I’ve been there and that if I can do it, so can you. So, here is some wisdom I have for anyone planning to sit the UCAT.  

Top Tips for the acing the UCAT 

  1. Give yourself as much time as you need to prepare: When I first decided to sit this exam, I tried to find out how much time I should give myself for adequate preparation, so I watched videos about other people’s UCAT experience. Some people said they had only prepped for 2 weeks, others said a month and most advised to take the test as early in the test season as possible. I used two and a half months to prepare, and I sat the UCAT at the very end of the testing window. You know best what works for you so cater to your own needs and don’t let anyone pressure you or rush your process.
  2. Don’t waste money on the UCAT: By all means, pay for your UCAT registration. This tip is about the paid resources used to prepare. The one piece of advice EVERYONE agrees on is not to spend money on books. The UCAT is an onscreen test, so it’s best to invest in online preparation tools to familiarize yourself with the exam and its layout as much as possible. Back in sixth form, we practiced questions in books and then did mock tests on screen and it was so confusing for me.  When preparing by myself for my second round of applications, I used Medify and I know it made all the difference. I will include the link for this below. The second thing people usually pay extortionate prices for are UCAT classes and lessons. There is no clear consensus on this amongst medical students as some people find them helpful but personally, I do not think they are worth the hundreds of pounds they cost. Invest in a good online resource such as Medify and go through any introductory modules it offers. After this, start with some untimed practice questions (don’t do this for too long because the UCAT is very time-pressured and you need to get used to that) and then proceed to timed practice. If you feel you will benefit from classes, please research them thoroughly before giving anyone your money. I cannot recommend any because I did not use any.
  3. Use YouTube: YouTube has a wealth of experience and knowledge from medical students who once did the UCAT and it is FREE. YouTube in my opinion is a better alternative to paying for UCAT lessons. I cannot emphasize how helpful it was to watch current medical students solve UCAT questions online. I saw their thought processes while tackling questions, gained a wealth of short cuts for tricky questions, and was also encouraged by the fact that even those who had managed to get into medical school still struggled with some UCAT sections and questions.
  4. Simulate test conditions as much as possible: Like I said before, the UCAT is an on-screen exam. The only materials you will be allowed to have during the exam are a set of laminated A4 note boards (like A4-sized whiteboards) and a pen to write on them with. You will not have a calculator to use except a very fiddly on-screen calculator. If you choose to sit your exam in a test centre, you may not have a very sleek computer system. For these reasons, I decided to completely ditch using calculators during practice and instead develop my mental math skills. I also purchased a white board and marker and the cheapest, clunkiest keyboard and mouse to practice with. The advice about avoiding calculators is absolutely necessary but the advice about the keyboard, mouse and white board isn’t. Another important piece of advice is to be strict with your timing during practice. Don’t give yourself a second more than you are allowed once you start your timed practice. This will ensure that you are used to the timed conditions on test day.
  5. Identify your strengths and weaknesses: Do this very quickly. And when you do, try not to spend most of your time focussing on the sections you are good at. It may feel amazing to constantly answer questions correctly while practicing because you are avoiding the Verbal Reasoning Section (we all hate it), but you can’t avoid it on test day. Instead practice that weak section so you can squeeze as many marks as possible out of it.
  6. The UCAT does not define you: Neither is it the sole determinant of your future. You are way more than this one exam so please don’t put pressure on yourself by thinking that all is lost if you don’t perform as well as you expect. Life happens and even after preparing rigorously, some people have an off day on test day, and it is okay. There are many medical students who didn’t score 700+ and have still received interviews and offers. The key is strategic applications i.e., applying to the schools that best suit your strengths. There are many good articles to read about this and I will link some below.
  7. WhatDoTheyKnow: Another really handy resource to guide strategic application based on your UCAT score is the WhatDoTheyKnow Freedom of Information website. On this site, prospective medical students asked some medical schools for information such as anonymised UCAT scores and grades of the applicants who received offers from there in a particular year. This allowed me to have an idea of the average, highest and lowest UCAT scores a particular medical school accept and gauge my chances of getting in once I knew my UCAT score.
  8. Be kind to yourself: This exam for most people, in terms of format, question style and time pressure is like nothing you’ve ever done before. Please do not feel stupid when you start your prep for it and you’re not immediately perfect. Progress will be made with time, and it will not be linear. Some days you will do amazingly at practice and other days it may seem like you are back at square one again. On those hard days, REFLECT on what went wrong, put practice aside and REST. Then come back and try again tomorrow armed with what you learned from reflecting on yesterday’s performance. Consistency is key and practice makes perfect. 

Some final words 

Everyone’s experience with this exam is unique to them and all in all, it is a steep learning curve (at least for most of us). Approach this exam with a positive, can-do mindset because it makes all the difference. You may not understand the point of it, I know I didn’t at the time. All I knew then was that I needed to do this exam to realise my dream of being a doctor. However, on reflection, I now see that the UCAT taught me that I can do anything I set my mind to. I also learned the importance of embracing learning curves. Medical school and a career in medicine is a steep and evolving learning curve and so learning to be okay with being a beginner then working your way towards mastery is important. Reflective learning, i.e., assessing what went wrong and what went right and then applying what I learned to my next round of practice, is also something I learned to do while preparing for the UCAT. It is relevant now in medical school, as I am constantly having to write reflective essays and it will be relevant when you are a doctor. Finally, the time pressure, quick, analytical, and abstract thinking needed for the UCAT are skills you will use throughout medical school and in medical practice.  

I wish you good luck and Godspeed as you prep for and sit your UCAT and as you apply to medical school. Remember, you are more than capable of excelling at this exam because if I could, so can you! 

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