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Common pitfalls for UKCAT students and how to avoid them

The UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT) is a widely-used admissions test which allows UK universities to evaluate the current skills and future potential of prospective medical students. Thoroughly preparing for the five separate sections of the UKCAT can be a daunting task, so the examination experts at Kaplan have pinpointed six common pitfalls that students should avoid.

1) Verbal shock

If you have prepared for Verbal Reasoning and practised for the brutal timing in this section, then hopefully it won’t come as a nasty surprise on Test Day. However, even the most experienced students may find that they struggle to keep up with the required pacing. With 21 minutes to answer 44 questions, you cannot take more than 30 seconds on any individual question unless you answer another question more quickly – or unless you skip some questions. Keep an eye on the clock, to ensure that you do not spend too long on any one question or set. You may need to flag the tougher questions for review instead of attempting them properly but mark an answer for every question when you see it for the first time. Even if you are making a random guess, it’s better to mark an answer than to leave it blank. The computer cannot tell if you got the question correct by doing the proper reasoning or because you guessed randomly. If you leave it blank, you will get zero marks.

2) Calculator usage

Practise using the calculator in the official practice questions on the UKCAT website, as this will simulate the onscreen calculator you must use on Test Day. Many test centres have keyboards with a number pad at the right, which you can use to enter the figures and operation signs in your calculations. Be aware that you may need to clear the calculator after each question. Also, be careful not to use the mouse to click the calculator buttons or (in test centres with touchscreen monitors) not to touch the calculator buttons on the monitor, since either approach will be slower and more prone to errors than using the keyboard.

3) Fatigue or ‘glazing’

The UKCAT is a very intense two hours without a break. You will probably not have taken any exams previously that required you to answer more than 200 questions in such a short time. The only ‘break’ of any kind from answering questions is the minute to read directions at the start of each new section. After the first section, we recommend using that minute to close your eyes to try and refresh your eyesight. Looking at a monitor for two hours without interruption will tend to tire your eyes, so do not be surprised if you experience ‘glazing’ in the later sections. Glazing occurs when you struggle to focus on and process the words. Resting your eyes in the minute for directions is one way to combat this; another is to schedule your test appointment for the time of day when are you are least susceptible to fatigue or glazing.

4) Pacing slippage

It’s relatively easy for any student to struggle with pacing. For the well-prepared test-taker, the danger is that you might find yourself trying to be a bit too diligent or too thorough with any single question. Remember, each question is worth one mark, regardless of difficulty or the time required to find the correct answer. As soon as you notice that you are taking a bit too long on a question, call time; mark an answer (make a best guess from any remaining answers), flag for review, and move on. Try to put any such questions out of your mind, at least until you come to the review screen at the end of the section. At that point, you will need to prioritise which questions to go back to in your final moments. If there is no time to review questions, then at least you will have marked an answer.

“You often won’t realise you have been sucked into a black hole question until it is too late”

5) Black hole questions

You often won’t realise you have been sucked into a black hole question until it is too late. Any question that takes up far more time than it should is a potential “black hole”. These include any of the objectively difficult questions in each section, though there could be other black holes for other reasons. For example, if a Verbal passage deals with a topic that you find interesting, you could let yourself be drawn into reading it a bit too thoroughly, and easily waste enough time to answer one or two other questions. Abstract Reasoning tends to have a black hole effect when the patterns are hard to spot – students who are very keen can fall into the trap of thinking ‘I’m nearly there, let me just keep counting or checking the colours’, and then all of a sudden you see you have spent three minutes looking for the patterns in a single set. Keep an eye on the clock, and be aware of the danger of black holes, so you do not succumb to their pull.

6) Comfort issues

There are a few practical issues to bear in mind as you get ready for Test Day. You will be sitting the UKCAT in the summer, so it could be quite a warm day – but the temperature in the test centre may not correspond to the temperature outside. Dress for comfort – wear jeans, trackies or shorts, if you like – but you may want to bring an extra layer, such as a hoodie or cardigan, in case it is unexpectedly cool inside the test centre.

It is advisable to make a toilet break at the last minute, once you arrive at the test centre but before entering the computer lab, to limit the risk of any such necessities during the exam itself. If you have a cold or might need a tissue, be sure to get some tissues from the test administrator – the same person who gives you your noteboards and pens – as you will have to leave everything in your pockets in a locker. Finally, don’t be afraid to take a moment before beginning the test to adjust your test station. Make sure that your chair is at a comfortable height: these are usually office chairs, so you can raise/lower the seat with the lever underneath. You will only need the keyboard for Decision Making and Quantitative Reasoning, so you may wish to move it to one side for the other sections so you can have your noteboard and mouse front and centre. You can also request earplugs or headphones from the test administrator if you find the noise of the testing room distracting. If you are susceptible to noise issues, then you might want to use the same when sitting your UKCAT practice tests so you can get accustomed to the extra equipment.

Featured image credit: Fireworks by Pexels. CC0 public domain via Pixabay.

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