Essential knowledge for the UKCAT

So, you have made the decision that you want to study Medicine. Congratulations! You are now on a path that, following several years of dedicated study, will lead you to one of the most rewarding and enriching careers available. Kudos!

The next step was to choose which medical schools to apply to. This is also an extremely daunting decision – with over 30 medical schools in the UK, and even more choice for graduate applicants, there is a multitude of factors that will influence your decision. One such factor is the admissions exam required by each school.

The score you achieve in the exam(s) you choose to take may strongly influence the schools you opt to apply to. It is vital that you play to your strengths – having 3 A*s won’t often compensate for a low score in these exams. The most common exam used by UK medical schools is the United Kingdom Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT). The way in which the medical school uses the UKCAT score is hugely variable, and cut-offs (if they are used) can vary considerably each year depending on cohort performance. The UKCAT does not contain any curriculum or science content and instead focuses on exploring the cognitive powers, reasoning skills, and logical thinking of applicants - all of which are vital attributes for a doctor to possess.

UKCAT structure

The UKCAT is a multiple-choice exam, and consists of five subtests. Each section is discussed in full in our online UKCAT video series with explanations of what each section is testing and how best to approach them in the time allowed.

Verbal reasoning 

This section involves reading 11 passages of text, each of which will have 4 questions associated with it. The questions are designed to assess the ability of candidates to weigh up the information they are given and make inferences based on this. For instance, you may be asked to complete a sentence based on the text or to say whether a statement about the text is true, false or unclear. These skills are important for doctors who are required to assimilate large amounts of information on a regular basis and make accurate inferences based upon it. They are also required to communicate in a clear way with both doctors and patients. If you would like further information on this section, have a look at Phillip Linnell’s Blog Post on a UKCAT Verbal Reasoning Overview.

Quantitative reasoning

This section is designed to assess problem-solving skills and will also ensure candidates possess numeracy skills equivalent to a good pass at GCSE. A simple on-screen calculator is provided. There are 36 questions in this section and most of these will be in sets of four, associated with a specific piece of data (e.g. graph, table, chart etc). For example, a candidate may be given various details about a flight, including:

  • The departure time of a flight
  • The total flight time
  • The time zones of the origin and destination of the flight

You would then be required to calculate the local landing time. All doctors are required to perform calculations as part of their job and the ability to understand and manipulate data is vital for keeping up-to-date with the newest research.

Abstract reasoning

This section possibly inspires the most fear in those sitting the test. It involves identifying patterns in a series of images and inferring what the next picture will be based on this pattern. This is based on the need for doctors to be able to see patterns in signs/symptoms and to weigh up the reliability of the information with which they are presented.

Decision reasoning

This section is designed to ensure successful applicants are able to make decisions in complex situations – as doctors are required to do on a daily basis. If features 29 questions, each of which will be based on a piece of text or numerical data – a calculator is provided, albeit on the computer itself, not a handheld device. Some questions involve “yes/no” answers, while others are multiple choice. 

Situational judgement 

The situational judgment test (SJT) measures your capacity to understand real-world situations and to identify critical factors and appropriate behaviour in dealing with them. The test assesses integrity, ability to use perspective, team involvement, resilience and adaptability – vital skills for doctors. It features 69 questions associated with 22 scenarios and requires you to consider how appropriate various options are or how important certain factors are in making a decision. No medical knowledge is required.

UKCAT timing 

This is a key skill that we recommend you practice well before your test. Being able to time yourself effectively in the UKCAT is absolutely vital as there is very little time available to answer each question, as highlighted by the table below:

Section Items Standard test time Time per question
Verbal reasoning 44 21 minutes  38s
Decision making 29 31 minutes  65s
Quantitative reasoning  36 24 minutes 40s
Abstract reasoning  55 13 minutes 15s
Situational judgement  9 25 minutes  20s


As you can see, there is very little time available to answer questions and you may be required to read passages of text and pieces of data within this time as well. The key is to ensure you answer every question. If you don’t know the answer to a question within a few seconds, select an answer and move on to the next one. If you have time, you can then return to it at the end. There is no negative marking, so ensuring an answer is provided for every question is vital. Comprehensive tips and advice for UKCAT exam technique are covered in full detail in our online UKCAT video series.

UKCAT scoring

Each of the first four sections is marked based on the number of correct responses. No marks are deducted for incorrect answers. How you perform on one question does not influence other questions you are presented with. As the number of questions varies between the four cognitive sections it is not possible to make a direct comparison of the raw scores. Raw scores are therefore converted to scale scores that share a common range from 300 (lowest) to 900 (highest). Summing individual scale scores of the four cognitive sections generates a total scale score that ranges from 1,200 to 3,600. The test is designed so that an “average” applicant will score 600 in all sections for a total score of 2,400.

Within the fifth section, the Situational Judgement Test, full marks are awarded for an item if your response matches the correct answer and partial marks awarded if your response is close to the correct answer. Raw scores are then expressed in one of four bands, with Band 1 being the highest. Alongside their band, candidates will be given an interpretation of this performance.

As the SJT is a measure of non-cognitive attributes, universities will consider it in a different manner to the cognitive subtests. Some do not consider it at all, while others are only interested in this section of the UKCAT. For further information regarding the UKCAT scoring, you should visit the UKCAT website.


The UKCAT is designed to be a test of aptitude rather than a test of academic achievement, however, preparation can substantially improve an applicant’s score. The test assesses a wide range of mental abilities and behavioural attributes identified by medical and dental schools as important. Luckily for you, the MSAG is at hand to help you prepare for this exam! We offer a range of resources for applicants wishing to ace this exam – from 1-on-1 tutoring to an online course and online question banks. For more information on this, feel free to contact us or visit our website.

Tips for the test day

Having sat the UKCAT myself, I know how stressful it can be. The first thing to do is make sure you know where the test centre is and arrive with plenty of time to spare! There is nothing worse than arriving stressed and hot because you’ve been running around town looking for the test centre for 30 minutes, believe me… Most centres will allow you to bring a bottle of water in with you – I would strongly recommend you do so as you will be sat there for some time. On the other side of that coin, make sure you have used the toilet before you go in! 

You may find people around you sitting different tests – these centres are used for a wide variety of assessments, including driving theory, but don’t let anything else distract you. The centre will be very quiet and you will be separated from other candidates by dividers. Try to stay calm and take a few minutes to settle your thoughts before you go in. Just think, everyone who is currently at the medical school you want to go to has sat the UKCAT and if they can do it, so can you! Focus on each question as they come, make sure you don’t run out of time and everything will go fine. Just remember, even if the test goes badly, there are plenty of schools who don’t use the UKCAT and others that only use it in borderline cases, so don’t despair! For full and detailed information on how each school uses the UKCAT, why not buy our book? We have one for Undergraduate Applicants and one for Graduate Applicants which will tell you everything you need to know about every medical school in the UK!

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