UKCAT quantitative reasoning overview

Some students believe that the Quantitative Reasoning section of the UKCAT simply requires the maths skills developed at school and therefore doesn't require any further preparation. From my experience with acing standardised tests and tutoring dozens of clients, I would strongly suggest that you don't follow this advice. You will not achieve above-average marks in this section if you don't go into it with a game plan.

In this blog post, I will:

  • Cover the best way to approach the Quantitative Reasoning part of the UKCAT test, including how to allocate your time for each question and deal with huge differences in the difficulty of the questions.
  • I’ll also explain why you shouldn’t approach this subtest as you do your school exams.
  • Lastly, I’ll cover the initial steps you should take to start any of these question-types and how to deal with that awful calculator that you’re provided with.

As you can see, there’s plenty to cover, so let’s get to it!

How do I allocate my time to the Quantitative Reasoning UKCAT subtest?

The Quantitative Reasoning subtest contains 36 questions that need to be answered in 24 minutes. That works out as 40 seconds per question. But you should not spend exactly 40 seconds per question. The reason for this is that the questions can be roughly categorised into:

  • 10 easy-and-quick questions
  • 10 medium-and-quick questions
  • 10 medium-but-long questions
  • And lastly, around six hard-and-long questions

Questions with different levels of difficulty will require you to spend different lengths of time. Therefore, realistically, your time should be spent more like this:

Ten to twenty seconds per question for the ten easy-and-quick questions.

Twenty to forty seconds per question for the ten medium-and-quick questions.

Forty to eighty seconds per question for the ten medium-but-long questions.

Five to fifteen seconds guesstimating or just guessing the six hard-and-long questions.

Of course, the questions won’t announce themselves as easy or hard. But you need to be prepared for the significant differences in difficulty from one question to the next. I call these Massive Difficulty Disparities and they are especially prevalent in the Quantitative Reasoning subtests. You cannot afford to waste your whole-time allowance on the hard-and-long questions. I repeat you need to know when to guesstimate questions and move on!

Definition –Guesstimating: ‘Using shortcuts to spot the correct answer to seemingly difficult and tedious questions. This is different from guessing, which means not even attempting to find the right answer.’

From my experience, the vast majority of students will need to guess somewhere between one in eight questions. Ideally, we would like you to keep this down to one in four questions. But don’t be embarrassed about guessing! One question might be a nightmare jumble of tables and charts, with multiple sub-sections requiring full use of the supplementary information, while the very next question could be, essentially, ‘what is 150 divided by 30?’!

Therefore, I hope that I’m getting across to you the importance of prioritising your time. As for flagging questions, the chances are very high that you will never have time to come back to them. If you sense that you do have some time to spare, feel free to flag a complex question. But realistically, you will need to follow the timing strategy that I put above.

Don’t leave easy marks on the table! I have seen far too many students waste four minutes or more on a single question, innocently unaware that this has cost them the time it would take to answer eight easier questions correctly. It is important to be aware that every question, no matter how easy or hard, is worth the same number of marks.

What about those tables and graphs that pop-up so frequently? Well, just because they contain lots of data, this doesn’t automatically make the questions associated with them hard. Some of the easiest questions on the test might be table- or graph-based. These table-or-graph question stems are typically used for four questions, though they might be used for anywhere between one and six questions. This means that if you find yourself guessing an answer to one table-based question, you need not have to guess all of them – the same table can produce questions of vastly different difficulty.

Why is the UKCAT different from school Maths exams?

Simply put, there is no reward for showing working out! This is not like your school exams! This is a big mindset shift for many diligent and organised students. You will not get a single mark for organised working out, neat hand-writing or the use of the ‘proper' method. You need to be quick at getting to the heart of the question and understanding what exactly it is that the question is asking you. You will recall that the UKCAT provides you with a whiteboard for workings out, alongside the old computer that you’ll perform the test on. You want your whiteboard to end the test partly blank, with just the occasional hastily scribbled totals or notes.

This is all well and good, but, you may be asking yourself how do I get to the heart of a Quantitative question quickly? When the question appears, I would advise you to read the wording of the question first before looking at any data. This gives you time to assess the difficulty of the question and the relevance of any data. Next, skim-read the words that are beneath the table or accompanying the graph to see if they might affect the calculation. Check how far apart the answer choices are. The further apart the answer choices, the more you might want to use simple mental arithmetic for calculations or eyeball your answer. After about ten seconds, you should have a rough idea of what method you will use to answer the question and what amount of time to invest.

How do I use the calculator in the UKCAT test?

But what about when you must use the calculator? I find it helpful to use the numbers on the keyboard to type, rather than clicking the buttons of the on-screen calculator. Remember not every student knows you can do this. For your next set of practice questions that you do in revision, try bringing up your on-screen calculator and then typing a calculation using the physical number-pad on your keyboard. It can save a lot of time!

So, that’s enough of an introduction to Quantitative Reasoning. If you follow the timing approach given, you will be very well-placed to score excellently in the test. But, as I often say, there is no substitute for actually understanding the techniques being tested. I would highly recommend subscribing to theMSAG Online UKCAT course. This will give you a great start on learning the tricks behind the Quantitative Reasoning questions! If you do have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us, we’re more than happy to help.


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