by Giulia Bankov July 28, 2020 7 min read

Many students dread the UCAT Abstract Reasoning section and simply don’t know where to start with their preparation. Many mistakenly believe that this section is either something that you “get” naturally, or one where you’re doomed to fail.

We at the MSAG have proven that the abstract reasoning section is preparable. Not only this, but with the right method and tips, it is often the section where students see the most improvement in their score.

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You may be thinking, why do I need to know how to spot patterns in shapes in order to be a doctor or a dentist? Well, there is actually some sense behind this section. The skills of spotting patterns - similarities and differences in shapes can be applied to the skills a clinician needs when analysing X-Rays. As a doctor or dentist, you need to be able to spot what is normal in an X-Ray, and therefore is something to ignore, and what is abnormal or different, and therefore something which may lead you to a diagnosis. The skills required for this in clinical practice is the same as the abstract reasoning UCAT section. As well as this, the AR shapes are in black and white, which is the same as colour differences found in X-rays.

Scoping the Section - AR

Before you can really master any exam, you need to know what is being asked of you. It’s therefore important to know how the abstract reasoning section is run.

AR is made up of 55 questions in 13 minutes. This may sound like a ridiculous time limit, but actually most of the questions will be 5 test shapes associated with one pattern. This means that you actually only need to spot from 12-14 patterns total, not 55! So you have roughly 50-60 seconds per pattern.

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There are 4 different question types in the UCAT Abstract Reasoning section:

Set A/Set B/Neither

This is the most common type of question in the AR section, usually making up 45/55 questions. You are shown 6 shapes in Set A, 6 in set B, and have to state whether 5 individual test shapes fit into Set A, Set B or Neither.

Complete the series

This is a type of question where you have to spot the pattern in a series of shapes, and then you need to choose the final shape to “complete the series”. You need to understand how the pattern is moving along each box, in order to correctly choose what the final shape should be.

Complete the statement

In these questions, you need to identify the relationship between shape A and shape B, and then apply it to shape C, so that you choose the correct shape for D which also holds this relationship.

Type 4 Set A/Set B

This type is very similar to the Set A/B/Neither, however, this time you don’t have a Neither option! In this type you are given 6 boxes in Set A, 6 in Set B, but have to determine which test shape fits into either Set A or Set B.

Top Tips for AR

Start with strategies, not practice

Many students have heard from those who have sat the UCAT before, that all that is required is a question bank and 6+ weeks. Do as many questions as possible, and you’ll do well! Or so they say. There is often a problem for students who simply practice for their Abstract Reasoning preparation. If you practice, then yes you will get used to the interface and reading the information quickly, but you will continue to make the same mistakes. You may get more efficient by having more experience in reading the questions, but you won’t know if the method that you are using is the best - likely because you will use the same method throughout your practice.

This is why we have recommended, and seen many students succeed by doing a course before practice - a course that teaches you strategies. For AR, this is particularly important as the difference between an average and a good score, is a student that knows a quick and accurate method, and can use it to find the pattern in good time.

A systematic approach

Most students who score highly do so because they use a systematic approach to find the UCAT abstract reasoning patterns.

The worst thing you can probably do in this section is to have no approach at all, where you go into the exam staring at the screen and hoping a pattern will jump out at you! Doing this means that you may get a handful of patterns really quickly, but most of the time you are relying on your eyes and a lot of luck. Students who do this will be getting an average score at most, but tend to waste a lot of time and have to guess, meaning that more often than not their score will be low.

The second mistake is to be over-reliant on a system or approach, for example using a mnemonic for every question. Abstract Reasoning is time-pressured, so using something as time-consuming as a mnemonic may increase your accuracy for the earlier questions, but will eventually result in you running out of time and needing to guess the final few, or leaving them blank!

So what do you do, if both methods have their disadvantages?

Well, we recommend a balance between over-reliance and nothing at all: the systematic approach. theMSAG have come up with a 5-step approach to tackling every AR question, which perfectly balances doing nothing and doing too much. You must have a mnemonic for accuracy and you must know when not to use it because there is an obvious, faster way to approach the question. The choice of the mnemonic matters too - is it efficient so that the most time consuming and uncommon patterns are at the end of the mnemonic? We teach this approach fully in our Live Online UCAT course and spend plenty of time putting it into practice. If you’re feeling stuck with the Abstract Reasoning UCAT section, and don’t know where to start, please take a look at our Live Online course or send us an email with any questions!

Start Simple

In the Abstract Reasoning UCAT subsection, the pattern holds true for every box. This is an important fact to know - as it can help you in your strategy.

It means that when first looking for a pattern, you should look at the simplest box. Even if it contains only one or two shapes, you will know that those shapes have to conform to the pattern. It is a lot easier to spot this pattern in the simple boxes, as that means there are less or no distractors in there at all. Once you have identified what you might think is the pattern, check against the rest of the boxes in that same set - if they conform to the pattern too, you have discovered the correct answer.

Watch for movement

Movement is often a key component in the “complete the series” type questions.

You should look at shapes in turn and watch to see how they change between boxes. It is often the case that shapes are moving, changing position both individually and relative to one another. This technique will allow you to spot the pattern and apply the movement to the final shape, giving you your box that “completes the series”.

Knowing patterns to look for

As with everything else, mastering the Abstract Reasoning section of the UCAT comes with practice and preparation. You will quickly learn to spot the patterns if you know what patterns you are looking for. So keep a mental list of all the things you want to check for when looking for a pattern - are there recurring types of shapes, what is their size, colour or orientation, as well as the number of shapes. Be wary of relationships between two or more characteristics of the shapes, e.g. every time the shape is rotated sideways, it is grey. To remember all possible characteristics that you are looking for, coming up with a unique mnemonic that you are able to readily recall during the exam is a helpful tool.

There are lots of resources that can tell you which patterns to look for - but it’s a great idea to make a note of the ones that you see when you are practicing. How often do you see them? Does the pattern always arise with a particular shape? Is a pattern often associated with another pattern? These are the questions that will really test your understanding and allow you to score highly in Abstract Reasoning!

Common distractors

“Distractors” in the UCAT Abstract Reasoning are common, but they are there to try and hinder you. A distractor is any shape that is not part of the pattern - but often they are designed in such a way that your eyes are drawn to them, and you think that they are part of the pattern.

Often the difference between a good score and a great score is your knowledge not only into what techniques can lead you to the correct answer but insight into what the common traps are. You will see as you go through practice questions common distractors, make sure you make a note of them. Which are the common ones? Are they usually associated with a particular shape or a particular true pattern? Use these notes to help you improve during your practice, and remember to look out for them on test day!

Timing tips

As with any section in the UCAT, success in abstract reasoning not only depends on accuracy, but also timing. You need to know how long you have for each question, and work towards that. Remember, most of your time in this section will be in working out the pattern, so allocate more time to that, and then answering each question will be quicker.

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As you start your preparation, don’t focus too much on the time, especially if questions of this type are unfamiliar to you. Make sure you get comfortable with reading such sets of shapes and you feel confident in your knowledge of what you’re looking for before you incorporate timing into your preparation. Don’t be confused - timing is of the essence throughout the entire UCAT exam but it is better to be confident in your skills and answer 80% of the questions correctly even if you have to guess the rest than getting nervous about the time constraints and failing to spot even the simplest of patterns. Start slow and work your way up as you go through the practice questions, incorporating the newly learned techniques. Then, towards the end of your preparation, start introducing time limits for yourself, until you are getting most questions correct in a good time!

For practising Abstract Reasoning and other subtests of the UCAT, theMSAG offers a comprehensive UCAT Course with loads of opportunities to practice tricky questions. We hope you found these tips for the UCAT Abstract Reasoning section helpful and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact us at hello@theMSAG.com

Giulia Bankov
Giulia Bankov

Giulia is a graduate medical student at the University of Glasgow. She previously studied Neuroscience at King's College London and completed her Cognitive Neurobiology and Clinical Neurophysiology at the University of Amsterdam.


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