5 min read

How hard is the UCAT?

Published on
April 15, 2024

The University Clinical Aptitude Test (UCAT ANZ) is an exam used to assess various cognitive skills across five sub-sections: Verbal Reasoning, Decision Making, Quantitative Reasoning, Abstract Reasoning and Situational Judgement Test. UCAT candidates must answer a total of 225 multiple-choice questions, designed to assess various qualities, skills and attributes that universities see as essential in their prospective medical students.

For many secondary-school and first-year tertiary students, the UCAT can be a challenging exam. As there are limited places to study undergraduate medicine within Australia and New Zealand, there is a need for the UCAT consortium to develop a fair way to assess the capacities of prospective medical students based upon their cognitive abilities, their mental endurance and their maturity to study undergraduate medicine. 

This article will seek to answer some common questions regarding the UCAT, such as: how difficult is the UCAT, why is the UCAT hard, and how do I prepare for the UCAT

How Difficult Is The UCAT?

The UCAT has been previously described as a difficult test, where it assesses cognitive skills that you may not be utilising on a regular basis at school or university. Though, the difficulty does not necessarily lie within the questions themselves, rather the time-sensitive nature of the UCAT. Compared to other aptitude tests, such as the GAMSAT, the time pressure and demand for excellent time management and rapid critical thinking makes the UCAT an incredibly difficult exam to master. Fortunately, it is possible to find balance between time management and accuracy in critical thinking; but hard work and time is required to achieve such a feat. 

Why Is The UCAT Hard?

As previously mentioned, the UCAT is designed to assess various qualities, skills and attributes that universities see as essential in their prospective medical students, such as a student’s cognitive abilities, mental endurance and of course their maturity to study undergraduate medicine. There are varying levels of difficulty within each subtest, where some questions are easier to respond to than others. This is called Item Response Theory, and is commonly used in many aptitude tests.

What Is Item Response Theory And How Does It Apply To The UCAT?

Item Response Theory (IRT) allows Pearson Vue to apply different weightings to questions which assess different cognitive skills. For example, we might consider “True, False or Can’t Tell” multiple choice conclusion question type in the UCAT Verbal Reasoning subtest. Within this question type, Pearson Vue will rank questions from easiest to hardest. Questions in the UCAT that are deemed harder, or difficult comparative to other questions, will demonstrate to Pearson Vue that you possess the cognitive skills required to answer multiple choice conclusion question types at a higher capacity, and will thus allow your Verbal Reasoning mark to rise. 

Of course, multiple choice conclusions are only one question type that require critical thinking. In order to perform well in the UCAT, you must demonstrate aptitude in a majority of cognitive skills (and subsequent question types), which vary in difficulty, in order to raise your score. 

IRT is used by Pearson Vue to calculate all five subtests within the UCAT ANZ test. There are many different indicators that Pearson Vue uses throughout these five subtests to understand how your mind processes and applies information. Through IRT, Pearson Vue can determine whether you are getting questions right because you understand the question and the content, or if you are simply guessing. 

In order to improve your UCAT score, it is important to understand how the UCAT is scored and how IRT influences your improvement. 

What Is The Hardest UCAT Subtest?

Based on 2019 and 2020 UCAT ANZ statistics, Verbal Reasoning has had the lowest mean score out of all five UCAT subtests, followed closely by the Situational Judgement Test. From this, we can understand that Verbal Reasoning and the Situational Judgement Test are harder than other UCAT subtests, namely Decision Making, Quantitative Reasoning and Abstract Reasoning

Students often report difficulty with Verbal Reasoning in relation to balancing speed and accuracy, where Verbal Reasoning averages 28 seconds per question. The Situational Judgement Test can contain subjective questions, where a candidate’s life experience may differ from the assessors, and thus may derive different conclusions based upon their own subjective experience. Despite difficulty within these sections, there are ways to improve. If you find that you are having difficulty preparing for the UCAT, see how Fraser’s UCAT can help.

How Do I Prepare For The UCAT?

At Frasers, we advocate for the iterative learning process. The iterative process respects the dynamic nature of studying, where students are expected to improve their score over time as they study.

Adjunct to the iterative learning process, it is also important to consider exam timing, such as: when should you sit the UCAT? When should you start studying for the UCAT? How long should you study for the UCAT? 

When Should I Sit The UCAT?

Before sitting the UCAT ANZ exam, it is recommended that prospective medical students sit  a UCAT practice exam to assess their baseline strengths and weaknesses in the UCAT. This is referred to as understanding your positionality, so that you can plan your subsequent study in an efficient and targeted manner. Further, by sitting a UCAT practice exam, you will gain some experience with the user interface of the UCAT exam and its different functions, such as the calculator, flag and review functions. 

Once you understand your positionality, and have addressed your weaknesses, it is then recommended to sit the UCAT. Many students sit the UCAT in their final year of secondary schooling (Year 12 in Australia or Year 13 in New Zealand). Some students take a gap-year following their last year of secondary schooling, and others sit the UCAT within their first year of University. Please note that students in Year 11 or lower are not eligible to sit the UCAT exam.

When Should I Start Studying For The UCAT?

You should begin studying for the UCAT as soon as you begin to consider medicine as a career. Though early preparation is important to success in the UCAT, it is also important to take your time to find balance between studying for the UCAT, managing your ATAR, IB or NCEA score, extracurricular activities and also time spent with friends and family. Essentially, early, slow and progressive preparation is key to success in the UCAT.

How Long Should I Study For The UCAT?

Ideally, students should spend between 8 to 12 weeks studying for the UCAT and practicing questions at 30 minutes per day; however this is totally dependent on the student’s individual strengths and weaknesses. Studying for the UCAT consistently for more than three months is not advised as they can develop burnout amongst their other responsibilities with regard to extracurricular activities, academic achievements and spending time with friends and family. 

Where To Next?

Now that you have a clear understanding of the UCAT exam and the difficulty, here's a quick comparison between the UCAT and GAMSAT, their key differences and similarities.

Alternatively, check out our FREE Resources and FREE Tools to guide you through your UCAT prep and ultimately your medical journey.