Saturday, 19 May 2012

Advice for Prospective Medical Students I

In my last post I said that I would start giving some advice to those of you that are hoping to apply to Medicine in the future. Since I finished the application process not long ago, I hope this advice will be at least some use to you. In this post, I'm going to start with the UKCAT as it won't be long before testing begins. I will hopefully cover other aspects of the admissions process at a later date.

This post assumes you have a basic knowledge of what the UKCAT entails. If you haven't done so already, read through their website here. It's important stuff!

1. When is the best time to sit the test?

Now, this is a question that I've seen bouncing around quite a lot recently and there are quite a few things to consider whilst deciding when to sit the UKCAT. I think it is mainly up to personal preference; some people like to get it over and done with early whereas others prefer to do it later to ensure they get enough time to practise. The best option for me was to wait until I had received my exam results and knew for sure that I was going to apply for Medicine. I ended up sitting mine at the end of September, a week or two before the deadline. The only problem I had with sitting it so late was that I had to work on my personal statement at the same time as I was practising for the UKCAT. This was by no means a major problem but, if you prefer to work on one thing at a time, I would suggest you sit the test earlier and then spent the three months or so before October 15th (UCAS deadline for medicine applicants) focussing solely on your personal statement.  There are also some other benefits of sitting the test earlier. An obvious one is that if you sit it before the end of August, it will cost you less money! Saving money is always a good thing. Also, if you feel that the UKCAT will be an important factor in deciding which universities you want to apply to, it would probably be a good idea to sit it earlier to ensure that you have enough time to make the best decisions. It is worth noting that some universities have UKCAT "cut-off" scores i.e. if you do not meet a certain score set by the university, you will not be invited for an interview. Therefore, it is important that apply strategically to maximise your chances of getting an interview. Overall, whether you sit the test early or late, the most important thing is to ensure you leave yourself enough time to do sufficient practise. Which leads me to the next section:

2. How long should I spend practising for the UKCAT?

Although you can't really revise for the UKCAT, it's very important that you familiarise yourself with the layout of the questions. The only way to achieve this is through practise! Since the questions just about bored me to death, I would recommend that you do a small amount of practise each day for a couple of weeks before you sit the test. I would say a month is just enough time to become competent with each section. You can then use the week leading up to your test to do some more "intense" practise and complete any mock exams that you may have access to.

I know that some people like to start practising much earlier but there is one thing to be wary of: make sure you don't use up all your practise materials too early. It's best to keep practising right up to your test date so that your own methods for working out each type of question will be fresh in your mind. If you do find that you have exhausted your supply of practise questions, you could always try going over the ones that you have already completed. The chances are you will have forgotten all of the answers anyway. However, none of this will be a problem if you have mountains of practise questions to get through. Your only risk then is dying of boredom. 

3. What are the best practise materials?

If you ask any medical student for advice about the UKCAT, the chances are they will recommend this book:

And I have to agree with them, it was incredibly useful. If you are serious about the UKCAT, you really must get your hands on a copy. It's a great place to start as the explanations are really clear and helpful. The only criticism I would give (and it's not necessarily a bad thing) is that the Quantitative Reasoning and Abstract Reasoning questions were significantly more difficult than the actual test. I found it just about impossible to complete the QR questions in the recommended time limit and some of the solutions for AR were just really absurd. So don't get too frustrated if you are really struggling with these sections, the chances are it will prepare you better for the real exam.  This book alone would probably be enough in order for you to get a decent score but I felt I needed some additional practise. I had a copy of this book which I also worked through. Despite the somewhat awkward layout of the questions, forcing you to constantly flick back between pages, all-in-all I found it was a very good book. It covers each section of the test well and I would say the difficulty is as close to the actual test as you can get. The Verbal Reasoning section was it's only downside really as all the passages were related to medicine and this is not what you should expect to see in the actual exam. However, I was grateful for the extra practise nonetheless. 

There are a whole range of other books you can buy that I can't give my opinion on. Visiting book shops and having a quick flick through some books or reading reviews on could help you decide which ones to buy. Some websites also offer banks of practise questions that you can buy. It's worth looking into if you really want to keep yourself busy but I wouldn't say you need to spend a huge amount of money to get a good score. So don't go out and buy every book you can find!

Lastly, once you are confident with the nature of the UKCAT, you could complete the official practise exams that are given on the UKCAT website. I can't say how useful these tests are as I couldn't download then last year (Windows only) but it seems they have been made Mac-friendly this year. I assume they will be as close as you can get to the real thing so they should be pretty helpful.

How should I practise for the UKCAT?

Everybody is different and will have their own ways of solving problems. Hopefully, once you have started practising, you will begin to think up your own strategies for working out each question. I'm now going to share with you some little tips that I believe helped me to get an above-average score (662.5 if you are interested).

Once you are used to the layout of the test, my advice would be that you start practising under timed conditions as soon as you can. The time constraints in the actual test is probably what makes it so evil challenging so make sure you prepare for this.

Verbal Reasoning: This will be the first section that you sit so try to make sure you are nice and calm before you go in (easier said than done-I know!). Again, it depends on personal preference but I think it would help to quickly skim over the whole passage before reading the questions. VR ended being the section that I performed worst in and I think I could have improved my score if I didn't dive straight into the questions before reading the passage completely. Hopefully, with practise, you will get used to picking up information from the text after a quick skim read. This is something I wasn't very good at so I think it's very important that you don't neglect any sections during your practise. I spent a lot of time going over QR and AR as I found them particularly difficult but perhaps I should have dedicated more time VR. The same goes for any section, if you are struggling with any of them, don't ignore it. Keep practising or else it will drag your average score down.

Quantitative Reasoning: The good thing about this section is that if you are rubbish at maths like me, you are allowed to use a simple calculator. The bad thing? It's an on-screen calculator. It makes things a whole lot more awkward, but that's just something that everybody who sits the test has to cope with. My advice would be that you practise at home as if you were sitting the test. By this I mean don't get used to your own fancy calculator with its "store answer" button and such. The best way to do this would be to practise using the calculator on your own computer. It's uncomfortable at first clicking the keys with your mouse cursor, but it does get easier. You may also want to use the number pad on your keyboard as this works when you sit the real test (provided the computers at your testing centre actually have keyboards).

As for the questions themselves, make sure you are up to scratch with your basic maths e.g. finding areas, calculating percentages etc. Also, try to improve your mental maths so that you don't have to rely on the dodgy calculator as much. This will help you to save time. If you do find yourself running out of time towards the end make sure you answer every question. Even a guess has a 20% of being correct!

Abstract Reasoning: Different books will tell you different ways to approach these questions using mnemonics and other techniques. If these methods work for you, brilliant, keep at it!  However, I found the best way to approach these questions was to just look at the shapes and see what caught my attention first. It may not be the best method but it was the one I found most comfortable doing. If I found myself concentrating too hard on one detail and making no progress, I would close my eyes for a second, start over, and look for something else. Be careful that you don't spend too much time on each question though. If you really aren't getting anywhere guess and answer, flag it and move on. You may have time to return to it at the end.

Decision Analysis: When I was practising for this section, I would keep all the information in my head. However, when I actually sat the test, I found I had a substantial amount of time left at the end. After realising this, I began the write all the code "translations" down to check my answers. It really helped! If timing isn't an issue, you may want to try this while you are practising as it prevents all the words getting jumbled in your head. I find this makes it easier to determine the correct answer.

To conclude, my last piece of advice I will give you is: don't panic! 
Yes, the UKCAT is daunting and some of the questions are horrible. But really, it isn't that bad when you are sitting it. The time flies by and you should receive your score as soon as you finish.

I tried to cover everything in this monster of a post but if you have any other questions, just ask!

I wish you the best of luck! And keep practising!

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