According to some people, the best way to prepare for the UCAT is to do thousands and thousands of practice questions. According to others, the best approach to the UCAT is to just fluke it and hope for the best. Both of these approaches reflect a fundamental lack of understanding about what the UCAT exam is and why universities weight it so heavily in the medical/dental selection process.
‘UCAT’ is short for ‘University Clinical Aptitude Test’. As stated in the name, it’s an aptitude test, which means that it’s a skills-based assessment: it tests your ability to solve questions by following a logical series of steps to deduce the right answer from the information provided via an evidence-based mode of thinking (which is a very important skill for healthcare professionals to have).
Knowing this, the best way to prepare for and beat the UCAT is to focus on developing the question-solving skills required to solve the 14 specific question types that appear in the UCAT exam. This can be achieved by applying Kolb’s experiential cycle via mindful practice, which allows flaws to be identified and fixed after every attempt at solving a question with a technique in mind. Since the questions always change (even though the solving process stays the same), you also need the skills to adapt these question-solving techniques to each unique question as required.
So repetitively doing thousands of practice questions that definitely won’t appear on your UCAT exam, without even knowing what solving techniques you should be using or what skills you’re trying to develop, won’t get you anywhere—what you should be aiming for is mindful improvement, not mindless repetition. Doing questions mindlessly won’t enable you to develop or improve in your technique, nor will it help you to find issues for iterative improvement. It’s unfortunately a common approach to UCAT prep among high-school students, but it’s extremely ineffective and inefficient and doesn’t bring you any closer to completing questions quickly and accurately
A helpful way to think about this is to compare the UCAT exam to a maths test, which is also a skills-based assessment. Before you can consistently answer questions correctly and improve your speed, you first need to learn the formulaic process for solving each type of question. If you try to prepare for a maths test by simply doing hundreds of practice questions, without actually knowing the step-by-step solving techniques first, your preparation would be incredibly confusing, time-consuming and just generally difficult.
To effectively prepare for the UCAT, students need to first learn the precise steps for solving a question (just as they would for maths), and then reflect on their working after every attempt to improve their execution and familiarity before attempting the next question. This is absolutely critical. Since practice makes perfect, incorrect practice—i.e. repeatedly doing questions without a technique (or with a technique that is flawed)— will make students’ wrong approaches permanently wrong.