UKCAT Abstract Reasoning - SCANS Method

The Abstract Reasoning subtest of the UKCAT can appear punishingly difficult for test-takers, even after a good amount of practice. On average you have on the order of 45-50 seconds per question, so you need to become adept at spotting the rules governing each set quickly and confidently. Therefore it’s a good idea to go in knowing what sorts of things to look for, which is what this article is all about.

A great way to start is the SCANS method. This, as you might have guessed, is an acronym and mnemonic device that helps you structure your approach to each questions.

A sample Abstract Reasoning pattern - use  SCANS  to try and work out the rules!

A sample Abstract Reasoning pattern - use SCANS to try and work out the rules!

S - Shape: What shapes are present?

C - Colour: Is the colour of any shapes present relevant or consistent between boxes, particularly in combination with the previous step?

A - Arrangement: Where in the box are the different shapes arranged? Take note of colour here, as arrangement questions are often conditional on another factor i.e. if the circle is black, the squares are at the bottom.

(If faced with a pattern using lines or clock faces etc, use A to represent ANGLE instead, noting how many acute/obtuse angles there are per box and if the angle faces another element).

N - Number: How many shapes of each type are there, how many sides do they have and what is the total number of sides and right angles in each box?

S - Size: How does the size of each shape vary between the boxes, and does it correlate to colour, arrangement or a conditional feature, such as the presence of another shape or the total number of sides in the box?

Hopefully this helps - there’s a tendency for new candidates to get flustered and give up on trying to practice the abstract reasoning subtest, but it’s just a case of training your brain through practice. You’ll start to pick up speed over a week or two and then you’ll perform much better than guessing through blind chance.

Sample UKCAT Abstract Reasoning Questions

Here you'll find some sample UKCAT Abstract Reasoning questions that I've created for you. Use the controls at the sides or click the thumbnails below to change question. Hover over the image and highlight the text to reveal the solution.

UKCAT Abstract Reasoning Simplest Squares Method

The Abstract Reasoning subtest is commonly the most feared by prospective medical students, and for good reason. While the other sections involve skills that are familiar to candidates, such as verbal comprehension or logical problem solving, Abstract Reasoning seems completely alien and bizarre to those who see it for the first time.

It is for this reason that practice is absolutely crucial, as without a structured means of approaching these questions you are reduced to blind guessing under the time pressure of the exam. While in theory this would still net you 33% of the total possible marks for the section, that won’t quite be good enough to land you safely into medical school.

One of the most straightforward ways to approach the Type 1 questions wherein you are required to discern the pattern connecting all 6 boxes in Set A and B is the Simple Squares method. While you have no idea what the rules of the game are before seeing the question, you do know that there are rules, which is quite a powerful piece of information in the context of the UKCAT.

Upon seeing the six boxes that comprise Set A, simply look for the square that is the least complex, with the fewest elements. Fundamentally you know that whatever rules link the set together MUST apply to all boxes in the set, and therefore you are more likely to spot a pattern if there are fewer things to distract you. If you can identify something that connects the simplest boxes together, it is quite likely that it will link the more complicated ones too, but crucially it will take less time to form your hypothesis in a simple box.

A sample question with the 'simpler' boxes for each set highlighted in red

A sample question with the 'simpler' boxes for each set highlighted in red

As seen in the example above, the squares from each set with a reduced number of elements are highlighted. The rule in this case is rather simple, in Set A the total number of sides is odd, while it is even in Set B. It’s not a difficult question, but you’re still more likely to spot the patterns if you’re mentally counting a smaller number of sides when testing your developing theories, particularly under stress.

A conditional sample question with the 'simpler' boxes for each set highlighted in red

A conditional sample question with the 'simpler' boxes for each set highlighted in red

Let’s use a more complicated example [AR-9S]. In this case, going for the simplest squares will not immediately give you the answer because it is a conditional rule. For Set A, if a square is present the circle is black, and otherwise white. Equally for Set B, if a triangle is present the circle is black and otherwise white. Conditional rules obviously require comparison of multiple squares to identify, but the method still isolates important components. For instance in the first square of Set A, you know that either the circle, the square, or their properties must be important, or indeed the lack of the other shapes there. That starting point should lead to the realisation that the colour of the circle is dependent on the square.

I hope you found this article useful for your UKCAT preparation - if you did be sure to let me know via the contact form!

5 Tips for UKCAT Test Day

Okay, this will be a simple one. You’ve read through all my resources, studied hard, practiced as much as you can and it’s the night before UKCAT test day. Put the books away, unwind and check out these final tips to make the experience go more smoothly.

1. Get a good night’s sleep

It’s simple but good advice - as much as some of us (myself very much included) don’t like to admit it, you won’t perform at your very best if you’re tired and irritable. The stress of taking the exam is enough, and you don’t want to add to it by making silly mistakes and losing focus. Eliminate all light and noise from your room, and if that means using a sleep mask, earplugs and the like, so be it.

Get plenty of shuteye the night before so you can perform at your best

Get plenty of shuteye the night before so you can perform at your best

2. Get there early

Ideally, go to the test centre a few days (or more) before your test to make sure you know exactly where it is and how to get inside. I assumed that I’d be able to rely on GPS to get me there, which turned out not to be the case as my mobile data promptly ran out more than 10 minutes away from the centre. Thankfully the strangers of Newcastle-upon-Tyne were friendly and accommodating as they so often are to bleary-eyed students in the mornings, but the added anxiety of having to find the damned place was not something I needed.

3. Don’t cram in the morning

Some of you will be very tempted to do this, but I really wouldn’t bother. The UKCAT measures attributes that are much better honed over weeks than days or hours, as it’s more about being used to the type of question you might be asked rather than the content. To reiterate, it’s about HOW you approach the test rather than short-term memory games for the most part, where elements such as time management and triage become much more important. Cramming in the morning is very unlikely to help you, go in with a clear head and just do your best.

No cramming! - it won't help you and you might as well be relaxing

No cramming! - it won't help you and you might as well be relaxing

4. Do not panic during the test

Again, this might seem obvious but it’s worth thinking about. The UKCAT, as with the BMAT is very time-intensive by design, so getting worked up during the test could cost the few precious seconds it takes to answer another question. I strongly recommend reading up on a few breathing exercises, such as the 4-7-8 method (in for four seconds, hold for seven and exhale for eight). I found myself with a tiny smidgeon of time to spare after the first section during my test, and getting my heart rate under control before the next started made me feel much calmer and more in control.

5. When it’s over, it’s over

One of the small reprieves of the UKCAT is that you get your result immediately upon finishing it, which removes the trepidation of a marking period. You may only take the UKCAT once during each application cycle, so take your mark and be proud of it, knowing that you did your best. Instead of fretting over small mistakes you think you might have made, now you should be looking ahead, thinking of the best places to apply with that score - research average cutoff scores for different schools, as well as graduate entry courses if applicable to you.

With all that said, just try to do your best. Everyone is just as stressed as you are about this, but remember what it’s all about - just one of the many hoops you’ll need to jump through to achieve that goal of becoming one of the UK’s best and brightest young doctors.

Be sure, if you haven’t already, to look at my other UKCAT preparation articles and I’m always happy to answer any questions you might have via the contact form.

Good luck!