How Hard Is The UCAT? (I Asked 162 Medical Students)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

The majority of medicine applicants in the UK will have to take the UCAT before applying to university.

Considering its vital importance in the application process, how hard is the UCAT?

The UCAT is generally considered to be a very difficult exam. Immense time pressure coupled with unique and abstract question types produces an exam that can challenge even the brightest of applicants. Despite its difficulty, plenty of students still manage to achieve excellent scores.

However, don’t let one tough exam get in the way of your aspirations of becoming a doctor.

In this article, I’m going to further explore how difficult the UCAT really is, so that you’ll have a better understanding of what you’re up against, as well as comparing it to the other most common entrance exam medical schools use.

Is The UCAT Really That Difficult?

When you first start preparing for the UCAT it can be pretty overwhelming.

You’re faced with all these different crazy question types and each section seems to have a time limit that you have no hope of working within.

UCAT SectionTime per Question
Verbal reasoning29 seconds
Decision making64 seconds
Quantitative reasoning42 seconds
Abstract reasoning14 seconds
Situational judgement24 seconds

If you are at the start of your preparation journey, I can assure you that things do get better.

You will start to get to grips with question patterns that repeat themselves and you’ll learn when you need to just move on from more time-consuming dilemmas.

This all isn’t to take away from the fact that I think the UCAT is one of the most difficult exams I’ve ever taken.

The majority of the individual questions in the UCAT aren’t actually particularly difficult, but it’s the time pressure you have to do them under that throws a spanner in the works.

Again however, finding the UCAT immensely challenging doesn’t preclude you from getting an excellent score.

It’s natural to find it difficult, everyone does, so it’s this and the fact that the UCAT is scored compared to a benchmarking set of students that means you can still score highly despite finding it extremely difficult.

Find out what UCAT score is actually needed for medicine here.

What Is The Hardest Section In The UCAT?

The UCAT is comprised of five different sections: verbal reasoning, decision making, quantitative reasoning, abstract reasoning and situational judgement. But which one is the hardest?

The hardest section in the UCAT is verbal reasoning. Candidates consistently score lowest on this section compared to the other four in the exam. The average scaled score for verbal reasoning has been below 600 for the last 5 years, making it unique in this regard within the UCAT.

I’ve got to say, Verbal Reasoning was the section I found most difficult when preparing for the UCAT.

It’s just the speed at which you’ve got to read these massive chunks of text and then answer mean comprehension questions that gets me!

Although candidates score lowest on the verbal reasoning, I was interested to find out if this correlated with a subjective sense of difficulty.

I asked 162 current medical students which UCAT section they found hardest:

Section Students Found Most DifficultPercentage of Respondents
Verbal reasoning37%
Decision making25%
Quantitative reasoning14%
Abstract reasoning18%
Situational judgement6%

As you can see, the statistics actually agree with the objective results.

From everyone I asked, the largest proportion agreed with how I’d felt when revising in the summer before my UCAT- verbal reasoning is a mean old section!

Because of this, often it can be worth spending more time working on this section compared to the others as you’ve got the most ground to make up.

Why Is The UCAT So Hard?

To be able to tackle the challenges the UCAT is going to throw at you, your first step is to fully understand what you’re up against.

Once you understand why the UCAT is so hard you can then start implementing strategies for counteracting these factors.

I think the four main reasons candidates can find the UCAT so demanding is because of:

  1. The stringent time limits for each of the five sections
  2. The novel and unique question formats in the exam
  3. The pressure of exam day due to the importance of its score
  4. The fact UCAT revision often has to be juggled with school work

Although it’s far easier said than done, I’m sure you can start to think of reasons how you can counter each of the above points.

For example:

  1. Exam technique and plenty of mocks will prepare you for the timings
  2. Starting your preparation early will allow you to learn about each question type
  3. Personal discipline and mindset work can help counteract exam day panic
  4. A sensible revision plan can help you work around other commitments

Now everyone will find different aspects of the UCAT uniquely challenging and have their own unique solutions to these challenges.

But, by putting some thought as to why you might not be performing as well as you’d hoped can start the wheels turning in the right direction for improving your score.

UCAT Vs BMAT: Which Is Harder?

When applying to medical schools in the UK, your two entrance exam options will essentially be the UCAT or the BMAT.

Now depending on you as an applicant, they each throw up their individual challenges.

You may find that the strange aptitude questions of shapes and boxes and mental maths in the UCAT really don’t sit well with you.

Or, as I did, you may want to do everything you can to avoid having to write a highly pressured essay in the BMAT.

It’s difficult to say which of the two exams is harder due to the fact they really test different things- although both are used to select candidates for medical school.

Which Exam is Harder?Percentage of Respondents
UCAT43%
BMAT57%

The 162 medical students I asked this question to swayed in favour of the BMAT. But I do think it’s really an individual thing rather than there being one objective answer.

I think you’ll find the UCAT easier if you’re a quick thinker who enjoys solving novel problems, whereas you’ll find the BMAT easier if you have a solid grasp of the scientific concepts taught in school and can apply them to question types you may not have come across before.

You can find a more detailed comparison of the UCAT and BMAT in this article pitting them head to head.

UCAT And IQ Correlation

If you’ve ever taken an IQ test before, you may have noticed some similarities between it and the UCAT.

They both use non-conventional exam questions and are both trying to test your natural aptitude, intelligence and problem solving.

Perhaps you’ve even been told there’s no point in studying for the UCAT as it simply measures your natural intelligence: something that you can’t change.

This is in fact completely false.

In direct contrast to an IQ test, hard work and practice can have a massive impact on a student’s score.

As an example, because time pressure is one of the things that makes the UCAT so challenging, if a candidate practices good exam technique with rigid timings, they’ll score far higher than one who gets bogged down in the sections.

An IQ test on the other hand is more concerned with measuring fluid and crystallised intelligence.

Despite a lack of research or data, I imagine there would be a weak correlation between candidates’ UCAT scores and IQ.

However, they very much are not equivalent to one another.

Final Thoughts

If you’re feeling slightly stressed out by how hard you’re finding UCAT preparation just remember that everyone’s in the same boat.

It is a gruelling exam and it’s entirely natural to find it incredibly tough.

Your final score will depend on how you perform compared to your peers- not whether you score 100% in every section.

A sensible revision plan coupled with hard work can sky-rocket your score from where you first start off: so have faith!

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.