17 UCAT Abstract Reasoning Tips (From A Top 1% Scorer)

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.

With these UCAT Abstract Reasoning tips, you’ll hopefully be able to take your score up a level in one of the UCAT’s most unique sections.

Abstract Reasoning is something you may never have come across before.

I clearly remember thinking “what are all these weird-looking shapes and why am I being tested on them to get into medicine?”

It’s a difficult and time-pressured section. But with practice, many candidates do incredibly well in it.

In this article, I’m going to cover 17 tips that will help you master this strange, shapey section.

These are the exact strategies I used to get an overall score of 3210 when I was applying to medical school.

1. Understand What Abstract Reasoning Is Testing

My first tip is pretty simple; you’re never going to do well in the section if you don’t actually understand what you’re being tested on.

In Abstract Reasoning, you’ll be presented with a series of panels, each filled with a number of shapes (or elements). 

There’s always some sort of pattern connecting the panels together.

It might be they all have a certain feature or element that puts them into the same ‘set’ or they may each be sequential steps of a series.

UCAT Abstract Painting
An abstract painting or ‘panel’

For example, this painting (or panel) might belong to a set that all had yellow backgrounds. If you were presented with a new panel that had a yellow background, you’d know it fit in.

Sadly though, the actual test panels are far less exciting to look at.

Think more drawn in Microsoft Paint without even adding any colour.

Example Shape 1
A typical UCAT Abstract Reasoning panel

2. Get To Grips With Why It’s Being Tested

Understanding the reason why you’re being challenged with Abstract Reasoning (when you’re just trying to apply to medical school) can give you the extra 1% drive over someone who doesn’t.

I’ve always found I’m far more motivated to succeed at something if I understand the reasons behind why I’m doing it.

In many ways, Abstract Reasoning is a solution to measuring attributes of candidates that are extremely difficult to otherwise assess. 

Abstract Reasoning can actually provide an indirect measure of fluid intelligence- our ability to tackle new, unfamiliar problems, with no prior knowledge.

You can draw parallels between this and a doctor analysing a patient’s presentation, filled with distracting information and managing to crystallise a diagnosis from the patterns.

I can’t say I’ve ever had to directly decide what shape comes next in a series in my day job as a doctor, but it’s all about more general, transferable skills.

3. Learn Some Abstract Reasoning Section Stats

This tip comes back to the fact that the better you know the challenge, the easier you’ll be able to overcome it.

By the time it gets to test day, you should know the UCAT Abstract Reasoning section like the back of your hand.

Abstract Reasoning is the shortest section in the UCAT at only 12 minutes long… But it’s also got the most questions (50).

This gives you a mere 14 seconds per question, forcing you to go at a blistering pace.

However, the questions are grouped into thirteen question sets.

That’s when you have one set-up and then a number of related questions.

This means the fourteen seconds per question becomes a bit more manageable as you get one minute per question set.

By knowing these statistics for the section, you can keep an eye on your timings as you progress through the test, allowing you to speed up or slow down depending on how you’re doing.

4. Learn The Common Abstract Reasoning Rules

Even if every set of shapes looks like Windows 95 had a crack at recreating a Picasso classic, they were in fact all created by a human. 

And that means certain rules and relationships come up time and time again.

The official UCAT website even gives you a list of keywords to help your preparation.

Let’s look at each of them in turn:

Consider the arrangement of the different elements in each panel. Is a certain shape always opposite another? In this example, a triangle is always opposite an ellipse.

Think about whether you can see an element of reflection in the panels. In this example all the shapes on the left side of each panel are reflected on the right.

Symmetry is similar to reflection but instead of the entire panel, you just consider each shape’s characteristics. In this set every shape has at least two lines of symmetry.

The positioning of elements inside each panel is a rule that can be easily overlooked. In this example the top left and top right corners of each panel always contain a shape.

Enclosure is essentially something inside of something else. It can be difficult to spot when there’s lots of overlap! In this example there’s an ellipse inside each rectangle.

Mirror image can be a bit confusing to get your head around. Looking at this example each shape always has its mirror image to the bottom and to the right of it.

This one’s a bit of a spin on positioning- in each panel there are always two or more elements adjacent to each other. In this example it’s a circle and a triangle.

Rotation does what it says on the tin. As you move down each panel in this set the shapes are rotated by 45 degrees. This can be difficult to spot in shapes such as circles!

Shape can catch you out when looking for more complex relationships. It’s simple- in this example every panel just has the double-headed arrow in.

Shading can be used as a distractor from other patterns but it can sometimes be the key! Here all triangles are shaded but ellipses are left unshaded.

Each shape is assigned a ‘value’- here circles = 3, triangles = 2 and rectangles = 1. In this example the sum total of all elements’ values in each panel is equal to 6.

Bonus Common Rule

Sides come up a LOT. I’m not sure why the official UCAT site overlooks it. The rule is each panel has a certain number of sides in it. Here, that number is 8.

I know that’s a lot to take in. That’s 13 common rules we’ve just covered.

And to make matters worse, the more difficult sets will mix and match, potentially using multiple rules at the same time.

Don’t worry about committing them all to memory, as you practice you’ll internalise a lot of them as they do just keep coming up.

And anyway, I’ve got a handy acronym for you to easily remember the key ones in a pinch…

5. Use The SCANS Acronym

SCANS is a popular acronym used to remember some of the common rules in the Abstract Reasoning section.

SCANS stands for:

  • Shape & Size – Is there always a particular shape in each panel? Is one shape always a larger size than another?
  • Colour – Is a particular shape always shaded? Are there a certain number of shaded shapes per panel?
  • Angle & Arrangement – Do two shapes always appear next to each other or in certain locations? Is there any pattern to the rotation of shapes in the panel?
  • Number – Is there always a certain number of elements per panel? Or a certain number of one particular shape?
  • Symmetry & Sides – Can you spot any common lines of symmetry in either the panels or the shapes themselves? Is there a pattern to the number of sides present?

I’d recommend initially working through the SCANS acronym mentally for every question you get stuck on.

That way you’ll naturally learn the acronym inside out so will start to be able to reference it at much higher speeds later on in your preparation.

6. It’s Okay To Start Slow

Many people consider Abstract Reasoning to be one of the hardest sections in the UCAT.

But, it’s also the section that people can make the most gains in with high-quality revision.

It can however be one of the most daunting sections to start practising.

You’re faced with boxes and boxes of random shapes and in the back of your head you keep thinking “I’ve only got fourteen seconds per question!”

Here’s the thing: everybody starts way slower than the actual exam pace.

It’s only natural when you’re tackling a completely new type of exam question. You’ve probably not seen anything like it since the Eleven Plus (if ever!).

When you first start revising for the UCAT I really wouldn’t worry about timing at all. 

Build up your knowledge and experience of the section first, then start to speed things up.

7. Make UCAT Revision Notes

As you get a bit more experience with Abstract Reasoning you’ll notice question patterns that start to appear: 

  • Certain shapes that are commonly employed just to distract you
  • Variations on a similar rule that is repeatedly used in questions
  • New relationships that you think should be added to my list of thirteen common rules

Make notes about all the above and more.

By writing them down it will help solidify your learning and they’ll also serve as a super handy quick reference sheet for reading over now and again. 

UCAT Timing
Keeping track of your Abstract Reasoning revision

You can almost keep a bit of a UCAT Abstract Reasoning diary.

When I came across a question type or relationship that I just kept getting wrong despite having seen it before, I’d jot it down in a workbook I had so I could easily read over my weakest points.

8. Practice Makes Perfect

This phrase is especially true when it comes to Abstract Reasoning. 

You can read over as many strategies and top tips as you like, but there really is no replacing that lightning-quick answering speed you’ll develop when you’ve seen literally hundreds of variations of each question.

I’d recommend getting your hands on at least one resource full of practice questions.

That might be a book or it might be an online UCAT question bank, just make sure it’s got plenty of high-quality questions for you to work through.

Once you’ve done that, you’ve guessed it, practice.

Start honing your Abstract Reasoning ninja skills, slowly speeding up as you gain experience until you’re hitting full mock papers at exam pace.

With nothing else you do in school or at home really coming close to the weirdness and unique skillset needed for Abstract Reasoning, one of the best ways to get a high AR score is just to practice more!

9. Have Confidence In Your Abstract Reasoning

Even though it can sometimes feel like you’re being asked to answer exam questions in hieroglyphics, everyone is in the same boat.

It’s important to remember that you can in fact achieve an extremely good scaled score, despite how difficult and time-pressured the section can seem.

Looking at previous years’ data, Abstract Reasoning actually tends to be a candidate’s second-highest scoring section- after Quantitative Reasoning.

When I took the UCAT, I think it was actually the section that I did the best in.

Don’t let your confidence take too big of a knock if you just can’t seem to get the hang of it.

You are being asked to answer difficult questions under huge time pressure. But, with practice, it’s likely that you’ll actually do quite well.

Be sure to push through the initial barrier of having no idea what you’re doing and you soon won’t be able to remember how you couldn’t immediately see all the obvious patterns that now jump out at you.

10. Know When To Move On

There’s no denying the Abstract Reasoning section is extremely time-pressured at 14 seconds per question.

The thing is, every question is only worth one mark.

Whether you crack the most difficult question ever known to man or answer one you’ve seen a thousand times before- you still only get one mark. 

That means you can’t afford to spend too much time deciphering difficult questions you can’t seem to unpick. 

Flag it and move on. 

At the end of the section, come back and use your remaining time on your flagged questions. 

At the last minute just make sure you’ve got an answer down for every question.

Even if it’s just a guess as there’s no negative marking!

I personally find ‘Completing the Statement’ questions particularly tricky.

Completing the statement Abstract Reasoning questions

Because I know this, I have a far lower threshold for flagging them and only coming back at the end of the section if I have time.

In this particular example, the first panel is transformed into the second by adding a pentagon.

So to complete the statement we just have to add a pentagon to the test panel.

So the correct answer would be… C.

11. Always Start With The Simplest Panel

This is a great trick for trying to figure out the more complicated sets and series.

Always start with the simplest panels you can find.

If the question is regarding two sets, compare the simplest panel from Set A and the simplest panel from Set B.

That way you know the essential elements that make that panel belong to a certain set are present while minimising the effects of distracting shapes.

Start with the simplest Abstract Reasoning panels

For example, when comparing these two sets, I’d be sure to note the single square in Set A and the single circle in Set B.

The key to these sets is an absolute classic when it comes to abstract reasoning: the total number of sides in each panel.

In Set A, the total number of sides of all shapes in each panel is even.

In Set B, the total number of sides of all shapes in each panel is odd.

What I find myself doing is coming up with theories by looking at the simplest panels and then testing those theories out by comparing the more complicated ones.

12. Learn Some Key Shape Facts

This tactic requires a bit more effort initially, but can make you lightning-fast on questions others would struggle with. 

Essentially all you need to do is learn some key shape facts once, that you can then apply to all of your abstract reasoning.

For example, I’d recommend learning the number of sides of some key shapes:

ShapeNumber of Sides
Lightning Bolt11
Straight Arrow7
Double-Sided Arrow10
Five-Pointed Star10

This will let you breeze through sides questions instead of desperately counting and recounting under the pressure of exam day.

For example, in the example set I just used for tip 11, you’d be able to compare even the most complicated panels in just a few seconds, rather than mouthing numbers to yourself as you manually counted round the shapes.

13. Don’t Use The SCANS Acronym Initially

I know this seems counterintuitive: I just taught you an awesome acronym for Abstract Reasoning and am now telling you not to use it?

Don’t get me wrong, the SCANS acronym is an excellent starting point for your abstract reasoning revision.

But as you build experience and skill you’ll find yourself using it less and less.

You’ll find that you’re intuitively spotting the patterns and being able to answer questions rapidly in most cases. 

At this point, using the SCANS acronym could actually slow you down.

That’s why when you’re near the end of your preparation, you should only employ the SCANS acronym on those questions that you’ve flagged and come back to.

Anything else, and you might be spending too much time per question.

14. Single Relationship Test Panels Are Skippable

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying you should skip every single relationship test panel, but rather I’d have a lower threshold to skip them compared to other question types.

By ‘single relationship test panels’ I mean Abstract Reasoning sets that you have to solve but then only get one mark for.

This would be something like a ‘Complete the Series’ question:

At each step, the ellipse progresses one corner round clockwise

You’re only going to get one mark for solving what the relationship is in the series and so what panel comes next.

However, for a question set that is of the ‘Multiple Choice’ type:

In Set A, shapes point to the right and in Set B to the left

You can have multiple test panels that you sort into either Set A or Set B.

So you can get multiple marks for just solving one relationship (what defines Set A and what defines Set B).

If you’re running really tight on time, I’d try and focus your efforts more on this second type of question.

They’ll just give you more bang for your buck in terms of marks for time spent, so can be a more efficient way of using your last few minutes in the section.

15. Make Use Of The UCAT Whiteboard

Using the UCAT whiteboard might seem like a strange idea in such a visual section.

However, there is one thing I always use it for in AR.

In the 1 minute reading time between the Quantitative Reasoning and Abstract Reasoning sections, when the instruction screens are up in the test, I write out the SCANS acronym on my whiteboard.

This isn’t so I can refer to it for every question, but it is so if I get stuck I can quickly and easily work through the acronym without having to remember it every time.

There’s just something about the stress of exam day that can mean even the best-revised facts can disappear from your head when you’re trying to retrieve them under pressure.

So, to save yourself from missing out on a vital letter or relationship, in the short period of calm before the section begins, I’d jot down the acronym for future reference.

16. Beware Of Distracting Colours

Colour can play an important role in tying together Abstract Reasoning relationships.

For example, in this series, with each iteration the panel gains an additional shaded shape:

Chapter 8 Abstract Reasoning Example 2
Shaded shapes in Abstract Reasoning

The number of shaded shapes in each panel goes: 1, 2, 3, 4…

So the panel that completes the series must have five shaded shapes in it. Which means D is the correct answer.

However, you can see how easily your eye is drawn to the shaded elements of each panel.

Which makes irrelevant shading an excellent distractor.

When the UCAT question writers are feeling particularly mean, they will try and trick you by including irrelevant or superfluous elements in each panel.

This could be shading certain shapes when it doesn’t actually have any relevance to the real relationship.

By all means consider the number or type of shaded shapes, but do bear in mind it isn’t always the answer.

17. Know Your Prime Numbers

This last tip is for a particular mean and tricky type of question but can come in handy to have in your back pocket.

A very small percentage of Abstract Reasoning sets actually rely on prime numbers to tie them together.

For example, there’s a prime number of shapes in each panel, the number of sides in each panel is a prime or there’s always a prime number worth of one particular object.

Although it’s of course not going to come up all of the time, these sorts of relationships can be almost impossible to solve if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

I’d memorise the first few prime numbers so you can have them in the back of your mind if you come across a question like this:

  • 2
  • 3
  • 5
  • 7
  • 11
  • 13
  • 17
  • 19
  • 23

This could give you marks that nearly everyone else taking the UCAT that year will miss out on.

One important to note is that 2 is in fact a prime number. This can be something that catches a lot of people out as they think it goes 1, 3, 5, 7…

Final Thoughts

I think Abstract Reasoning has one of the biggest learning curves out of any of the UCAT sections.

But can be incredibly satisfying once you got a hang of things and can fly through questions instantly spotting patterns.

If you combine these 17 Abstract Reasoning tips with some hard work and plenty of practice questions, you’ll soon be well on your way to a top score.

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.