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

17 UCAT Verbal 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 Verbal Reasoning tips, you’ll hopefully be able to take your score up a level in what is often considered to be the most difficult section in the whole exam.

The Verbal Reasoning section is sort of like English comprehension on steroids.

You’re confronted with big blocks of text and demanding questions with very little time to get through them all.

If you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed, don’t worry, it’s a totally natural feeling when it comes to this part of the UCAT.

In this article, I’m going to cover 17 of the best tips you can use to help master the 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 Verbal 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 Verbal Reasoning, you’ll be presented with a short passage of text and a number of questions related to it.

All the information you need to answer those questions will be contained within the passage provided.

You won’t have to use any additional knowledge, although for some questions you do have to draw your own conclusions. 

The UCAT Verbal Reasoning section actually aims to test your constructive thinking, rather than just your English reading abilities. 

This means you’ll have to recognise important premises in the passages and then be able to evaluate them to answer the questions.

You’re unlikely to be familiar with the subject the passage is talking about.

Don’t worry. This can actually be an advantage as you can’t accidentally use your own knowledge to draw conclusions that the text doesn’t support.

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

Understanding the reason why you’re being challenged with Verbal 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.

Verbal Reasoning is excellent at not only testing a candidate’s reading and comprehension skills, but also their deductive reasoning.

Verbal Reasoning practice

It’s an invaluable skill in medicine, allowing a doctor to interpret the latest scientific research and so provide their patients with the most up-to-date, research-backed, care.

You can also draw parallels between skim-reading Verbal Reasoning passages and identifying key points in extensive medical records.

When you start work as a junior doctor you’ll find a lot of your time can be spent flipping through these huge folders of patient notes!

3. Learn Some Verbal 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 Verbal Reasoning section like the back of your hand.

Most people struggle with time management in the verbal reasoning section- and for good reason!

Although it’s not the shortest section in the UCAT, reading through all the passages of text can really eat away at those minutes on the clock.

If you don’t know how many passages you’ve got to go, how long you have left on the clock, or on average how many seconds per question you have, you’re not going to be able to effectively pace yourself in the most time-pressured section out of the entire UCAT.

  • The Verbal Reasoning section is 21 minutes long
  • It has 44 questions split across 11 passages of text
  • This gives you an average of 29 seconds per question
  • Passages in Verbal Reasoning generally are 200-300 words in length

I’d suggest learning these figures, but you also want to get to know how you personally fare in the section.

From your revision, what’s your personal average time per question? Are you normally able to finish every question within the time limits? Does your time to answer directly relate to the length of the passage?

By analysing some of this data from mock exams, you can start to build a strategy that’s tailored to you.

4. Only Use The Information Provided To You

I think this is the biggest learning curve you’ll experience when starting to do Verbal Reasoning revision.

To answer many of the questions correctly, you have to be incredibly exacting in what information is and isn’t given to you. 

Don’t use any of your own knowledge when trying to answer a question. Everything you need will have been provided in the passage.

It’s so easy to fill in the blanks with background knowledge you might know about a topic, that isn’t actually described in the text.

For example, you might be faced with a paragraph about car seatbelts:

The modern three-point seatbelt was invented in 1959 by Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin. This new, innovative design was a significant improvement on the lap belt. The three-point design stopped passengers from folding at the waist during a collision, rather than just stopping them from coming out of their seats. It was, however, the American Edward J. Claghorn who actually first patented the seatbelt in 1885, as an invention to stop tourists falling out of New York taxis.

“It is a legal requirement to wear a seatbelt when driving a car.”

  • True
  • False
  • Can’t Tell

Although we intuitively know that it is against the law not to wear a seatbelt, nowhere in the passage is this information given to us.

Therefore, for this particular paragraph and text, the correct answer would be “Can’t Tell.”

It’s also important to remember the questions aren’t actually trying to trick you (strange, I know…).

It’s best to take them at face value and answer as the passage permits. If the information really isn’t provided in the text then it’s probably a Can’t Tell from a True/False/Can’t Tell question!

5. Read Verbal Reasoning Questions First

It’s counter-intuitive, but in Verbal Reasoning, you should read the questions before you read the passage.

This technique is one of the most important strategies in your whole Verbal Reasoning approach.

The thing is you can wade through an entire verbal reasoning passage on sock knitting in sub-Saharan Africa only to find all you needed to answer the question was the information in the very first sentence.

If you had previewed the question you’d have been able to locate the precise information needed and been able to move on quicker.

I’d recommend reading each question carefully before starting to wade through the dense block of text in front of you.

If you don’t know what the questions are, you won’t know what you’re looking for as you’re reading so you’ll be forced to just try and comprehend everything that’s in the passage- which is far less efficient.

6. Know When To Flag And Move On

In possibly the most time-pressured section in the UCAT, it’s no surprise time management is going to be a key strategy.

You need to know when to flag a question and move on.

So how do you know when to do this?

Well, the first thing to bear in mind is the twenty-nine-second per-question average for the section.

Some questions will take longer, and some you’ll be able to answer quicker.

However, as a rule of thumb, if you feel you’ve spent over a minute on a single question, it’s probably time to flag it and move on.

Flagging a Verbal Reasoning question

The thing is you don’t want to miss out on the True/False/Can’t Tell questions. These are normally relatively quicker and easier than the other question types.

To not miss out on them, flag tough questions as you go, keeping a good pace so you reach the end of the section. You’ll then have seen all the questions and can then use your remaining time to tackle your flagged questions.

You can find the keyboard shortcut for flagging UCAT questions here, along with every other shortcut you’ll need to know.

Just before you move on from a question make sure you put down an answer– even if it’s a complete guess.

You may not get the chance to review it at the end and there’s no negative marking in the UCAT.

7. Practice Your UCAT Skim Reading

Skim reading is the key skill to unlocking a next-level Verbal Reasoning score.

Improving your skim reading will allow you to read more, in a shorter amount of time, and crucially, retain more of what you’ve read.

I’ve certainly been rushing on a VR question and scanned through the entire text only to find at the end I can’t remember a single thing the author has talked about!

Retention is what allows you to answer the questions. 

So how do you improve your skim reading? Well the simple answer is:

  • Read widely – reading widely will improve your vocabulary and handling of unfamiliar subject matters. Try to read in a number of different genres.
  • Read often – make a habit of reading as part of your preparation. Make sure you’re concentrating and trying to digest the information as if in the UCAT.
  • Challenge yourself – you won’t improve if you stay in your comfort zone. Try to push your reading speed while testing your comprehension as you go.

With a faster reading speed, it’s going to be as if they’ve given you more time to complete the section.

8. Prepare With Real UCAT Exam Timings

The challenge of the Verbal Reasoning section is speed. 

Given plenty of time to carefully read and analyse every passage, I’m sure you’d be able to get the vast majority of questions correct.

Sadly, this isn’t the case on UCAT day.

Verbal Reasoning is so difficult because you have to madly skim over big chunks of random text trying to answer the exacting questions.

That’s why it’s incredibly important to practice at an exam pace.

Don’t get me wrong, find your feet with the various question types at the beginning, but when you’re closing in on exam day you need to ramp it up.

Some candidates even choose to practice the section with less than the 21 minutes they’ll get in the UCAT.

This is so they’ll have some built-in tolerance to still hopefully finish the section if things don’t go quite to plan on the day.

9. Use A Variety Of UCAT Resources To Prepare

I think this is really important- not just when it comes to Verbal Reasoning but the entire UCAT.

The reality is unless they’re the official mocks or practice questions released by the UCAT Consortium, any preparation you do won’t exactly match the style of questioning in the real exam.

Now the reason I think this is particularly important for Verbal Reasoning is two-fold:

Firstly, the length of the passage has an enormous effect on the difficulty of the section.

Some books or websites will be slightly short, others slightly long. Diversify and you’ll get a mixture of both, averaging out at about right.

Secondly, over the last few years, the section has made a shift away from True/False/Can’t Tell questions toward the more challenging inference-type questions.

This means not all resources will be up-to-date with the right ratios of question types. This is important as you could be caught out if all you’d practised was the relatively easier True/False/Can’t Tell questions.

I’ve put together a list of lots of different free UCAT questions here, that you can use to add variety to your preparation.

10. Appreciate That Verbal Reasoning Is Difficult

Over the last few years, Verbal Reasoning has, on average, been a candidate’s worst scoring section.

The pattern has been (scaled score from best to worst):

  1. Quantitative Reasoning
  2. Abstract Reasoning
  3. Decision Making
  4. Verbal Reasoning

Now, this is absolutely not a hard and fast rule. Abstract Reasoning and Decision Making scores are generally very similar.

But, it does tell us that Verbal Reasoning is an extremely challenging section for everyone.

You’re not alone in finding reading such big blocks of text and answering fussy questions incredibly difficult.

I know I personally did worst on the Verbal Reasoning section when I sat the UCAT. 

Try not to get disheartened or avoid revising the section because it’s so tough. Keep plugging away and you’ll be able to achieve an excellent score compared to the average.

Universities also tend to look at UCAT scores as a whole.

So if Verbal Reasoning is a particular weak point of yours, you can more than make up for it in other sections.

Looking at the mean scaled scores over the last few years, I think it’s fair to say that if you score above 570 you’ll have a good chance of being above the average.

You can find out what a good UCAT score in the other sections would be here.

11. Use ‘Scan Reading’ To Pinpoint Answers

Scan reading is a higher-level technique that can really boost your Verbal Reasoning score. But don’t confuse scan reading with skim reading:

Skim reading: skim reading is you rapidly reading through the passage, retaining as much information as possible in a short space of time.

Scan reading: scan reading is when you’re looking for a particular word or subject within the text that you quickly scan through for.

To scan read effectively you just need to follow these four steps:

  1. Pick out a few unique words or a key phrase from the question
  2. Efficiently scan through the text looking for these trigger words
  3. When you find them in the passage, read the sentence they’re in
  4. If you’re in the right place, go on to read the sentence before and after

As an example, say a question was asking you about heartwood vs sapwood. These would be two good keywords to look out for if they don’t appear too often in the passage.

When lumber is attacked by fungi, it becomes more opaque, loses its brightness, and in practice is designated “dead,” in distinction to “live” or bright timber. Exposure to air darkens all wood; direct sunlight and occasional moistening hasten this change, and cause it to penetrate deeper. Prolonged immersion has the same effect, pine wood becoming a dark gray, while oak changes to a blackish brown.

Odor, like color, depends on chemical compounds, forming no part of the wood substance itself. Exposure to weather reduces and often changes the odor, but a piece of long-leaf pine, cedar, or camphor wood exhales apparently as much odor as ever when a new surface is exposed. Heartwood is more odoriferous than sapwood. Many kinds of wood are distinguished by strong and peculiar odors. This is especially the case with camphor, cedar, pine, oak, and mahogany, and the list would comprise every kind of wood in use were our sense of smell developed in keeping with its importance.

Decomposition is usually accompanied by pronounced odors. Decaying poplar emits a disagreeable odor, while red oak often becomes fragrant, its smell resembling that of heliotrope.

(Source: Seasoning Of Wood by J. B. Wagner)

“Hardwood produces a stronger smell than sapwood when cut.”

  • True
  • False
  • Can’t Tell

You’d scan through the text and find them here:

Exposure to weather reduces and often changes the odor, but a piece of long-leaf pine, cedar, or camphor wood exhales apparently as much odor as ever when a new surface is exposed. Heartwood is more odoriferous than sapwood. Many kinds of wood are distinguished by strong and peculiar odors.

To get a bit of context and often much-needed further information, it’s best to read the sentence before and after you find the trigger words or phrase.

It can often give you some much-needed context, and in this example lets us answer “True.”

You can then repeat this technique every time you need to find information for a question and you don’t know where to find it in the passage.

12. Eliminate Answers As You Go

Eliminating answers is a pretty simple concept but can really pay dividends. 

When you come across a really tough question you may have no idea what the correct answer is.

But, you may recognise some of the options as incorrect from your knowledge of the passage.

Eliminating Verbal Reasoning questions

If you were able to rule out two of the options as definitely wrong, you’ve essentially increased your odds of getting the question right from 25% to 50%. 

Using this elimination method you can claw back marks from questions you really can’t figure out or don’t have enough time for.

13. Be On The Lookout For Definitives

Definitive language is essentially making a conclusive statement about a subject that can’t be questioned.

Some examples would be:

 Definitive Statement
Medicine is the best career choice for those who like science
The UCAT is the most confusing exam people have to take
Medical School Expert will always be my favourite website

As you can see, definitive statements usually include words along the lines of ‘best’, ‘most’, ‘always’, ‘biggest’, and ‘longest’.

The reason you want to be on the lookout for language like this is it can be incredibly helpful in guiding your guesses…

You may find yourself in a situation where you’re rapidly running out of time and still have loads of VR questions to go.

Don’t worry if this does happen to you on exam day, it’s natural in such a time-pressured section.

By picking out and recognising definitive language you can greatly improve your chances of getting right answers with your super-speedy guesses. 

Essentially, if a question is a definitive statement, the answer is probably FALSE (or to that effect).

Using the example extract below, a question might be:

Exposure to weather reduces and often changes the odor, but a piece of long-leaf pine, cedar, or camphor wood exhales apparently as much odor as ever when a new surface is exposed.

(Source: Seasoning Of Wood by J. B. Wagner Extract)

“Exposure to weather always changes the odor of a piece of wood.”

  • True
  • False
  • Can’t Tell

Without even spending the time to scan through the paragraph, if we’d guessed “False,” it would have been the correct answer.

That’s because the statement is clearly definitive: “exposure to weather always…”

Now, this isn’t to say this technique always works. Far from it.

But, if you find yourself in a tight spot it’s well worth bearing in mind.

14. Have A Low Threshold For Skipping ‘Except’ Questions

‘Except’ questions require you to weigh up the arguments presented in the passage and conclude which of the statements the text doesn’t support.

It’s easy to miss the fact that these are negative questions if you’re rushing.

Let’s look at an example:

The Navajo reservation is better suited for the raising of sheep than for anything else, and the step from the life of a warrior and hunter to that of a shepherd is not a long one, nor a hard one to take. Under the stress of necessity the Navajo became a peaceable pastoral tribe, living by their flocks and herds, and practicing horticulture only in an extremely limited and precarious way. Under modern conditions they are slowly developing into an agricultural tribe, and this development has already progressed far enough to materially affect their house structures; but in a general way it may be said that they are a pastoral people, and their habits have been dictated largely by that mode of life.

Every family is possessed of a flock of sheep and goats, sometimes numbering many thousands, and a band of horses, generally several hundreds, in a few instances several thousands. In recent times many possess small herds of cattle, the progeny of those which strayed into the reservation from the numerous large herds in its vicinity, or were picked up about the borders by some Navaho whose thrift was more highly developed than his honesty.

(Source: Navaho Houses by Cosmos Mindeleff)

The Navaho’s pastoral way of life is supported by all the reasons given below except:

A. Their house structures are designed for it
B. The life of a shepherd is not far removed from a hunter
C. Every family possess a flock of sheep and goats
D. The reservation is suited to the raising of sheep

The correct answer is A. This statement is not supported by the passage.

We’re told their house structures have been affected by their development into a more agricultural tribe, but not explicitly that their houses currently support their pastoral lifestyle.

It may very well be true, but we just don’t have the evidence for it in the text. All the other statements are directly related to the passage so we can be sure of them.

The reason why you should have a low threshold for skipping ‘except’ questions is because I often find they can take far longer than the other Verbal Reasoning question types.

You have to go through the passage and verify every single statement until you find one that isn’t true.

This can take far more work than just evaluating one point. Therefore, if you feel like you’re getting bogged down, I’d flag it, put down a guess, and move on.

15. Don’t Waste Time Double-Checking

In such a time-pressured section, every second counts.

This means you can’t afford to spend time double-checking your answers.

It will probably feel unnatural at first, but to save time and be more efficient, you have to learn to go with your gut and stick with the first answer you put down.

If you went through and double-checked all your answers, you would very probably find some that are wrong.

But, you need to do that 80:20 analysis that says you’d spend 80% of your time improving your answers to just 20% of your questions.

Don’t give into the temptation of double-checking

Your time is in fact far better spent just doing more questions, even if say 20% of them are incorrect.

You’ll get a higher overall mark if you just go with your gut and get 80% of the new questions right- even if this goes against every fibre of your being as a perfectionist!

If you have time at the end of the section, you can of course go through and double-check your answers. But, for the Verbal Reasoning section, it’s very rare that candidates do.

16. Focus On The Introduction And Conclusion

The introduction and conclusion of a passage can be some of the highest-yield areas for answers.

So, if you’re up against a lengthy text and need to do some fact-finding for a question, I’d always gravitate towards the introduction and conclusion sentences/paragraphs.

Let’s look at an example:

One mighty mass of Germans came charging over the narrow space. By sheer weight of numbers they overwhelmed the French and took the trench for which they had paid such a ghastly price. They held it only for a few hours. By converging on it from three points at once the French retook it soon after midnight.

On Friday morning a wonderful French bayonet charge at length drove out the Germans, who had fought most gallantly and stubbornly throughout the day and during the night, and the terrible morning which followed. The Red Cross workers were busy without ceasing; but many men had bled to death, lacking surgical aid, in that strip of ground between the trenches.

This is the kind of warfare which is going to be waged in this seemingly inevitable battle between the two rivers. It may last as long as the battle of the Yser or the Aisne, and we may wait day after day again for the verdict. If the Allies can press forward just three or four miles before the year is out they will have done extraordinarily well.

(Source: The European War published by The New York Times)

According to the passage, the French were able to retake the trench because:

A. They had sheer weight of numbers on their side
B. They fought gallantly and stubbornly
C. The Red Cross provided medical aid
D. They converged on it from three points at once

It’s at the very end of the introductory paragraph that we find the correct answer, D, to this question.

With a passage like this, after reading the question, I’d skim through the passage but pay particular attention to the start and end of it.

Answers can of course be found in the main body of texts, but introductions and conclusions do seem to yield the information needed for Verbal Reasoning questions more often.

17. Don’t Be Afraid To Instantly Guess

If I’m faced with an absolute wall of text, that’s obviously far longer than the average Verbal Reasoning passage, there’s a very good chance that I’ll just instantly guess the answers for that passage without even reading the questions.

This is because I rarely have time to complete all the questions in the Verbal Reasoning section.

So, I want to focus my time in the most efficient way possible.

I know that it’s just going to take far longer to wade through this passage when I could be working on the very next set of questions, which may be accompanied by a far shorter extract.

You can also apply this principle to question types too.

If there’s a particular question type that you really don’t get on with or know always takes you far longer than it should, you can cut your losses and just instantly guess them every time.

I sometimes take this approach with ‘Most Likely’ questions.

I find these can be really tricky as there can be multiple technically correct answers, but you have to use a well-informed, reasoned judgement to decide which is the most likely… which sometimes you just don’t have the time to do!

Final Thoughts

The final, and possibly most important tip on this list is to not lose your cool.

The Verbal Reasoning section is a bit of a sprint through the 44 questions in 21 minutes.

But, it’s the start of somewhat of a marathon: the 2-hour UCAT exam.

It’s important to remember that the Verbal Reasoning section is just a part of a larger whole, and a larger challenge.

In your real exam, you can’t afford to be thrown off by a horrible Verbal Reasoning section when you’ve got the whole rest of the exam to go.

The key is to take a moment between sections to regain your headspace, then carry on.

At the end of the day, it is an incredibly difficult test, that everyone struggles with. But, it’s something that has to be done if you want to get a good UCAT 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.