How to Improve Your Speed in the UCAT Abstract Reasoning test

ucat abstract reasoning test

The UCAT Abstract Reasoning tests your ability to identify patterns amongst abstract shapes where irrelevant and distracting material may lead to wrong conclusions. Thus, some problems can take longer to solve than others.

In this article we will look at ways to improve your speed in the abstract reasoning subtest so that you complete it within the 13 minutes allocated to it.

The AR subtest requires students to quickly  change track, generate hypotheses and query judgements as you go along. The problem arises, when you wither cannot find relationships between shapes or you waste time realising you’ve made the wrong conclusion.

When working on your speed in the AR, you must look at it at 2 levels:

  1. Speed at answering each individual question
  2. How quickly you go through the questions in the exam

The first level relies on having a systematic approach to spotting relationships between abstract shapes based on your weaknesses and strengths and the second level requires having a overall triage strategy based on the question-types you find easy and difficult. We will look at tips and strategies to address speed/pace issues at both levels.

Level #1 – Speed at answering Each Individual Question

This is a measure of how quickly you spot relationship within abstract shapes. Here are a few techniques you can adopt to help you spot patterns quicker:

1. Start with the Simplest Box

When trying to find the pattern with a set. It is a good strategy to start with the simplest box as it will contain the fewest distractors. If the simplest box contains only one or two shapes, your job becomes more straightforward. For example, if the box contains a single shaded circle in the corner of the box, you now have a clue that the pattern is either about circle, shaded shapes or arrangement in the corner. By checking other boxes in the set for these characteristics you will find the commonality quicker.

2. Isolate individual attributes within a box and compare with another

Focus on one feature at a time. It can be tempting to look at everything going on within a box in an effort to find a commonality. This is a common mistake that students make. Focus on one thing at a time, see how it compares to another box. If you’ve found a relationship, great! validate it. If your hypothesis is incorrect, that’s ok. Look at another feature.

3. Search for Simple Relationships first

Don’t overcomplicate things, many of the patterns  in the exam are straightforward. Look for straightforward/obvious relationships first. Once you find a simple relationship quickly double check there is no other relationship or dependence occurring and move on. Don’t overcomplicate things. In cases where you can’t find simple relationships, start to consider C.A.P.D (see point #6).

4. Use a Mnemonic (as a back-up)

I would recommend if you cannot spot a relationship within the first 15 seconds then consider a mnemonic. Using a mnemonic is great to help structure your approach to finding relationships. It serves as a useful basis upon which you can work out the rule governing patterns is a set. They are great as you start to practice and get familiar with the exam, but as you become better at spotting patterns use them only when you come across difficult problems. Instead start with a feature that you instinctively think may be the key relationship. Test it . Then proceed to your next best feature. In other words, avoid validating relationships in order. Start with your gut choice then test it before moving onto the next one. This way you are likely to find relationships quicker. Popular mnemonics include SCANS, SPONCS and NSPCC. Pick one and practice using it.

SCANS – Shape (S), Colour (C), Angle (A), Number (N) and Symmetry

SPONCS – Shape (S), Position (P), Orientation (O), Number (N), Size (S)

NSPCC – Number (N), Size (S), Position (P), Colour (C), Conformation (C)

5. Identify the Question-type

When attempting questions it is great strategy to identify which type of question you are dealing with. This can help change your perspective about how to approach the problem. For example type 2 and type 3 questions are about progression not patterns, so searching for commonality will prove futile. Rather than looking for commonality you need to be looking for what is different from one box to the next and how patterns progresses.

6. Keep an eye out for C.A.P.D 

These are 4 of the common ways examiners design difficult questions in the exam. Only look for these if you cannot find relationships straightaway. They include:

C – Conditional Patterns: These are situations where the characteristics of one object in a box dictates a characteristic of anther item in the same box. For example, a pattern where each box contains a triangle and a circle, where if the circle is shaded it is positioned to the right of a triangle, if the circle is not shaded it is positioned to the left of the triangle.

A – Alternate Patterns: These are situations where patterns work in an alternate fashion. For example, a type 2 problem where certain shape only appears in some boxes – like a black square in every other box.

P – Partial Patterns: These are cases where you have found some commonality but it doesn’t apply to all the boxes. In cases like these consider two courses of action: first, simplify your hypotheses even further so it is applicable to the all boxes. Second, consider conditional patterns or distractors being used in the box where it is not applicable. In most cases it is a conditional pattern being used in the rogue box. Often you can eliminate options based on partial patterns, it’s better odds than guessing blindly.

D – Distractors: These are situations where examiners include shapes that have no relationships with other features in the box. You may find yourself paying attention to certain elements that have no bearing on the relationships between objects. These tend to catch out students that overthink the entire pattern finding process. Remember that if your hypothesis is correct you will find no exceptions to the commonality rule with a set despite the difference between the elements in the boxes.

7. Develop a bit of Selective Ignorance

The test has been designed with traps in the form of time wasters, these are questions included by the examiners to weed out students that are obsessed with answering questions in order and getting everything right. If you have spent a minute on a set, take a guess and move on. Flag it for review and come back to it. You need to become comfortable with guessing and moving on. You are more likely to solve the problem when you come back to it with newly trained eyes from solving more problems.

8. 30-seconds rule 

If you cannot spot any relationships within 20 seconds, guess, flag it and move on. Most patterns will jump out at you within the first 20 seconds , and it is much more important to answer each set the get stuck on complicated ones. You may be surprised how easily you spot patterns when you come back to them this is usually because by answering more questions your eyes become more trained.

Level #2 – Pacing through the Abstract Reasoning Subtest

This is a measure of how quickly you complete the entire subtest, the goal here is to master triage – which, in the context of the UCAT exam, is how quickly to move through questions. The key to mastering triage comes down to your ability to identity your weakest and strongest areas in the AR subtest. In order to develop a triage strategy, you must first find out how long it takes you to complete a standard AR test at your own pace (i.e how long it takes you to complete 55 questions).

I will work you through step-by-step how to develop your own triage strategy and combine the level #1 tips to help improve your overall speed in the subtest. You will need a timer (the one on your phone will do) and a sheet of paper for this exercise:

Step 1 – Attempt an AR mock untimed: Attempt 55 AR questions at your own pace with no distractions or breaks, aim to complete it within 13 minutes  but time yourself to see how long it takes you to complete. Use the tips recommend in level #1 to find patterns as quickly as you can.  If it takes you 30 minutes thats fine, take note of this.

Step 2 – Mark hard problems with a circle: As you attempt the problems in the AR mock,  circle (if you are using a practice book) or write down the questions ( if you are using an online course) you found difficult. i.e questions that took ages (more than 1 minute) to find the pattern but you eventually were able to find a relationship.

Please note: Give yourself up to 4 minutes, if you cannot find a pattern guess, move on and star it.

Step 3 – Specially mark problems that  you have no clue with a star: Star questions that you unable to find a pattern under 4 minutes. If you are using online course write the number of the question down (put a star next to them).

Step 4 – Record how long it takes you to complete the mock: This will be your baseline time, your goal is to beat this mark next time. So if it takes you 60 minutes to complete 55 questions, shave off a couple minutes each time until you get it down to 13 minutes.

Step 5 – Before checking the answers, redo all circled and starred questions : Here’s the key move: before you see if you got questions right, go back and redo all the circled (hard) and starred (unable to answer) questions. This way your brain gets another chance to learn how to do them right without any pressure. This actually helps develop speed on future questions. Think about it: when you do a question under time pressure you often have to give up on that one and move on before you’ve really had a chance to reason it out fully.

Step 6 – Check and review the answers for all questions: The key is to make sure to understand the solution to every problem.  ( Extra tip: look carefully at what tripped you up for circled and starred questions. Also look carefully to the underlying reason to every time you make a careless mistake – often you can see a pattern and just knowing that will make you more alert when you encounter that again).

During review identify which of the 4 question-types that you found most difficult. Create a triage strategy based on this, here are some example of triage strategies you can adopt, test them and see which one works best for you:

Strategy #1: Attempt Easier Question-types, Skip and Come back to hard Questions.

Strategy #2: Attempt Harder Question-types, Skip and Come back to Easier Questions.

Strategy #3: Attempt Questions where patterns come to you within 20 seconds, skip and come back to the rest.

These strategies should be used as a foundation to create your own approach to attempting questions. Re-attempt another mock but aim to beat  your baseline until you can get it down to 13 minutes.