What is Abstract Reasoning?
Abstract Reasoning is the fourth subtest of the UCAT, preceding Situational Judgement. It tests your ability to identify patterns in sets of shapes and decide which shape comes next in the sequence. Although this sounds simple enough- beware! Unless you have an “abstract-minded” brain, like the other candidates, you too will probably hate this section the most– it has the most number of questi is very pressured on time and, as the name suggests, it is very abstract; according to the UCAT website; you are tested on your abilities to ‘change track, critically evaluate and generate hypotheses’, and there is plenty of distracting information to throw you off while you do so.
Although you might be thinking these questions are more relevant to those IQ tests you might have seen in magazines- this section requires skills that hold much importance in the medical field. This section tests you on non-verbal and visuo-spatial abilities; non-verbal abilities are crucial in doctor-patient interactions- actions do speak louder than words! On the other hand, visuo-spatial abilities are help you visualise parts of the body and their anatomy. This is a skill all successful doctors might have- from conducting a breast cancer check as a GP, to suturing the appendix as a surgeon. These skills are also useful in research- a crucial part of a Doctor’s career- this requires a good eye in catching trends in data to develop hypotheses. Read on so we can help you ace the first step of becoming a Doctor-- acing the UCAT! 😉
🥳 Our Top 30 Abstract Reasoning Tips
✅ Answer every single question
There’s no negative marking; you won’t lose points for incorrect answers so, even if you don’t have time to answer properly, choose an option, even if it is a guess. Make sure you don’t leave any question blank!
❌ Eliminate, eliminate, eliminate!
This is an excellent strategy to save time is to eliminate options that are obviously wrong first, and then deciding from the remaining choices. However, make sure that the answer you have eliminated is wrong- the best way you can hone this skill is by applying this strategy while practicing UCAT questions before the exam!
⏰ Manage your time
Abstract Reasoning is the most time-pressured subtest in the UCAT. Although it is the shortest section, it also has the most questions - you have to answer 50 questions in 12 minutes! So, you get an average of 14 seconds per question. You should spend most of your time analysing the pattern- this will help you arrive to the correct answer faster. This is easier said than done- you need to have practiced a lot to answer within this time frame.
However, you will need to adjust this cap according to the question type. For example, for “Set A, B, or neither” questions, you have one minute to spend on five questions relating to one pattern. Meanwhile, for “complete the series” questions, for answering one question for one pattern, you have just 14 seconds. However, regardless of the question type, if you want to complete this section, you should aim to answer each question in 14 seconds. Although this may sounds impossible right now, we assure you this is definitely achievable if you maintain a strict timed practice regime ahead of the test.
🐙 Guessing Game >>> Squid Game
As Abstract Reasoning is the most time-pressed in the UCAT, you cannot afford to spend more than 14 seconds per question- this includes analysing the question, working out the pattern, and choosing the correct answer. If you spend even a second more on a question, flag it, guess an option, and come back to it later if you have time. It is better to answer 80% of the questions accurately, even if you have to guess the other 20%, rather than running out of time and missing out on spotting the simplest of patterns.
Whilst you shouldn’t guess every single question, guessing is a good last resort if you’ve reached your time cap but still have no idea what the answer is. In this case, if you’ve eliminated some options, make an educated guess between the remaining ones, and flag. There are no negative points so you have nothing to lose; in fact, the odds are stacked in your favour; since there are three to four options per question, you have an approximately 30% chance of guessing correctly, the figure increasing with each answer you’ve eliminated. Even if you guess all five questions in a set, you have around a 90% chance of getting at least one mark.
PS - why was everyone in Squid Game always so suspicious? Because it was fishy from the start! 🦑
✍️ Practice is the new perfect
Practice is the only way you can improve your performance. You need experience to figure out the different types of questions and develop strategies to answer them. This experience will also help you get used to common traps, some of which I have discussed here, and how not to fall prey to them!
Practice will help you get used to spotting different types of patterns. As you progress, you’ll start applying different strategies, including pattern recognition systems- we’ll discuss this later, which will increase your chances of spotting trends correctly in the real test. However, even if you don’t know the answer, practice also trains your implicit recognition system and will help you make educated guesses if you’re running out of time.
It is key that your practice is timed as this will help you get used to answering in test conditions. You’ll start to get an idea on how long it takes you to answer each question type, and where you can improve. This will help you manage your time better. Start slow and work your way up, gradually incorporating new techniques you’ll come across on the way. Then, towards the end of your preparation, start setting time limits for yourself. This will put you in good stead for the actual test.
But targeted practice is even more perfect 👑
It is important to address your mistakes and learn from them if you want to improve. Analyse your performance and focus on where you’re going wrong. Try to notice a pattern in the mistakes you make- more often than not- they are related to a theme rather than just being random errors. Do you continuously run out of time? Is this just with all questions or are you struggling with a question type? If it is with all questions, be strict with how much time you spend and keep a cap of 60 seconds. If you struggle with a question type, especially focus on these questions to improve.
🖊️ Note down the patterns you encounter
Make a note of the patterns you come across while practicing, especially if you don’t not recognise it. How often do you see them? Does the pattern always start with a specific shape? Is the pattern often associated with another pattern? This will be really helpful; with enough practice, by the time you write your exam, you will be familiar with most of the patterns in the exam. Also, try to make up your own set of questions- doing this will really help you understand the different types of patterns!
💪 Play to your strengths
If you have practiced before, you should have a general idea of what sort of questions you’re good at (here’s another reason to start practicing now!). If you're struggling with time in the exam, flag the questions you struggle with and focus on what you find easiest. However, if you start practise early enough, you can practice the questions you find difficult so you don’t struggle with them as much in the exam!
If you establish a regular practiced routine, you can look at your mistakes to determine where you are going wrong- oftentimes, candidates struggle with certain types of questions and their mistakes are not random- they have a conceptual misunderstanding. Learning from your mistakes, knowing where you went wrong, and understanding why you went wrong, will decrease your chances of making the same mistakes in the real exam.
🗃️ Always start with the simplest box
Many questions include lots of distractors which can overwhelm you. Distractors are unnecessary, distracting information with no relationship to the pattern; their only purpose is to confuse you. Although distractors are easy to spot and may just be random objects filling up space, your best strategy is to start simple. Look for the simplest box– the box with the fewest distractors. Ask yourself these questions to determine the simplest box:
Which box has the fewest shapes?
Which box with fewest colour variations, for example- striped, black/ white?
Which box has the most obvious pattern, for example- largest shape?
Which box has repeating units, for example - 4 triangles?
Remember, a pattern holds true for every box in the set; you’re just making it easier to spot by looking at the simplest box first. Once you think you have identified a trend, compare it with the other boxes to see if you can find any similarities to conform to the pattern.
😵💫 Check for common features
When you are looking for patterns, compare similar boxes from each set; this will help you rule out a common denominator, and instead find a differentiating factor that makes the two sets different. These are some factors you should look for-
Repeated shapes within the boxes
Repeated sizes of the same shape
Repeated number of the same shape
Take a look at this, for example:
Set A: The arrow always points up, and each frame has a white circle.
Set B: The arrow always points left, and each frame has a black square.
🔎 Identify the Pattern First
If you look at the options first, this might nudge you to identify a pattern that only matches one option and one box in a set. Although it might be tempting to focus on the options and try to match it to the sequence presented. you're more likely to make mistakes like this. You should instead start by analysing the pattern to work out the pattern. This will help you reach the answer accurately and quickly.
🍄 Know the different types of patterns
You can quickly spot a pattern if you know what you’re looking for. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to work out the pattern:
1. Is there a colour pattern?
2. Is there a pattern in the number of shapes?
3. Is there a pattern in the types of shapes (for example- all rectangles, all stars)?
4. Is there a pattern in the size of shapes (for example- three big, one small shape)?
5. Is there symmetry in each panel of the set?
6. Is there a ratio of shapes (for example- two black squares for every circle)?
Apparently, people think 🍄 is a popsicle, hmmm. This generation is doomed 💀
🔫 Memorise the key triggers
As you practice, with time, you will become increasingly familiar with the different types of question in this subtest. You will start to notice that different patterns will have some features in common. Whenever you come across shared characteristics, note them down. This will help you spot the underlying pattern faster when you encounter it again. Doing this can also help you identify a similar pattern later.
Looking at pairs of shapes can trigger you into thinking about patterns with a line of symmetry. For example, if you see crescent moons, this should trigger you to start looking for a pattern based on curved and straight shapes. This is because the number of shapes with curved lines is limited; if such shapes are included in the set, it is highly probable that their curved aspect is central to the pattern. Another example is if you see many overlapping shapes- this is a cue to look for a pattern based on the number of intersections between these shapes.
PS- Did you get the pun? 😛
🧐 Observe the position of the shape
Look at a specific shape and ask yourself if it is:
At the same position in the boxes?
Positioned opposite to another shape?
Placed within another shape?
Placed between other shapes of the same kind?
For example, take a look at this. We can concur the following observations here:
Set A: There quadrilateral is always to the left of a crescent.
Set B: There quadrilateral is always to the right of a crescent.
🦁 I like to move it move it
And you should too! Movement is a common pattern in “complete the series” questions. You should at each shape one-by-one, to see if, and how, they change between boxes. Most of the time, the shapes move and change position both individually and relative to one another. This technique will help you spot the pattern and apply the movement to the final shape helping you find the box that completes the series. Sometimes, the shapes rotate clockwise or anti-clockwise in a set, or the orientation of the box completely changes.
Set A: The arrow that points up indicates the shape does not rotate. The arrow that points right indicates the shape rotates clockwise by 90° when it is mirrored in the bottom left corner. The arrow that points down indicates the shape rotates clockwise by 180°. The arrow that points left indicates the shape flips rotates clockwise by 270°.
Set B: The arrow that points down indicates the shape does not rotate. The arrow that points right indicates the shape rotates anticlockwise by 90° when it is mirrored in the bottom left corner. The arrow that points up indicates shape rotates anticlockwise by 180°. The arrow that points left indicates the shape rotates anticlockwise by 270°.
Public Service Announcement: If King Julien had a car, which one would it be? Madagascar. Hehe. 🥲
Last question! Which snake did King Julien find on his car?
Windshield Viper. (I’m not crying, you are 😎)
🎨 But beware of colour!
While colour can be a repeated element used within a pattern, more often than not, it is a is distractor. We’d suggest you focus on other factors more- shape, position, movement etc. Save your palette for Mister Maker, please.
🎲 Learn the rules that rule the rules
Although there are rules, there are more rules to them you must keep in mind while applying these criteria.
Just because a rule has been used before, for example- symmetry of shapes, this doesn’t mean that it can’t appear again. If you think an answer is correct, don’t overthink it just because you encountered a question with the same rule previously.
These questions really require to think! Look carefully for all the possible patterns out there- don’t jump to fill an option right after you’ve found one rule- there may be more complex patterns underlying itt.
This can seem daunting but, look at the silver lining- this just gives you more opportunities to find the correct answer.
A rule that works for Set A must work for Set B; if it doesn’t, it is not valid. These can be tricky. For example- every time the shape is rotated sideways, it is grey.
Ps- Congratulations- you learnt a new tongue twister today! 😜
😲 Don’t agonize over acronyms
Rather the opposite! Patterns you should look for include - number of sides, lines of symmetry, number of corners and vertices, number of intersections; these can help you narrow down the possible patterns between the test shape and sets, as well as sequence-type questions. It can be hard to keep all this in mind, so we have collated a few acronyms for you to remember them easily! We do realise some of them are repeats so just memorise the acronym that's easiest for you to remember!
Ps- Agonize over the fact that my dad jokes are worse than even your dad’s jokes! 😎
(No, not that one 🤦🏻♀️)
I can’t believe you actually fell for that!
Common: Is there a common element in every box of the set? Are the number of shapes common? Are the types of shapes common? Are the sizes of shapes common? Are there arrows in every box?
Position: What is the position of a shape within the box? For example- a circle is always positioned in the top left corner, or a square is always opposite to a triangle in every box.
Rotation: Are the shapes rotated? Has the orientation shifted? For example, is there a simple clockwise/anticlockwise change of shapes and orientation where shapes are positioned at 12 o’clock or 3 o’clock?
Pls note- If arrows are involved, the direction in which the arrow points is important as well as the arrow length.
🍰 SCONE: Symmetry, Colour, Order, Not There, Extras
Alas, we cannot break for afternoon tea yet 😔 Enjoy this scone instead- you might want to get some tea with it to boost your energy for practice! ☕
Symmetry: General and rotational symmetry. For example, one set may have shapes with a certain number of lines of symmetry, whilst the other may have none.
Colour: You are guaranteed to get a question on this, but it’s also most commonly used as a distractor.
Order: This is particularly useful for sequence and “x to y” is to “a to b” type of questions. Is the order of shapes part of the rule? Do the shapes change direction or move in a fixed order?
Not There: Consider features that are not there. This is particularly useful when you are struggling to recognise the pattern; you can instead make an educated guess on features that aren’t present.
Extras: Consider other features like angles (right angles or sum of), obtuse or acute angles, intersections (especially if there is a set with only lines), reflection, and curved or straight sides.
😮💨 NSPCC: Number, Size, Position, Colour, Conformation
Number: Count the number of items in the box. How many dots? Does the number of objects increase as the pattern progresses? If so, by how much?
Size: Is one shape bigger than the other? Is there always a big shape in the centre or corner? Are there smaller shapes inside the larger ones?
Position: look at where the shapes are positioned. For example, a square might be always in the top right corner. Also look at touching and overlapping shapes and see if this continues throughout the sequence.
Colour: the shading of shapes can also be a pattern. However, it’s only occasionally that the primary pattern is centred on this. Top Tip: look for shapes that are always shaded or even those which are never shaded.
Conformation: These are usually found in more complex patterns so can be harder to spot. This is the pattern in which the shapes are arranged within the box. Look for patterns of arrangements on a horizontal, vertical or diagonal line. Look to see if the position/ orientation of one shape influences another
Key Tip: when there are arrows look to where they are pointing!
Ps- why does this sound like me when I try really hard to whisper? 🤔
🧽 SPONCS- last one!
Fun fact- if I had a pet sea urchin, I’d name him Sponcs 🍥
🤾🏻♀️Don’t jump to conclusions
If you think you’ve found a pattern, check it against a number of shapes in each set. Be aware that there may be secondary rules so don’t move on too quickly.
🕵️ Be suave like Sherlock
Yes, my friends! You can outsmart the UCAT if you know what questions they’re going to ask you already! These are the four types of questions you will be confounded with:
1. Set A, B, or neither
This is the most common type of question- there are around 40 of these! You are shown six shapes in Set A and six in set B, and will have to decide whether a shape fits into Set A, Set B or Neither. You will have five associated questions for this section- you will have to place each set into one of these categories.
2. Complete the Series
You will be presented with a series of four shapes. You must figure out the pattern to then select the next shape in the series out of four possible options.
3. Complete the Statement
You will be presented with three sets of shapes- A, B, C. Specific changes have been applied to one set of the shapes. In these questions, you need to identify the relationship between shape A and shape B, and apply it to shape C, to choose the correct option for shape D that would complete the sequence correctly. You will have to think along the lines of Shape A is to Shape B as Shape C is to Shape D.
4. Set A or Set B?
Although this type of question may seem very similar to the Set A/B/Neither, it doesn’t have a Neither option! You will be given two sets of shapes- A and B. Based on the four options, you will have to choose which one belongs to either of the sets.
💙 Memorise the number of sides of common shapes
To save yourself time, instead of counting the side of each shape, just keep these figures in mind. While you might know some of them, it’s worth having a look at others you might not have thought of. We’d suggest you memorise these numbers:
I Line/ 🔴Circle- 1
💙Heart/ 🍃Leaf/ 🌙Crescent/ ⭕Hollow Circle- 2
🟩Square/ 🇦🇺Rectangle/ 🔶Diamond- 4
*another* fun fact of the day- I loved Mister Maker growing up because I loved it when the shapes said “I am a shape!” So much so, I dressed up as shapes every Halloween. 🧑🏻🎨
Nah, are you kidding! My Gromit costume would’ve rotted in the cellar then! 🐶
📜 You gotta Prime better than Amazon Prime
A less known, however fairly common, pattern type involves shapes with a prime number of sides, or a prime number of shapes/ objects. Note that 0 and 1 are not prime numbers, but two is.
BAH. I like Netflix better. Where else would I watch Squid Game??!
🍰 Shortcake > shortcuts
Indeed, it is. But, sadly, we will have to stick to shortcuts instead (look at the silver lining tho- these’ll help you get to your shortcake reward faster!) You can use these for any section in the UCAT. Memorising these would be quicker than clicking from your mouse.
Alt+P = return to a previous question
Alt+N = move on to the next question
Alt+F = flag a question for later
🔎 Zoom out
No, not zone out- too soon for that I’m afraid, welp! Zoooom out.
Because Abstract Reasoning is so hard on time, many times candidates are frantic in their bid to find the right answer and start getting flustered. In this state, candidates are unable to spot even the most obvious patterns.
If you feel stressed, we suggest closing your eyes and taking a deep breath, and then physically backing yourself from the screen. This will help you look at the question with a fresh perspective; zooming out will help you look at the set of boxes as a whole as part of the bigger picture. This makes it easier to recognize simpler patterns that candidates complicate in the spur of the moment.
On the contrary, you might also want to zoom in for certain questions to look at the finer details, and shift your head left/ right if that helps you focus better too!
🐻 Be the next Bear Grylls
Okay, ngl, that’s a bit extreme. But try to start practicing in a range of different environments with different equipment as well- if you are writing your test at a Pearson Vue test centre, it is likely that candidates who are sitting their driving learner’s exam as well; from personal experience, it tends to get a bit noisy there so I’d suggest practicing a bit in a noisy environment- ex: your kitchen, so you can easily adjust to the situation need it arise.
💛 Old is gold
Also, if you can, try using those old computers you used in third form- yes, the ones with the clunky keyboards! The test centres can have these keyboards and it might be uncomfortable to manage if you haven’t used them in a while- I found it really slowed me down. So, I would suggest you use them to practice if you can- your college, local library might have one!
🇬🇧 Wavin’ Flag
The UCAT has a function where you can ‘flag’ questions for review- this stops you from wasting too much time on a question you find challenging; instead, you can come back to it later if you have time. Of course, whilst, you shouldn’t be guessing the majority of answers, this is a useful tool to move; in such a situation, a guess and a ‘flag’ is better than no answer. For Abstract reasoning, you must stick to your cap of 14 seconds; although, you likely won’t have the time to come back later, you still mustn’t exceed your time limit per question. Guess and move on.