UKCAT Tip 01: What is the UKCAT? And is it fair?

For 24 of 31 medical schools in the United Kingdom, a prospective medical/dental student will be required to sit the UKCAT, taken during the summer before they apply. The test phase runs from July to October; if you intend to apply then you will submit your application to medical/dental schools by 15th October . There are many different types of courses ranging from the more common undergraduate course, to the highly competitive graduate courses.

The UKCAT is essentially an aptitude computer test designed to pick out very able students from the large pool of applicants that apply to medical school (and dental school) each year. The reason for such an addition to the admissions process is due to the last decade’s marked increase in the number of applicants, and the need to arrive at an equitable solution. Some medical schools (i.e. Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial and UCL) have opted to use the BMAT as a form of assessment, which as well as assessing general ability also requires a GCSE-level scientific knowledge. However, the majority of medical schools have adopted the UKCAT as an admissions test.

We have updated our 50 Top UKCAT Tips for 2014. This list of tips encompasses surface-level nuggets of advice including general preparation, and specific tips on each individual section/subtest: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, abstract reasoning, decision analysis and situational judgement tests.

Controversies surrounding the efficacy of the UKCAT

Numerous studies have been carried out to test the efficacy of the UKCAT, which has shown that the jury is still out on whether the UKCAT can be useful. After time, it is envisioned that more research will shed more light on the effectiveness of the UKCAT. The main problem that the UKCAT sought to mitigate was the underrepresentation of certain socio-economic classes in the UK medical profession. Current research concluded:

… the use of the UKCAT may lead to more equitable provision of offers to those applying to medical school from under-represented sociodemographic groups. This may translate into higher numbers of some, but not all, relatively disadvantaged students entering the UK medical profession.

This study took 8459 applicants details on their qualifications and socioeconomic background. It found that a stronger use of the test score as a threshold was associated with significant increased odds of entrants from a low socio-economic background.

There are still a range of issues that this admissions test has raised, especially in the long-term:

  • Whether there is a prohibitive effect of imposing such a test to begin with (e.g. due to apparent cost)
  • Whether the test effectively assesses the abilities required for entrance into medical school
  • Whether the test predicts medical school and post-graduate performance

A few words of advice: The student who focuses on forgoing the means to meet the ends will benefit the most. What that means is critiquing the validity of the UKCAT to test the suitability for medical school should be reserved for medical education academics. There is simply no time for a prospective student to mull whether the test is fair or not. A pragmatic attitude is advisable. If you want to study medicine at university, then do what is required of you. You can debate the fairness, once you’ve been admitted into medical school.

Widening access to UK medical education for under-represented socioeconomic groups: modelling the impact of the UKCAT in the 2009 cohort BMJ 2012;344:e1805 Paul A Tiffin, Jonathan S Dowell, John C McLachlan.