UKCAT Part 1

examfearswordThe Fear of the Unknown. 

Needless to say, the UKCAT can cause a great deal of anxiety. For some unis it’s their main selective tool after grades (and having taken it twice, I can see why). It is designed to test you in ways that exams cannot. It is difficult to revise for as there is no course content list to refer back to. However there are some useful tools available on the web and books that provide useful tips on how to tackle the different sections.

You have until early October to sit the test for 2017 entry (or deferred 2018) and it’s only valid for the year you apply. You also cannot retake it within the same admissions cycle so need make sure you give it your all the first time!

I will be writing a piece very soon which details how I tackled each section of the UKCAT, however I think it is important to set off on the right foot before beginning the nitty gritty. So, here are my pointers for setting yourself up with the best chance of smashing it.

When to take the test

Now is a good time to sit down and assess when would be the best time for you to take the test so you can organise your time realistically. It’s hard to say how long you should be ‘revising’ but I found about 4 weeks with a couple of hours a day, 5 days a week is a pretty good time scale for most people. The UKCAT website suggests 18-30 hours preparation however I think it normally takes a few hours to get into the swing of things, figuring out what you should actually be spending your time on and understanding what the test is all about first (which is why my suggested preparatory time scale is a little higher). Nevertheless, you need to tailor this to yourself. You should now know how good you are at blocking out distractions and the proportion of time you spend revising actually being productive (this is why I allowed myself 2 hours a day as I knew probably only 1 of those hours would be time well spent).

You also need to consider any exams or events that are coming up. I stupidly book my test for the day after my friends 18th Birthday. Luckily, I managed to change it to a more suitable day through the UKCAT website.

Understandably, the most popular time for people to book the test is in the summer before A2’s. So if you wish to take it at this time make sure you register soon – be aware that your local test centre may be fully booked, this is fine as you can take the test in any of the registered centres, it can just be a bit of an inconvenience.

I personally didn’t want to take the test in summer as I had a lot planned and I didn’t want to jeopardise my chances by not giving my revision the attention it deserved. I took my test late September which actually worked really well for me as I was back in the swing of college work and I had no real A-level revision to do.

When you have a suitable date range in mind, work backwards from that to identify when you should start preparing (about 4 weeks beforehand depending on your preferred revision schedule). By the time you get to this preparation date you should have all the necessary resources organised and have familiarised yourself with the UKCAT website so that you are ready to start. And please, if your calculated preparation date has been and gone – maybe reconsider your test date…

Should I pay for a private course?

The UKCAT content hasn’t changed for years (apart from the confidence rating they brought in last year). It is important to note that companies offering courses are not affiliated with UKCAT and so the only means of reference they have are from past exams. You will find an abundance of organisations that promise to deliver courses that will guarantee you a 900, but in my opinion, if you are someone who will be able to commit to an hour a day for the next month or so, you don’t need to waste your money. Instead, use free resources online – all you need to do is type in “UKCAT practice questions” in google and you’ll be away! Having said that, I haven’t heard many negative experiences from people who did go on the course. If you do decide to go down this route, make sure you do your research! I have seen a few phony companies that offer courses in October – After the test deadline!

As I didn’t use a private company I cannot comment on their success rate, but I do absolutely believe that you do not need to go on a course to get a good result.

The most reliable guidance you will receive will be from the UKCAT website. But, these resources are limited so try not to use them all up in your first weeks.

There are also plenty of UKCAT books on Ebay and Amazon. I bought Get into Medical School – 600 UKCAT Practice Questions which I found in a second hand book shop for a couple of pounds. This had some really useful content. Nevertheless, I cannot stress enough that the UKCAT exam style, structure and timings cannot be simulated using text or even the online practice test you may come across. The undeniably best practice of the test and it’s very strict timings will be from the UKCAT website.

UKCAT Website

This website needs to be the most viewed page on your laptop for the weeks leading up to your test. I cannot stress enough how useful it is. It is designed to help you prepare for the test so for the love of god visit every page it has to offer including the links to check if you are eligible to take the extended version of the test and whether you can sit it for free.

Make this your homepage http://www.ukcat.ac.uk/preparation/10step/ it contains all the links you need on one page allowing for a more efficient use of your time.

Google your test centre

It’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with your nearest test centre. Mine was a 50 minute drive from my house and I wasn’t familiar with the area so I took a drive there the week before. This was purely to put my mind at ease on the day – I knew I would be worrying enough and I certainly didn’t need the added pressure of possibly getting lost.

Understand the different sections

Before your preparation date, spend an evening reading about what you can expect from each section of the test and the timings affiliated with them. The 5 sections are:

  • Verbal Reasoning 22 minutes 44 items
  • Decision Making 32 minutes 29 items
  • Quantitative Reasoning 25 minutes 36 items
  • Abstract Reasoning 14 minutes 55 items
  • Situational Judgement 27 minutes 69 items

In ‘UKCAT part 2’ I will be talking about these sections in some length to give you an idea of how I tackled them.

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Graduate Entry Dentistry

If at first you don’t succeed..

I applied a grand total of THREE times before I was even offered an interview. As heart breaking as each rejection was, it made my subsequent application stronger.

I had no extenuating circumstances; I just didn’t do very well first time round. I had no idea that moving schools to retake year 12 would result in unis refusing to even look at my application. I suppose it seems silly now looking back but I wanted to be a dentist so badly I guess I didn’t even allow myself to think it would be an issue.

Unfortunately, I had the rude awakening at a university fair. I put my hand up in a seminar held by a representative for all dental unis in the UK. He picked me first.

“will my chances of getting into uni lessen because I have retaken my first year of a levels?”

“Don’t even bother applying”

He was looking for the next waving arm in the audience whilst responding disinterestedly to my question.  I left the fair without speaking to another person and cried the whole way home.

Needless to say, I picked myself up and went to university to study Biomedical Science. With my dental career at the forefront of my mind, I graduated with a 1st class degree. However, my application for dentistry was rejected again.

I dusted myself off again and studied my personal statement.  With no other career path interesting me, I decided to spend the next year filling in the gaps in my PS which contributed to the failure of my application. Strangely, when I was writing the application I was blind to the flaws. But looking at it with a fresh perspective allowed me to see how terribly bland it was.

I then reluctantly dove into the world of work. I hated it. Working in places you couldn’t see a future in, watching all your friends starting their exciting careers and getting promoted within weeks of finding their ‘calling’. Then there was me, was washing and labeling hundreds of PET bottles for minimum wage in a lab where no one knew each other’s names. I went for so many interviews for meaningless jobs – including a position to scrub hair and blood off of medical instruments (a degree being necessary requirement for the role).

I was then hit with another bombshell that graduate entry dentistry was being phased out. This was due to new guidance for the number of hours of training a student should complete before graduating, putting pressure on universities to stop their graduate entry programs. After finding a steady job in microbiology lab, I applied a final time and gave the application everything I had.

I studied my bum off for the UKCAT, read as many dental articles and blogs as I could get my hands on and finally managed to translate on paper why I deserve a place.

I suppose my take-home message would be: Don’t give up. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again. And if you still find yourself at a loose end, well… try again.

Let’s Start At The Beginning – The Personal Statement

I could start this blog with which universities are ranked the highest, how they differ in course content and structure or which uni offers the greatest ‘hands on’ experience. But let’s be honest, at this point you don’t care where you go, you just want an offer. Any will do. Just let me in. Please. I will give you all my money for the next 5 years.

You have 4000 characters to stand out amongst the ceaseless storm of people who apply. You are competing with not only your age group but with those who have had a gap year to become model citizens and overseas students who always have an interesting story to tell. And to make it even harder, graduate entry dentistry has pretty much been phased out due to new regulation meaning mature students now compete for undergraduate places. And on top of that, an increasing amount universities are offering access courses which may (or may not) put your unknown, faceless personal statement further to the back of the pile.

Most university pages list what they are looking for in an applicant which is a great starting point, but if everyone is reading the limited resources that unis give, you are at no advantage to begin with.

However, you know you would make a great dental student, so how do you become the ‘diamond in the rough’ when the ‘rough’ are the elite? Here are my pointers to make your personal statement shine.

Number 1. Write a list

I am not an organised person (although I would never divulge this to my university) and I wasn’t about to become organised in the short amount of time I had to write this bad boy. I’m not kidding about the short time either, I left myself 2 weeks before the deadline before I even started thinking about what to write (causing a thunderous stress cloud to forecast over my head and two call-in-sick-days at work *cough cough*).

The first thing I did was write down anything and everything I have done that I could mold into a ‘reason to pick me’ even if you don’t think you will use it, WRITE IT DOWN.

Number 2 Write a better list

No matter how much you hate it, you will always benefit from hearing other people’s opinions’ and now is not the time to show the world how well you ‘take the initiative and work independently’. Take ALL the help you can get.

I roped in my family, friends, boyfriend and even boyfriend’s family for their opinions on how I could take these ‘experiences’ and turn them into ‘reasons to pick me’ (I will use this phrase a lot as this should be the resounding message you should be referring back to for the entirety of the process).

Your list should start to look more like detailed bullet points by now, if not, go back and think harder, think small, think “Well there was that one time I went fishing in Devon”. I honestly cannot emphasise enough how all the small things can be the building blocks for a successful statement.

Number 3. Find the gaps.

The weak spots in your statement should be pretty obvious by now. But that’s okay, as long as you actively look for them before an assessor has the chance to, you’re golden.

Volunteering

Look at your list- have you done enough for the community? You are expected to look like bloody Mother Teresa on paper, so you should have a decent amount of good deeds to talk about. If, when you came to this section, you panicked, don’t worry, I did too. I had helped in a few community projects and a day or two at a food drive, but I didn’t have an example of how I volunteered my time within a caring capacity (I would say this is crucial for your PS). So, I did a much panicked google for any hospitals/hospices/retirement homes that were looking for volunteers. The only opening I came across that I could fit around working full time was a nearby hospital. They didn’t have any vacancies but were interviewing for volunteers to start in a couple of months.

This next part is important.

 I turned my lack of charitable work into a “reason to pick me”; I didn’t just bulk volunteer during my summer holiday. By showing you are committing to future projects (especially if you are able to fit it around your busy schedule) demonstrates a true commitment to care provision. You can then talk about what you hope to gain from the experience. This is not a time for ‘selfless good deeds’. Each voluntary experience you share should have not only why you did it but what you got from it. And even better – why this will make you a better dentist.

Work Experience

I couldn’t write this article and leave out the all-important ‘work experience’. As you are aware, some unis state a minimum amount of shadowing, whilst others are more forgiving. I could only manage to get dentists to agree to one day each after hounding them with email and pretty much just cold calling any dentist in the South West. However, each ‘one day’ they gave, turned into multiple days. I did this by showing my enthusiasm for the profession and discussing my desire to see certain procedures (it helps if you haven’t seen the procedure on the day). No one can say no when you turn on the ‘all I-want-in-life-is-to-be-a-dentist’ charm.

You’ll see this advice everywhere and I’m not about to disagree; don’t just list what you’ve seen. How has it impacted you? What opinions have changed/solidified? What did you learn about NHS vs Private? What do you appreciate about continued professional development? Wait, you need insurance?

Number 4. Get writing

So you have your list and you are starting to think “okay so I have done things with my time other than morph into this studious, lonely loner”. However, how do you take these words and turn them into intelligent sentences that an academic with thousands of papers to wade through will enjoy reading? Well, right click synonyms will become your best friend.

I like starting a piece in the section that I am most excited about. In this case, my hobbies were something I knew I could write with minimal effort. I am by no means mechanically minded but I love old cars. I recently acquired a 1970’s Beetle and so I knew this was going to be a headliner in my PS. I turned my love of buying accessories for him (yes, him, not it) into a ‘reason why you should pick me’. I did this by just showing that I was passionate about something outside of academia. To have something you are passionate about is crucial for a PS, the more obscure the better, even if it’s a new interest that you’ve only just recently involved yourself in. Explain why you enjoy it. Be honest. If you’re not a book worm, don’t say you are. The hobbies section is purely for the assessor to develop a better understanding of who you are, rather then what you have to offer.

Number 5. Why you want to be a dentist

For me, I knew this would be the hardest section so I left it to the end to write. It seems silly that that this was the hardest, but I struggle even now to explain why in words.

This part should be completely personal to you. For me, it stemmed from a memory I have with my Mum – although it actually took me years to realise this. If you’re not sure you could answer this question at an interview, try starting with why you have chosen this path rather than medicine. I personally believe that dentists are involved in a much larger portion of the journey with the patient (others may disagree). Apply for free membership to the GDC E-newsletter, read dental forums, speak to a dental student on TSR. If you do your research you will develop an opinion without realising it. And if you come to the end of your googling and you still don’t have a definitive reason, don’t be afraid to let that be your reason – That there are so many little attributes, it becomes head and shoulder above the rest.

Number 6 My Final Pointers

It may seem like everyone around you has finished their statement and are half way through their UKCAT preparation book but DON’T PANIC. People always look calmer on the outside so don’t let them get into your head.

Don’t be flamboyant in your writing if that’s not how you speak in real life. Obviously I would never write an essay the way I speak, however if you’re not comfortable using the word ‘equanimity’ for Pete’s sake don’t use it. You probably won’t use it correctly anyway and it will stand out like a blistered thumb.

Getting to the interview stage is your biggest hurdle so take your time, let it be personal. If you can avoid it, don’t show your statement to anyone who may be in competition with you for a place. You may think your BFF would never take ideas from you, but let’s be honest, if yours are better they WILL. Likewise, don’t start googling other personal statements. They may be full of promises that they flew into dental school just by writing this masterpiece but trust me admissions tutors can and do google just as much as you. One similar sentence and alarm bells will ring.

Allow yourself to write without any word limits. This will give you the freedom to include everything you want. You can trim off the fat and lose all the terrible sentence structures later.

For the love of God, DO NOT start your personal statement with “Ever since I was a child”.

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