UCAT Abstract Reasoning Overview

Abstract Reasoning is typically the most loved or feared section of the University Clinical Aptitude Test (UCAT). This part tests your ability to identify patterns amongst abstract series of shapes.

You may be surprised that many students falsely believe there is no point in studying for Abstract Reasoning, so you’re already at a huge advantage by reading this blog. The truth is, revising for this subtest can help in two ways. First, it can give you a comprehensive overview of the pattern types you’ll be expected to spot. Second, revising will give your brain plenty of opportunities to develop its pattern-recognition capabilities.


In this blog, I will give you an overview of: 

  • The different question-types you’ll come across in Abstract Reasoning and how to time your efforts on each of them to maximise your score
  • How to prioritise your investigation into the common patterns of a set UKCAT Abstract Reasoning tips to score higher on test day 

First, let me briefly describe the four types of questions you may face, in order of how common they appear. I won’t actually cover how to answers these questions, but if you want the practice and assess your ability, try this Online UCAT Course, in which we provide in-depth explanations about how to tackle each one of these in the UCAT. You can see further details on the UCAT Consortium’s website


Set A, Set B, or Neither

This is by far the most common question-type in the Abstract Reasoning subtest. For these questions, you will be given two sets of six boxes. You will be asked to assess these sets of shapes labelled as A or B. All boxes in each set contain a recurring pattern, e.g., the same number of shapes. The group of shapes in the two sets are often related by a pattern but will never be the same. You will be asked to determine which set the test shape belongs to. Occasionally, the UCAT may try to trick you with a test shape that fits into both sets, in which case the answer is also neither. You will usually get five questions in a row where the test shapes need to be placed in the same sets. 
From my experience, start by spending 30-40 seconds trying to spot the pattern, then five seconds assigning each of the five test shapes belongs to set A or B.

Complete the series

These rely heavily on an understanding of recurring patterns, also known as conveyor-belt cycling. You will be presented with a series of four boxes which demonstrate a recurring pattern of change from left to right. Perhaps a white triangle moves one place clockwise or an arrowhead switches direction. Whatever the recurring pattern, you must select the answer that depicts what the fifth box would be if the pattern continued. I would expect it to take 15-20 seconds to answer these questions.

Complete the statement

For these questions, you will be presented with a statement. Essentially, you're shown a pair of boxes, with an “IS TO” between. Your job is to track each of the changes that have occurred from the left box to the right box. You then have to imagine the same set of changes happening to the box beneath the original two and select the answer that correctly demonstrates that change. 
I would expect it to take you 15-20 seconds to answer these questions.


Set A or B

Unlike the first question-type, these questions are much rarer. You will be presented with two sets of six boxes and four test shapes. The question will ask you to find the box that fits into one of the sets. You are again likely to see five questions in a row relating to each pair of sets. You should start by spending 30-40 seconds to identify the patterns and 5 seconds deciding which test shape fits the set.

We’ve already covered how long to spend on each question-type, but what about the overall picture? You will be given 55 questions to answer in 13 minutes, which is less than 15 seconds per question. 

As the Complete the Series and Complete the Statement question-types will likely take longer than 15 seconds, you will need to make up the time with the Set A, Set B or Neither questions. You should aim to spend a maximum of one minute per round of questions. If you can’t spot the pattern within this time, don’t waste time continuing to search for it! You likely will have noticed something different between the sets, so go with your gut while guessing where the test shapes fit and move on instead of generating hypotheses so complex that you end up spending all your time on one set and losing easy marks. 

At this stage, you are probably wondering where you would begin as you look for the patterns in these Abstract Reasoning questions. Luckily, I have prepared a list ordered by priority to give you some extra help! 

Abstract Reasoning checklist

As you may have noticed, these patterns get harder to spot the further you make your way down the list. You cannot check every one of these properties as there simply isn’t enough time. However, don’t worry! You shouldn’t even try to go through this exhaustive list. Instead, stick to 30-40 seconds and if you haven’t seen the pattern or sequence by then, start guessing. A checklist will never outmatch intuition built up over plenty of practice.

As always with the UCAT, the difficulty will vary wildly. But rest assured, there will be patterns amongst abstract shapes. Sometimes it will be as simple as there always being three shapes in Set A and five in Set B. Other times, it will be as hard as the Star always being above the Circle if the Arrow points up and the Star always being beneath the Circle if the Arrow points down. 

This is when I cannot emphasise enough the importance of cutting your losses and moving on if you cannot spot the patterns. From my experience, students often worry about guessing questions or not completing them fully. My advice is don’t give up, just keep moving. An easier question should be on its way and you have plenty of them to get through. 

To maximise your chance of spotting the patterns, I’ll leave you with one last tip. Within each set, some of the boxes will look much more complicated than others. But all of them contain the same basic pattern. Therefore, it is usually easiest to spot the pattern in the simplest box. Go for that simple box and try to work out the pattern from the set of shapes in that box, i.e. how many shapes, what colour, how many edges etc. Then, test your theory with one of the more complicated boxes; if it holds true, then it’s likely that you’ve found the pattern. 

I hope that you no longer feel as daunted by this cryptic section of the UCAT. Don’t forget that if you have any questions about your UCAT preparation or medical schools in general, you can send us an email at hello@theMSAG.com

Leave a comment

Comments will be approved before showing up.