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UKCAT Abstract Reasoning Overview

By Philip Linnell 

· Admission Tests

Usually the most loved or feared part of the UKCAT, Abstract Reasoning is the fourth, out of the five sections in the test, that you’ll come up against. This section of the UKCAT tests your ability to find patterns amongst abstract shapes.

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

Over the course of this blog, I plan to give you an overview of:

  • The different question-types you will 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.

First, let me briefly describe the four types of questions you may face, in order of how common they are on the test. I won’t actually cover how to answers these questions in this blog post, though feel free to have a go. If, however, you do want to check that you get the right answers, check out our brand new Online UKCAT Course. During our course, we provide videos with in-depth explanations about how to tackle each one of these questions in the UKCAT.

So, the question types are as follows

Set a, Set b, or Set Neither

This is by far the most common question-type, taking up the majority of the questions in Abstract Reasoning subtest. For these questions, you will be given two sets of six boxes. All six boxes in each set contain a recurring pattern, for example, the same number of shapes in each box. The patterns in set A and set B are often related in some way but they will never be the same. You will be shown a test shape and you must decide whether it exclusively fits the pattern in Set A, Set B or neither set. Occasionally, the UKCAT may try to trick you with a test shape will fit 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 Set A and Set B boxes. From my experience, start by spending thirty to forty seconds trying to spot the pattern, then five seconds assigning each of the five test shapes to Set A, Set B or neither.


Complete the Series

These are a little different and rely heavily on an understanding of recurring patterns, also known as conveyer-belt cycling. You will be shown four boxes that, from left to right, demonstrating a recurring pattern of change. Perhaps a white triangle moves one place clockwise with each new box or an arrowhead switches direction in each new box. Whatever the recurring pattern is, you must now select one of the four answer choices that demonstrate what the fifth box would be if the pattern continued. Again, I would expect it to take fifteen to twenty seconds to answer these questions.


Complete the Statement

For these questions, you will be shown a pair of boxes, with an “IS TO” between, at the top of your screen. Your job is to track each of the changes that have occurred to the box on the left to transform it into the box on the right. You then have to imagine the same set of changes occurring to the third box that is beneath the original two. From the four answer choices, you must then select the box that correctly demonstrates all of those changes. I would expect it to take you between fifteen to twenty seconds to answer these questions.


Set a or b

Unlike the Set A, Set B or Neither questions, the Set A or Set B questions are much rarer. You will see 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 – your job is to find that box. As in the first question type, you are likely to see five questions in a row relating to each pair or sets. You should start by spending 30-40 seconds to identify the patterns in set A and B and 5 seconds per question 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 fifty-five questions to answer in thirteen minutes. That’s less than fifteen seconds per question.

As the Complete the Series and Complete the Statement questions will likely take longer than fifteen seconds, you will need to make up the time with the most common question-type – those asking for you to assign a box to Set A, Set B or Neither. You should aim to spend a maximum of one minute per round of five test shapes, relating to the same pair of boxes. As I outlined earlier, this means a maximum of forty seconds to spot the pattern within each set then five seconds per test shape. 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 instinct while guessing where the test shapes fit and move on.

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 between thirty and forty seconds, 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 UKCAT, the difficulty will vary wildly. Sometimes it will be as simple as there always being three shapes in Set A and five shapes 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 one of the patterns. From my experience, students often worry about guessing questions or not completing a question fully. My advice is to not give up, just keep moving (hopefully, not too Dory-esque!). An easier question should be on its way and you have plenty of them to get through.

To maximise your chance of spotting any of 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 i.e. the one with the fewest number of shapes. The pattern must hold in every box, including the simplest-looking one. Go for that simplest box and try to work out the pattern from the 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.

Phew, that’s a lot to take in. So, over this blog post, we have covered the timing and approach to the Abstract Reasoning questions, as well as, the pattern types that may occur. I have summarised my recommendations for the timings in the table below.


Lastly, I hope that you don’t feel as daunted by this cryptic section of the UKCAT. There’s only so much you can learn in theory before you just need to learn through practice. To put this approach in to practice, our new Online Question Bank is coming soon, where you can sign up for access to over 1000 UKCAT questions. If you would like practical information about sitting the UKCAT exam, then click here for their official website. If you would like to speak with a UKCAT expert today send us an email. Good luck with the exam!

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