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Demystifying the UMAT

Daniel Bil

The UMAT won't be like any exam you have done before.

That’s because the UMAT, unlike a VCE exam, does not test knowledge. In fact, no prior knowledge or study is assumed on your part. Rather, the questions are designed to test your thinking – your ability to draw conclusions based on nothing but your logic, reasoning, and emotions.

With that said, however, you can take steps to prepare yourself. But ideally, your preparation should be aimed less at rote-learning question types, and more at taking advantage of your brain’s plasticity and training it to think in the way that’s required for you to do well.

UMAT structure.

Let’s start from the start. What is the UMAT?

UMAT stands for Undergraduate Medicine and Health Sciences Admissions Test, and it’s conducted by ACER, the Australian Council for Educational Research. It’s a three-hour, 134 multiple choice question exam that evaluates how you think and how you draw conclusions. It is split into three equal sections, each focusing on a specific type of thinking.

  • Section 1 tests your logical reasoning and problem solving. The questions in this section can probably be best likened to an IQ test. You’ll be doing lots of logic puzzles, interpreting diagrams, reading graphs and so on.
  • Section 2 tests your ability to understand people and emotions. For the most part, you'll reading novel excerpts, snippets of dialogue, and attempting to draw conclusions about what the people in the text are thinking and how they're feeling.
  • Section 3 tests your non-verbal reasoning. This is probably the most infamous section of the UMAT, and will probably be the least like anything you've done before. You'll be shown pictures, shapes and diagrams, and be asked to work out the patterns that you can see by completing a sequence, ordering a sequence of pictures, etc. 

How the UMAT is scored.

For each of the three sections, you will get a score between 0 and 100. This is a bell-curved score, much like a VCE study score – but other than that, not much is known about how ACER derives these scores. All we can say for sure is that higher means better.

Then, the sum of your scores will be calculated, and this overall score will be used to give you a percentile (from 0-100) indicating how your overall score compares to every other student who sat the UMAT that year. A percentile of 42, for example, tells you that your score was higher than 41% of students, while a percentile of 85 means your score was higher than 84% of students.

While the median overall score fluctuates a little from year to year, it always tends to be around 150. While the highest theoretical score is 300, in reality a score over 200 is already exceptional – usually only the top 1% of students score this high.

How to prepare for and tackle each section.

Section 1 (Logical reasoning and problem solving)

  • Logic puzzles. If you’re a fan of brain-teasers and sudoku, you’re already in a good place! There are hundreds of free logic puzzle packs that you can download on your phone and play on the bus, or you can buy puzzle books for cheap at your local bookstore or newsagent.
  • Annotate the question. Section 1 prompts tend to contain lots of extra information. Many students will not only waste time searching for tiny details in repeat passes of the prompt, but they will also miss key information that’s diluted by extra content. Get into the habit of highlighting or underlining key points to make sure you don’t miss those key details.
  • Process of elimination. Many questions follow a standard “it is reasonable to conclude that…” or “which of the following is true?” type format. With these, focusing on each option and determining individually whether they are true is often a great strategy, since it means you can focus on one piece of information at a time without getting distracted by the bigger picture.

Section 2 (Logical reasoning and problem solving)

  • Read! People who do well in this section tend to be people who love reading, because reading makes you to empathise with people and put yourself in their shoes: exactly what this section tests. As a bonus, you’ll naturally learn to read more quickly, which can save you crucial seconds in the exam. If, like me, you’re not much of a reader, ask your closest bookworm friend to recommend you something – there’s no shortage of good books out there!
  • Play scenes out in your head. When I read a Section 2 passage, something I personally found extremely useful was to imagine I was watching the scene being played out on a stage or on TV. What would the characters be doing with their facial expressions? Their body language? How would they intonate? You’ll be surprised how much extra information you can extrapolate this way.

Section 3 (Non-verbal reasoning)

  • Practice. Practice is super important for every section of the UMAT, but is most important for Section 3. Not only is this section likely the most unlike anything you’ve done before (all the more reason to get as much exposure as possible), but doing a large variety of questions is vital to developing a consistent, structured approach that works for you personally.
  • Don’t be disheartened. If this section tends to be the one you struggle with the most, that means it’s also where you can see the biggest improvement in your score. Personally, Section 3 started off as my worst section and ended up being my best on the day. So a good deal of patience and a great deal of persistence will pay off.

A Section 3 example question and worked solution.

Let’s walk through a typical Section 3 ‘pick the middle’ question, and think about how we might want to approach it.

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At first glance, this can look daunting. A good first step would be to identify each element in the series. In this series, we have:
  • A duck
  • A black circle
  • A white circle (but note that it’s hidden behind the black circle in option A)

Let’s look at each element in isolation. That way, we might be able to see some clearer patterns.

Looking at the black circle only, we can see that it’s only ever in two positions: the top right corner in options B, C and E, and the bottom left corner in options A and D. The simplest, easiest, and most logical conclusion would be that it’s alternating between the two positions.

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With pick the middle questions, it’s good practice to always start by assuming the simplest possible pattern, unless you have a reason to believe it’s something else.

This tells us that options A and D take up positions 2 and 4. This is a good start! But to work out the rest of the sequence, we need to look at the other elements too.

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Because the white circle occupies ever corner of the square at least once, the simplest, most logical conclusion would be that it’s rotating around the square, one corner at a time. Even better, this would line up with our pattern for the black circle, because options A and D would take positions 2 and 4. That gives us this sequence.

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Note that although this sequence can be reversed, the pattern will still be equally logical and the middle option will be the same, so we don’t really need to consider the reverse.

The only ambiguity now is which of options C and E should go at the start and which should go at the end, but since B is the middle option regardless, we can comfortably say that’s the correct answer for this question. But for the sake of completeness, let’s work out what the pattern for the final element is, so we can be absolutely 100% sure of our answer.

We can apply the sequence we’ve already worked out to the duck and see if we can see any pattern.

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There is a pattern in the first sequence (starting with C), but unlike the black and white circles, the duck isn’t moving a regular amount with each step. It first rotates 45°, then 90°, then 135°, then 180°. With each step, it rotates 45° further than the last.

So now we can be 100%, beyond-a-shadow-of-a-doubt sure that our sequence is CABDE, and our answer to the question is B.

If that seemed quite difficult and time-consuming, don’t worry. With a bit of practice, you’ll start to see the common patterns that arise in these questions, and you’ll be able to tackle them much more efficiently.

Some final preparation tips.

  1. Practice, practice, practice. While it's not possible to learn how to answer every possible question, it is possible to get a feel for typical question structures that are likely to pop up. Having a wealth of exposure to different questions mean you can get a sense of how to approach it in a way that makes sense to you. There are lots of freebie practice papers and questions available online with a quick Google search!
  2. Time yourself. With 134 questions to answer in 180 minutes spread, the UMAT requires you to work hard and fast for three hours straight. To attune yourself to this, you'll want to have sat at least a few UMATs under timed, exam conditions.
  3. Don’t put it on the backburner. It can be extremely tempting to put off your UMAT practice when you're snowed under with SACs and homework that are much more immediate. Don't do it. Since the name of the game is how you think and not what you know, it's not possible to cram the UMAT like it might be for any other SAC or exam.

In summary.

To succeed in the UMAT, You’ll need to put in consistent, long-term practice if you want to do well. But if you are aiming to study medicine, all that practice will be 100% worth the time you put into it. Don't forget that your UMAT score makes up one third of your medical admission – that's as much as all your VCE SACs and exams combined.

With a solid work ethic, patience, and a healthy dose of persistence, anyone has the potential to ace the UMAT. And if you have all those qualities, you’ll probably make a great doctor too.

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