UKCAT, GAMSAT and all of that

When you first decide to apply to Medical School you have no idea of the trauma that awaits you.

Academia is not enough to apply for medicine (though of course this is required), you also have to jump through the hoop of admissions tests. Unlike other hoops this one is on fire and moves up and down rapidly and is only two centimetres bigger than you are. Signing up to these tests means two things: a whole lot more work to ensure you get a vaguely decent score and having to correct your family when they constantly call it a different random combination of letters.

I took the UKCAT first, the most commonly used entrance exam by 26 different Universities, for both Medicine and Dentistry. Someone had told me before I started revising that it was just like Verbal Reasoning tests and so I hadn’t initially been worried. Admittedly I hadn’t done Verbal Reasoning since my 11+ exam, but I’d been good at it then so surely it would be the same now. I was wrong.

The UKCAT has five parts currently: Verbal Reasoning, which is attempting to draw some sort of conclusion from a passage. Quantitative Reasoning, where you must aim to do maths as fast as possible. Abstract Reasoning, which entails starting at shapes and hoping some sort of pattern emerges. Decision Making, where you work out whether Tony or Alan is the Historian with the red hat, and finally, Situation Judgement, where you choose what you think you should rather than what you probably would do in a morally challenging situation.

The UKCAT website makes tenuous links between the skills this requires and that which a career in Medicine does. It’s not fooling anyone – you can tell me that Doctor’s have to see patterns in things all the time, and I’m not denying they do, but how that relates to the correlation between the number of black shapes and sides on white triangles is really beyond me. It was a long summer, with the pressure of revising for the UKCAT hanging over my head, particularly as Graduate Entry programmes require a much higher score than Undergraduate typically do.

However, the UKCAT was merely an entree for the real challenge – the GAMSAT. I know an Oxford-educated, top of his class Graduate who has taken the GAMSAT six times, and only just received a score high enough to be given an offer. The exam is an intimidating £255 just to enter, and is only offered in four locations around the UK. It consists of three parts – Section 1 concerns Verbal Reasoning, Section 2 is Essay Writing and Section 3 is 170 minutes of Verbal Reasoning in the Sciences. I arrived at the test centre at 8 in the morning, and we were finally freed from its shackles at just after 5pm, slightly brainlessly stumbling from the building, shocked we had made it through.

If revising for the UKCAT was hard, the GAMSAT was a 100 times more so. Having undertaken roughly zero science A Levels, and the purported level of scientific knowledge required being that of the first year of scientific degrees, I knew I was in for a challenge. But sitting down to study Organic Chemistry for the first time made me truly wonder whether I was making the greatest mistake of my life. I honestly couldn’t have told you what organic chemistry was before I took the GAMSAT and yet months later I was taking an exam that contained 20% Organic Chemistry.

The UKCAT is a sprint of an exam, rushing through questions as fast as you can with the hope that some of them are right, and the GAMSAT is a marathon that you have to sprint, time-pressured yet consistently long and intense. Both are probably good for deciding who would make good Doctors, not based on what they test, but purely on the basis of the stamina they require.

As GAMSAT results are released in under a month and I ponder how I think it has gone, I can only reassure myself that I did the best I could. Both exams test your nerve more than anything, and there is little way of indicating the result before you get it. Entrance exams may seem pointless or just another hurdle to be jumped in the never-ending journey to medical school, but when you come out the other side it should hopefully be with a greater feeling of assurance that the choice you have made is the right one.

Though I might not be saying the same once GAMSAT results are out…

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