Improve Your Exam Score with UKCAT Abstract Reasoning Tips

Abstract Reasoning is probably one of the hardest parts of the UKCAT to prepare for. However, with these top UKCAT abstract reasoning tips, we hope to lessen the panic and stress when facing these types of questions.

Because most of the questions involved in this section of the UKCAT involves deciphering the patterns of shapes, most students find it hard to practice for. There’s a myth that often goes around with this type of question – either you are good it at or you’re not. However, this is wrong!

Like anything, everyone can prepare and develop their abstract reasoning skills. You just need to know what to look for.

Read below our ukcat abstract reasoning tips to guide you in the right direction. These tips are taken from The Ultimate UKCAT Guide: 1200 Practice Questions as well as personal advice from our expert tutors. There’s no one better to learn from.


Pass the Exam with These UKCAT Abstract Reasoning Tips:

Manage Your Time

For each section of the ukcat, applicants are allocated a certain amount of time to answer a set of questions. These ukcat abstract reasoning tips could then be applied to all stages of the UKCAT. With abstract reasoning, you need to keep track of how long you are spending on each question. As a general ruling, we advise that you spend 78 seconds for each block of five questions – that’s 15 seconds per questions. While it might not seem like a lot, it’s plenty of time once you understand the format.

Also, give yourself plenty of time to systematically work out the rules. We recommend one minute to work out the rule and the remaining seconds (up to 23 seconds) to decide which set of options fits into that ruling. Once you catch on to the rules, answering the questions will be quick!

Recognise the Pattern

By far the most important ability in the abstract reasoning section is to correctly identify patterns. Of course, there will be some people who are naturally better at this than others, however, with enough practice and brain training, everyone will be able to achieve good scores for this section. It’s understandable that people work differently. You might be the sort of person who sees these patterns easily and can quickly put a name to the rule. Or, you might be the sort of person who finds it takes them more time and effort to work out what’s going on.

In reality, everyone lies on a sliding scale, but one thing is certain: anyone can improve their speed and accuracy on this section.  The secret is to have a methodical system that can be repeated and applied to each different set of shapes.  This provides a logical structure for working through each set of images, looking for different components of a possible pattern.

Memorise the NSPCC Pattern Recognition Strategy

To improve speed and accuracy, having a methodical strategy is a must! One such strategy is the NSPCC (and no, this is not based on the charity of the same name). Using the NSPCC will systematically narrow down the type of pattern you are looking for. It looks at different components within the objects to logically work out the pattern. The acronym stands for:


Let’s look at them in more detail:

  • Number: this is about counting as many things as possible. How many dots? Does the number of objects increase as the pattern goes along and how by how much? Key tip: block arrows have 7 sides, so don’t count them all individually each time!
  • Size: Is one shape bigger than the other? Is there always a big shape in the centre or corner? Are there smaller shapes inside the larger ones?
  • Position: look at where the shapes are positioned. E.g. you might find a square is always in the top right corner. Also look at touching and overlapping shapes and see if this continues throughout the sequence.
  • Colour: the shading of shapes can also be a pattern. However, it’s only occasionally that the primary pattern is centred on this. Key Tip: look for shapes that are always shaded or even those which are never shaded.
  • Conformation: as these are usually found in more complex patterns sometimes these can be harder to spot. It describes the pattern by which the shapes are arranged within the box. Look for patterns of arrangements on a horizontal, vertical or diagonal line. Look also for the influence of one shape on another. Key Tip: when there are arrows look to where they are pointing!

Gain Perspective

Sometimes it might be just about looking at the question from a different perspective. A little tip of ours is that sometimes, patterns are easy to spot when further away from the screen! Others might be more noticeable the closer you look at the shapes. Taking the NSPCC strategy into account, look at all areas from the number to the shading to get a better idea of what you’re looking out for.

Sometimes it’s a Guessing Game

Whilst you shouldn’t be guessing for every single question, there may be those that come up that you just can’t figure out the pattern or the answer. When you’ve exhausted all options and tried your very best, sometimes the last resort is to make an educated guess. But guessing can sometimes work in your favour anyway.

In the ukcat there are no negative points for a wrong answer. Therefore, you’re better off making a guess than not answering at all. There are actually quite good odds for those who do make a guess…

Since there are only three or four options per question there is a 25-33% chance of guessing correctly. Even if all 5 questions in a set are guesses, then there is still an 87% chance of gaining at least one mark.

However, DON’T use this as an excuse to guess every single question. Guessing should always be used as a last resort! Try answering the questions using the strategies given in our ukcat abstract reasoning practice to deduce the answer. Humans do have an innate instinct for pattern recognition so unless you come from another planet you have it too! Our advice from this is to go with your gut! Learning to harness this power of instinctively knowing what feels right and what doesn’t will come in useful in the test.

Early Brain Training

No one can become an expert overnight. The best way to achieve the best results in your ukcat abstract reasoning is to start your preparations early. We recommend applicants to start preparing for the ukcat as early as possible. As soon as you know you need to take the ukcat, it’s best to start looking into the types of questions. Practicing the subsections of the test every now and then in the months leading up to the test will improve your knowledge and time-keeping strategies ahead of time. As you get closer to the date, increase the time you spend dedicated to learning the test.

Practice Makes Perfect

Lastly, while it’s an obvious test strategy, practice is one of the biggest ukcat abstract reasoning tips that we feel needs to be mentioned. Practice is highly important for this section. For many students, it’s one of the sections that they find the style of questions the most unfamiliar. There are three key advantages to practicing for the ukcat Abstract Reasoning:

  1. You get used to the types of patterns. Therefore, you’ll be more likely to spot them in the real test. It also trains your implicit recognition system. To put it simply, you’ll be more likely to take an educated guess and get it right!
  2. It gives you practice implementing a pattern recognition system (e.g. NSPCC) and with practice you will become more confident in using them.
  3. You will get an idea of time and how long it takes to answer a question. As a result, you will be able to manage your time better.

Our last UKCAT abstract reasoning tips…

Finally, our last ukcat abstract reasoning tips would be to learn at a pace that suits your needs. If there is anything we’ve learnt from the abstract reasoning section is that some people are naturally better at it than others. Don’t worry if you’re not one of those people. If you need to take more time to get to grips with the strategies and the tips provided above, then so be it. Everyone can score highly in this section of the test with good practice. Why not take a look at the UKCAT abstract reasoning practice page for more information and example questions. Test yourself there first and if you need more help, book yourself onto a UKCAT test tuition course or order our practice papers volume 1 and 2 to expose yourself to as many examples as possible.