UCAT: Verbal Reasoning

Verbal reasoning is the first of the five sections in the UCAT. Whether you’re struggling with where to start, or just looking for some last minute tips and tricks, this guide will detail the ins and outs of verbal reasoning and hopefully support you with your UCAT preparation. 

What is verbal reasoning?

The verbal reasoning section is a measure of your ability to read information and draw conclusions. Essentially, it tests reading comprehension. With this, it also assesses your logic and rational thinking.

It consists of 11 passages of text, each with 4 questions. This makes 44 verbal reasoning questions overall. You only have 21 minutes to complete this section, which leaves around 30 seconds for each question (28.6 seconds to be exact!). This means that the main challenge with verbal reasoning is the time pressure. 

The fast pace causes many candidates to find verbal reasoning challenging. In fact, it is often the lowest scoring section of the five. Don’t be disheartened if you’re struggling…you’re certainly not the only one.

Question types

There are two types of questions within the verbal reasoning section. These are the ‘true, false or can’t tell’ questions and the ‘free text’ questions. 

The ‘true, false or can’t tell’ questions are rather self-explanatory. The question will include a statement about the passage of text, and you will need to decide whether the statement is definitely true, whether the statement is definitely false, or whether there is insufficient evidence in the passage to prove the statement either way, in which case the answer would be ‘can’t tell’. ‘True’ answers directly follow on from the information in the passage, and ‘false’ answers directly contradict information in the passage. If you cannot be certain, the answer is ‘can’t tell’.

The ‘free text’ questions each have four answer options, but only one answer is true based on the information in the passage. Your task is to select the appropriate answer. These types of questions are typically a lot more time-consuming, because narrowing down the four potential answers often requires you to use the whole text, whereas the ‘true, false or can’t tell’ questions only ask you to focus on one statement. 

How to approach verbal reasoning 

There is no golden rule for how to tackle verbal reasoning. A technique that works for one person is not guaranteed to work for the next. For example, some people may read fast enough to be able to read the whole passage thoroughly, but this would be impossible for others. The most important thing is to develop your own approach. 

One of the main dilemmas is whether to read the passage or the question first. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to both. 

Reading the passage first provides context to the questions. Questions may be easier to understand and answer when you already have a general overview of the concepts in the text. Furthermore, by reading the whole passage, you will automatically make a mental note of the topics covered in each paragraph, which may be useful when finding the appropriate information for each question later on. 

However, most people tend to start by reading the question. By doing this, you can pick out the question’s keywords. Useful keywords include numbers (e.g. dates, years, ages) and words with capital letters (e.g. names, places, countries), as these are both relatively easy to identify within the passage. With this, you can then skim the passage and specifically focus on the areas which contain the keyword from the question. This approach definitely saves valuable time. However, it does introduce the risk of not understanding the text as a whole, and subsequently missing crucial information from elsewhere in the passage.

Common things which catch people out  

The examiners know that the majority of candidates will not be able to read the entire passage in the allotted time. Therefore, they try to throw in tricks to trip you up. By going through these ploys now, you will hopefully be able to see right through them in the exam. 

One of these tricks is known as dispersion. This is where a keyword is mentioned early in the passage, causing you to fall into the trap of focusing so much on this area of the text that you miss the keyword being mentioned again at the end of the text, where it usually contradicts the original answer. Therefore, make sure to scan the entire passage for the scattering of the keywords. 

In a similar way, the sentences surrounding the sentence containing the keyword may completely change the context of the keyword. This is a trick called juxtaposition. To avoid this, ensure that you read the few sentences before and after the keyword as well.

Examiners may also try to test your comprehension by using different words with homogeneous meanings. Therefore, it is important to try and think of any synonyms to the keywords and look for these in the passage as well. 

The tricky use of definitive words and mitigating words often catches candidates out. Definitive words imply that something is definitely the case (e.g. ‘always’, ‘impossible’ or ‘never’), whereas mitigating words imply that something may be the case (e.g. ‘might’, ‘could’ or ‘possibly’). They are not interchangeable. For example, in a ‘true, false or can’t tell’ question, an extreme statement containing definitive words is rarely ‘true’, as mitigating words are typically used in the passage instead. Be sceptical. 

The final trick involves testing your prior knowledge, but not in the way that you might expect from an exam. In fact, it is quite the opposite. In the verbal reasoning section, you should forget all background knowledge and focus solely on the information given in the passage. For example, in a ‘true, false or can’t tell’ question asking you if the colour of the sky is blue, don’t be tempted to put ‘true’ just because you know that this is correct in real life. The passage may state that the sky is green, in which case the answer would be ‘false’, or it may not mention the colour of the sky at all, in which case the answer would be ‘can’t tell’. Just remember, if the passage says that pigs can fly, then pigs can fly.

Top tips 

  1. Take a minute to prepare. Verbal reasoning is intense. However, with it being the first section of the exam, you can take as much time as you need before you click the start button. Make sure you feel calm, collected and ready to perform. Take a deep breath and don’t rush into it. 
  1. Prioritise getting through the section. As previously mentioned, the timings in verbal reasoning are tough. If one question is rapidly approaching that 30 second limit, just take an educated guess, flag the question and press ‘next’. Try to recognise time-consuming questions with lengthy passages, complicated language or difficult-to-find keywords. Since every question is worth one mark, move on. It is better to get 75% of all 44 questions correct than 100% of only 10 questions correct. 
  1. Go with your gut. If you are feeling sure of an answer, mark it and move on. Try not to second guess yourself. For one, you unfortunately don’t have the time to double check all of your answers, but also, you should also have confidence in your abilities. You are great!
  1. Practice, practice, practice. Practice makes perfect. When getting comfortable with the verbal reasoning question types, initially start practising without any time pressures. As you start to feel more confident in your approach, perhaps add a time limit. It doesn’t have to be 30 seconds per question straight away, but just something to increase the intensity of your practice. Repetition is key. Revising for the verbal reasoning is like playing a video game. When you first play, you are lost, confused and unsure how you will ever improve. However, with practice, you begin to find it much, much easier. Practising verbal reasoning isn’t quite as enjoyable as playing a video game though!

Useful resources

⭐ 🔗 UCAT Practice Questions: The official UCAT practice questions are free and available to all. You can access questions covering all five sections of the UCAT and it has features such as ‘explain answer’ so that you can review the questions that you got wrong and learn from your mistakes. 

⭐ 🔗 PassMedicine: PassMed has over 3,000 free UCAT practice questions and it’s a very popular resource. It’s free for 6 months and has demo papers available before you subscribe.

⭐ 🔗 Medify Demo: Medify offers a free practice paper for UCAT, but after that, their resources are paid for. You DO NOT need to pay for resources to do well in UCAT.

Various YouTube Videos: The following videos are all about verbal reasoning, by people who have done the UCAT exam before. Remember that one student’s experience is just that – so it may not reflect yours – but they may have some useful tips to help you through the process.

Written by Alice Walker
Hi, I’m Alice, a fourth year medical student at the Hull York Medical School. I have been part of the Widening Access to Medicine Society this year, and I have really enjoyed my role in helping a wide variety of students with their applications for medical school. I spend my free time playing hockey and hanging out with my friends. I think it is so important to have a life outside of medicine and to continue doing the things that you enjoy. Not only will it help to prevent burn out, but it will make you a much more well-rounded doctor in the future!