Study Guide to Improving Your UMAT Score
There’s so much information on the UMAT out there.
You could literally write books on it.
The problem is, there’s so much conflicting information. No one seems to be able to agree on how seriously you should take it, how to approach it, or even what it is!
That’s because the UMAT is unlike any other test. It’s not based on knowledge nor a curriculum.
Instead, it focuses on the general skills and abilities that you have developed over the course of your life.
So, how important is it, really? (Very.) Do you need to study for it? (Yes.) Can you even study for it? (Yes, and you must!)
This blog sets the record straight.
About the UMAT
For Aussie and Kiwi students, the long road to becoming a doctor starts with the UMAT.
Taking place in July each year, the Undergraduate Medicine (and Health Sciences) Admission Test is a three-hour standardised test used to assess students who want to study medicine, dentistry, and some health science courses, at an undergraduate level.
Set by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) on behalf of participating universities, it’s used to determine whether you are suited to a career in the medical field.
By "suited", I mean unis are looking for people who aren’t just brainiacs, but who can think logically and are capable of relating to people.
In Australia, you take the UMAT in your final year of high school (year 12).
In New Zealand, you take the UMAT in your first year of university. That’s because NZ students have to complete a year of undergraduate study in Health Science or Biomedical Science to be eligible to apply to medical school.
A UMAT score is required for undergraduate admission to the following courses:
The University of Adelaide: Medicine, Dental Surgery
Charles Darwin University: Clinical Sciences
Charles Sturt University: Dental Science
Curtin University: Medicine
Flinders University: Clinical Sciences/Medicine
La Trobe University: Health Sciences in Dentistry, Oral Health Science
Monash University: Medicine
The University of Newcastle/University of New England: Joint Medical Program
The University of New South Wales: Medicine
The University of Queensland: Medicine, Dental Science
University of Tasmania: Medicine
The University of Western Australia: Medicine, Dental Medicine
Western Sydney University: Bachelor of Medicine / Bachelor of Surgery
New Zealand universities
The University of Auckland: Bachelor of Medicine / Bachelor of Surgery
University of Otago: Medicine
Note that there are other universities that only offer medicine as a graduate course, such as University of Sydney and University of Melbourne. For these unis, you are required to sit a different test to be eligible for entry; the GAMSAT (Graduate Australian Medical School Admissions Test).
Preparing for the UMAT
The UMAT can be intimidating, particularly if you’re very academic.
The content is not taught in the classroom, and you can’t rely on your trusted memorisation and rote learning techniques.
You’re not alone if you think that you can’t study for the UMAT, and that there’s no way of improving your score.
It’s an aptitude test, right? You’ve either got it, or you don’t.
Yes, it’s true that the UMAT does not test academic knowledge and does not require special understanding of any academic discipline. But labelling it as an aptitude test isn’t exactly right, either. More than anything, the UMAT tests logic.
And while they can be advantageous, any innate skills you have will not be enough to ace the UMAT.
That’s because practice is far more important than natural ability.
When it comes to the topic of how to prepare for the UMAT, it gets a bit blurry.
Many students are told that doing practice questions and past papers is the way to go, but this will only get you so far.
To do well in the UMAT, you first need to understand what is being tested and how to approach the various types of questions. Without this, you will still be able to improve with practice, but you won’t get any more efficient.
To prepare effectively, you must learn the most logical pathways to answer UMAT questions.
This is absolutely crucial. Most students don’t realise just how significant the time factor is in the UMAT.
Note that time is your biggest enemy. Even the most prepared students don’t finish.
There are 134 questions in the exam and 180 minutes in which to do them, leaving just over one minute for each question.
This makes it even more critical that you learn frameworks to solve questions quickly and accurately.
First, identify the areas you need most help with, and which question types you find challenging. Then, spend time refining your strategies for approaching such questions.
Once you do this, you can go crazy on the past papers.
Repetition is the best way to get better at the UMAT, but only after you have worked out how to complete each section in the most efficient way possible.
So don’t just study; study smart!
Let’s look at what this means in practice.
Section by Section: Breaking Down the Exam
The UMAT consists of three sections. Each one tests a different set of skills and therefore requires a different method of preparation.
As you know, a big part of doing well is being able to work under strict time pressure.
Section 1: Logical Reasoning and Problem Solving
48 questions in 70 minutes (one minute, 45 seconds per question)
Skills you need: Critical thinking, problem solving, efficient reading
This is the hardest part of the exam, because these questions take the longest, and there are more here than in any other section.
You are required to read and analyse a lot of information in the form of words, diagrams, graphs and tables, all of which contain vital pieces of information that you can't afford to misread or misinterpret. As such, your success in this section banks on your ability to absorb a huge amount of detail the first time.
This ability is what separates successful candidates from unsuccessful candidates.
It’s the difference between completing 48 questions in 70 minutes and 38 questions in 70 minutes. The more you re-read the stimulus, the less time you have for other questions.
The best way to prepare is by practising careful yet efficient reading. Train yourself to read quickly, but also to focus and retain information.
Section 2: Understanding People
44 questions in 55 minutes (one minute, 25 seconds per question)
Skills you need: Empathy, people skills, logical reasoning
This section assesses your ability to understand and reason with people.
You know how they talk about doctors having a good bedside manner? This is where they try to gauge that from you.
Questions are based on a scenario, dialogue or other fiction text that represents an interpersonal situation, and you need to be able to identify, understand, and infer the thoughts, feelings, behaviour, and intentions of the people represented in the situations.
They want to elicit your true, natural response, and in such a limited timeframe, there’s no time to try to fake it.
You need to answer instinctively, which means having the ability to recognise peoples’ emotions.
If you’re a naturally empathetic person and you pick up on emotional cues, this will come easily for you.
If not, you’ve got some work to do!
The questions will assess your ability to identify, understand, and infer the thoughts, feelings, behaviour, and intentions of the people represented in the situations.
The "life skills" required for Section 2 can’t be picked up instantly, but they can be developed.
Start by paying attention to your own emotions and analysing your reactions to certain situations.
You’ll need to have a good grasp on emotional adjectives, too, to be able to define and describe your emotions.
Then, once you can identify your feelings and take responsibility for them, you’ll better understand the behaviour of others, and the motives behind their actions.
If all this emotional talk is foreign to you, this might sound a bit ridiculous, but try to look past that.
Universities are looking for people who are not just academic but also "fit for medicine", and being able to understand people is a big part of that.
In Section 2 your best asset is a broad vocabulary.
The UMAT is going to throw words at you – and a lot of those words you won’t have come across in everyday life.
Obviously, it’s hard to find the time to read when you’re at the tail end of high school, but it’s the best way to prepare, so keep a book in hand.
Reading is also great way to wind down, so think of it as a study break – even though you’re still kind of studying! Win-win.
Not only that, but a lot of the excerpts they include in Section 2 come from popular fiction novels, so you’re likely to recognise a couple if you’re well read.
Books that have been used in recent exams include Black Dogs by Ian McKewan, and Luther: The Calling by Neil Cross.
Typically there are three to four questions dedicated to the one excerpt, so it pays to know your literature.
Like Section 1, this section is about being able to understand and analyse a stimulus under serious time pressure, so if you come across something you’ve read before, this will save on reading and comprehension time.
Section 3: Non-Verbal Reasoning
42 questions in 50 minutes (one minute, 15 seconds per question)
Skills you need: Abstract reasoning, problem solving
This is the most intimidating section, but you’ll be happy to know it’s the easiest to learn.
Questions are based on series and sequences involving shapes. You need to identify the pattern and apply it to answer.
There are only so many possible patterns, though, so eventually there’s going to be some repetition. Because of that, the most effective way to prepare for this section is by working through examples.
After enough practice runs you’ll start to see the same patterns pop up. Once you’ve got the hang of this, your focus needs to switch to shaving off the time it takes you to answer.
Decoding UMAT Results
Released in September, your UMAT results will consist of five scores – an overall score, a score for each section, and a percentile.
Your overall raw score is the unweighted sum of your three section scores.
Your section scores are not the actual number of questions you got right in each part, but are a scaled percentage of each section’s raw scores. For example, if you got 42 questions right out of 44 in Section 2, your section score won't be 42. Instead, it will be scaled out of 50.
Your raw scores are… a mystery. You’ll never find out your actual marks for each section, and it’s not possible to reverse calculate them since ACER doesn’t release its process.
Your percentile rank shows how you performed against the other students who sat the UMAT. It works the same as the ATAR system, so if you obtain a percentile rank of 80, this means you performed better than 80% of students, and 20% of students performed better than you.
You want to be aiming for at least the upper end of the 80th percentile or an overall score of 180 to have a good chance of getting into medicine, but this will depend on the university to which you are applying.
The Importance of Your UMAT Score
Many students underestimate the huge role the UMAT plays in selection for entry into undergraduate medicine courses.
Generally speaking, the UMAT counts for one third of your admissions criteria into med school.
However, as an aspiring med student, you need to understand that where you plan on going to university vastly changes how you should approach the test and preparation.
In Australia, the general rule for admissions is an equally weighted system of the UMAT, ATAR and interview (i.e. 33.33% each), but this doesn’t always apply.
Even where it does, sometimes there’s some room to move. At UNSW, for example, the higher your ATAR, the lower they allow your UMAT score to be. Mind you, we’re talking UMATs in the mid 80s and ATARs in the 99s.
UNSW has one of the highest ranked medicine courses around, so you need to have a pretty exceptional UMAT score to offset a slightly imperfect ATAR, and vice versa.
How’s this for important: some unis only look at your UMAT score when considering you for entry. University of Queensland and University of Tasmania base their admissions offers entirely on UMAT results.
At other unis, the UMAT is not quite as high on the priority list.
The University of Adelaide’s UMAT/ATAR/interview ratio is 20:40:40, and at Monash University it’s 25:25:50. This means that if your UMAT is not quite up to par, you still have a chance of getting in if your ATAR is high enough and you ace the interview.
But! That’s only if you qualify for an interview.
How do you qualify? With a good UMAT score of course!
Despite the lower weighting, getting a good UMAT score is just as important in these scenarios, because your exam results are screened first before they consider you for an interview.
There’s just no escaping this UMAT thing!
Many universities even weight sections of the UMAT differently. The ‘50/50/50 rule’ is the standard at many Australian universities offering undergraduate medicine, including UNSW, Monash, Queensland, and Newcastle/New England.
This means that in order for you to be in with a chance at one of these unis, you need to get a raw score of 50 for each section (which is estimated to be about 25 correct answers).
However, others like Bond University and Adelaide University focus on the overall score. As long as your total reaches their threshold, it won’t matter if you have a score in the 40s for one section.
As you can see, it’s important to think about where you want to study medicine before you start preparing for the UMAT.
I’ve given you a good overview, but make sure you look at each university’s respective website for information on whether they require your overall score, section scores, or percentile rank.
The weighting system differs slightly at med schools in New Zealand. Whether you are considered for entry will come down to your academic performance in your first year of uni and your UMAT result.
At The University of Auckland, the UMAT/GPA/interview ratio is 15:60:25.
Many students see the 15% weighting and think that this means the UMAT isn’t that important. However, applicants are first ranked according to their GPA and UMAT scores before they are invited to the interview stage.
As such, your UMAT score is a key determining factor in whether you make it to the next round.
Before you can qualify for entry at University of Otago, they look at your UMAT and first year uni GPA at a weighting of 33% and 67% respectively.
Yep, no interviews at Otago, but the UMAT is weighted more than doubly as high as it is at Auckland!
But don’t think that the high GPA weighting means amazing uni grades will make up for any shortcomings in your UMAT result.
Before admissions officers even give a thought to your application, you must meet the UMAT threshold. Then, and only then, ranking is based on GPA alone.
Both NZ universities weight the UMAT by section; Section 1 is worth 45%, Section 2 is worth 45%, and Section 3 is worth 10%.
Clearly, they are more interested in how you perform in Sections 1 and 2, and not much consideration is given to Section 3. Regardless of your overall score, if you do really well in Section 3, but perform badly in Sections 1 and 2, you most likely won’t be considered for entry.
So, Kiwi students, make sure you dedicate most of your prep time to Sections 1 and 2 to ensure you get good marks where it counts.
Why the UMAT Matters
Bear in mind that med school admissions are extremely competitive.
Meeting the university’s entry requirements – whatever they may be – means your application can progress, not necessarily that it will.
Put it this way. You may technically meet the admissions criteria, but if it’s between you and another student who matches you in the ATAR/GPA ranks but has a better UMAT score, you’re the one who will be worse off.
Good enough does not necessarily mean good enough.
You need to understand that these criteria are the minimum entry requirements.
It’s also important to know that, while universities release the weightings, they don’t release the actual cut-off marks. So while you may know how much importance is placed on each component, you have no way of knowing the exact combination of scores that will get you over the line.
The top med schools receive hundreds more applications for their courses than there are places to offer. How can you stand out?
By acing your UMAT!
So many students underperform on the UMAT because they don’t know how to approach it. But you do! And this could be your point of differentiation.
That’s why you need to do everything you can to ensure you perform your absolute best on the UMAT.
Tutoring is a great idea, because the skills and strategies you need to do well can be taught. If you can, find a current med student to mentor you in the lead up to the UMAT.
So You Did Badly in the UMAT…
Okay, so you found this advice a little late, you’ve taken the UMAT, and the results were not, well… great.
Your life isn’t over. You can still become a doctor.
Go ahead, have a cry. But whatever you do, don’t give up the dream!
You have plenty of options. Well, there are at least three.
1. Re-sit the UMAT
You can take the UMAT as many times as you like without being penalised as long as you are eligible each time.
Only problem is, you have to wait a whole year.
If you have a fairly solid ATAR and the UMAT was the only thing that let your application down, then it’s definitely worth the wait.
Take a gap year. Work, travel, and enjoy having the ability to prepare without the added stress of final exams (Australia) or first year uni (NZ).
It’ll take longer, but an extra year isn’t so bad in the scheme of things considering you’re going to be spending a good portion of your life studying.
If you’re sure that medicine is your path and you’re determined to be a doctor, then that’s where you’ll end up, if it’s the last thing you do!
Come back refreshed and take the UMAT with experience and maturity on your side.
See… bombing out on the UMAT doesn’t seem like the worst thing in the world now, does it?
2. Apply to a different uni
Not every uni requires the UMAT for entry.
Griffith University and James Cook University (JCU) are two undergraduate medical degrees that do not consider the UMAT in their admissions process.
As long as you get a 99.60 ATAR, you’re guaranteed a place at Griffith University. At JCU, your ATAR and application form will determine whether you qualify for an interview.
3. Study medicine as a postgrad
If you don’t get in as an undergraduate, there are other avenues to explore in the postgraduate medicine field.
You certainly won’t be alone in this endeavour. This is a very common pathway.
Channel your energy into an undergrad science degree and wait for your chance to try for graduate entry into medicine.
Some unis only offer graduate medicine courses, such as University of Sydney and University of Melbourne, so if either of these is your dream uni, then this might be an appealing pathway for you.
The only difference is that you won’t take the UMAT at this level. Rather, you’ll need to sit the UMAT’s big brother, the GAMSAT, which is a pretty gruelling six-hour affair.
If you really struggled with the UMAT, you’ll be happy to know that the GAMSAT is more knowledge-based than logic-based. Students who didn’t perform so well on the UMAT tend to do much better on the GAMSAT.
Then again, maybe that’s just a result of being older and wiser!
Choosing Between Australia and NZ
Taking the UMAT makes you eligible for med school in both Australia and New Zealand, so don’t discount studying abroad as an option!
Let’s look at how this works each way.
NZ to AU
Crowded House, Lorde, Russell Crowe, the pavlova…
Let’s face it, the Aussies are pretty good at laying claim to famous New Zealand-grown talent. Why not your super talented med students too?
Australia is a very attractive option for Kiwi students looking to study medicine.
There’s much more choice, which means more chances of getting into med school.
The good news is that ATAR conversion is very favourable for NZ students, so you’d be gaining some ground in the marks department.
However, this option isn’t as popular anymore since the Australian government went and threw a big spanner in the works.
NZ citizens are no longer eligible for student loans in Australia.
All those years of ANZAC camaraderie and this is how they repay you!
Unfortunately this means if you want to study med in Australia you have to pay international fees, and they don’t come cheap!
You’d be looking at paying anywhere from $35,000 to $60,000 AUD per year of study.
So unless you (or mum and dad) are able to front up the course fees and all your living expenses for five plus years, the Aussie dream will be out of reach.
If it is an option for you, keep in mind that you’ll have to take the UMAT earlier – in year 13 as opposed to in your first year or uni.
This means you’ll be doing it the Aussie way – balancing UMAT preparation with your NCEA – so those extra ATAR points might be a much-needed boost!
AU to NZ
What about the other way around?
The University of Auckland and University of Otago are pretty up there in the Australian and New Zealand medical school rankings, coming in at sixth and seventh respectively, ahead of some big names such as Sydney, Melbourne and Monash.
Remember, though, that in New Zealand you can’t apply to medicine straight out of school. This makes it a less attractive option for Aussie students due to the need to complete a year of uni before being eligible to apply to med school.
There’s a risk involved here, too; if you don’t get the marks to transfer to medicine, the year is essentially wasted.
But there are advantages!
Because you’re not applying to medicine straight away, the admissions requirements aren’t as strict.
At University of Otago, for example, you are guaranteed spot in first year Health Science as long as your ATAR is over 80. So if your ATAR is threatening to ruin your med school dream, NZ can give you a second chance! It means you don’t have to worry about the UMAT till after school, either.
Just make sure you work your butt off in first year!
Regardless of your starting point, it’s possible to improve your UMAT score.
Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!
Unlike knowledge-based exams, there’s no "type" of person who does well on the UMAT. You don’t have to have natural ability, nor do you have to be book smart.
The students who perform the best on the UMAT are those who learn the strategies to approach each section and practise to build efficiency and speed.
Prepare well and you will be rewarded!