Make sure you’re the cream of the admissions crop
As if there were not enough hurdles in the way of getting to university, more and more students are finding they have an additional barrier to negotiate, in the form of an aptitude test.
Universities are increasingly using these tests to distinguish between applicants, and the signs are that they may become more widespread over the next couple of years.
Most aptitude tests run in October or November, and while they are designed to assess skills rather than knowledge, there are steps students can take to give themselves the best chance of success.
Aptitude tests cover the full range of subjects and although their use varies between universities, almost all candidates to study medicine and related subjects – such as veterinary science and dentistry – can expect to take one before they are invited to interview. And for them, a good performance is vital.
“We use it as an absolute criterion and it is very important that students know that,” says Prof Tony Freemont, head of the medical school at the University of Manchester. “If you don’t get a certain score, then you are not considered for medicine.”
That cut-off varies each year, but students who fail to reach the required level for their chosen universities will either have to switch to another course or reapply and take the test the following year.
Manchester, along with most medical schools, uses the UK clinical aptitude test (UKCAT), which aims to assess students in a number of areas, including the ability to sift data and weigh evidence from different sources, as well as reasoning skills and judgment.
“The biggest problem we have is how to choose between groups of exceptional young people,” says Freemont. “The reason we use this test is that it really does select people who are able to hit the ground running when it comes to studying medicine.”
Some universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, run an alternative assessment, the biomedical admissions test (BMAT). This covers similar areas to the UKCAT but also examines scientific knowledge – albeit to GCSE level – and asks candidates to write a short essay.
Students sit the test either in their school or college or at a designated testing centre. Past papers are available for both tests.
“Familiarity with the papers makes it [the test] a lot easier,” says Andy Pulham, head of science at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle (RGS).
The proliferation of aptitude tests has spawned an industry in specialised coaching, and this year for the first time RGS brought in outside experts to run an intensive two-day preparation course for students taking the UKCAT.
“We found a lot of students were going outside to get extra help, so this year we said we would get people in,” says Pulham. “Because there is a lot of logical thinking in the tests it might not seem there is much you can do to prepare, but there are techniques you can use.” These include practising estimation work and strategies for eliminating answers in multiple-choice questions, he adds.
RGS also runs its own courses for students taking the BMAT, as well as for aptitude tests in other subjects.
It is not just medicine that requires students to take a pre-entry test. Although Oxford and Cambridge no longer have entrance exams, the majority of applicants to both can expect to take an aptitude test, regardless of the course.
And as well as Oxbridge, around half of all universities are now using extra tests in at least one subject. Some set their own, while independently run examinations include the law national aptitude test (LNAT), the thinking skills assessment (TSA) and the mathematics aptitude test (MAT).
Some are taken before the interview, while others form part of the interview process.
Around 90 per cent of applicants to Oxford sit a test of some sort, according to the university’s director of admissions, Mike Nicholson.
This process is a way of whittling down candidates to a manageable number, but the tests are only one element in deciding who to call for interview, alongside such factors as GCSE results and A-level predictions. “It allows us to do an initial shortlisting but it doesn’t fix things in stone,” he adds.
The type of preparation students can do varies according to subject. The physics aptitude test has a published syllabus, while for the TSA, used for geography, psychology, economics and management, students might find it helpful to practise extracting information from tables, graphs and statistics, Nicholson says.
In all cases, students can expect to be asked to apply their knowledge to unfamiliar or unusual scenarios, rather than simply regurgitate what they have learnt. “It is about their ability to think critically and analyse information,” Nicholson adds. “We’re not trying to replicate the information we’re already getting.”
As St Francis Xavier Sixth Form in south London, students sitting the history aptitude test, for example, are given the opportunity to practise analysing source material, a key element of the exam.
“We don’t know what source material will come up in the actual “You also learn that you are never going to finish, so it is about trying to get as much done in the time as possible. Going over past papers is the best preparation but there is no point in doing too much. Once you have got the skill you just have to go in there and do it. You can prepare, but don’t over-prepare.”
At Mill Hill School in north London, extra lessons to prepare for the tests start in the lower sixth. “We work on expanding subject skills and encourage further reading and discussion,” says the deputy head, Alex Frazer.
This approach may become more common as there are signs that aptitude tests could become more widespread, thanks to a combination of more unconditional offers and uncertainty over how reforms will affect GCSEs meaning universities will look at new ways to discriminate between students.
“At the moment they tend to be at the higher end of the academic spectrum, but we suspect they might take in a wider academic range as a broader tranche of universities start using them,” Frazer says.
It may not be long before it’s not just aspiring medics and Oxbridge candidates who have to take aptitude tests in their stride. ucas.com ukcat.ac.uk admissionstestingservice.org