In this article, high-performing high school student Elvera shares her secrets for balancing her HSC and UCAT prep.
Name: Elvera Abdel-messih
School: Mount Saint Joseph
Grade: Yr 12, 2022
ATAR goal: 97.4
University goal: Doctor of Medicine/Bachelor of Medical Studies
As you can tell from my subjects below, I absolutely love science. It’s a passion that has stuck with me ever since I watched my first space movie (it was “Interstellar” by the way). Science is an endless journey of discovery and as Einstein once said:
As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.
So the more we uncover, the more we realise we still don’t know. This cycle of constant innovation and the idea that knowledge is endless is just so amazing to me. And each one of these sciences is so complex in its own right, offering new discoveries to be made.
This is why Biology is my favourite science (yes, I know, a bit of a controversial opinion!). The human body on its own is so intricately designed. Each system works in perfect harmony to ensure that you can do, well, whatever! Even reading this right now, you are using hundreds of muscles each of which is composed of cells, further made of genes and DNA! Did you know that if you were to print all of the genes in just one cell in a book with size 6 font, it would fill out an entire shelf?!
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Medicine is a really broad course and there are heaps of opportunities to specialise in a particular field. There are so many ways to help others around you, whether it be direct patient care, or working in the background with pharmaceuticals. I personally want to get into Surgery. Every person is like a unique chapter of an endless book. Each person I meet, talk to, interact with and ultimately help, will be added to this never-ending collection of new experiences.
I know that I am going to be seeing some people on the worst days of their lives, and I know that many will feel sadness and fear in a time of emotional need. It is that constant thought, that some people will be suffering, which drives me to be of service and to help them; to truly help them. Not just physically, but also emotionally.
I believe medicine is an extremely vocational occupation. I’ve been given so much in my life and I am so grateful for the countless opportunities I’ve been given. Even writing this blog is such an amazing experience that I am so grateful to have!
This is why I feel I should definitely dedicate my life to giving back to the community with my career, and medicine is one way to do that.
There are so many essential professions and each person contributes to society in their own unique way. What stands out for medicine, is essentially how interesting the subject is as well. I love all things science, and an aspect I really enjoy is not knowing the answer, and finding the answer myself. I find it so satisfying to solve difficult problems in a creative yet effective way. My brain needs to be constantly active, so even though the time pressures of medicine will be very difficult, it is a challenge I know I can embrace.
I also love how Medicine encompasses not only my favourite science, Biology, but also all of the sciences. I would love to link the ideas and concepts I’ve developed in high school into the real world. Not only that, but the human body is so complex – it’s essentially its own universe. Think about it, your red blood cells, for instance, are like planets, and they orbit the heart. These planets whiz through space, travelling down to the veins in between your toes, all the way up the red giant itself – the brain.
Yes, I know, a bit of a messy analogy, but it’s just so interesting how each person contains their own unique universe, and I would love to discover more about it! And this passion for knowledge can be practically implemented and worked on over time.
So in a nutshell, I would love to pursue a career in medicine because I will be able to help others around me, to serve my community.
The human body is so precious to me, so I really want to work in a field that aims to preserve it.
I’ve personally found that the hardest part of studying for UCAT and the HSC is balancing the workload.
It can be hard to do this but it all comes down to two key things: Organisation and Mindset. Considering that Year 12 is a very intensive journey, it is important to stay on top of your studies and use your time effectively.
So, here are the key pieces of advice I follow to balance my HSC and UCAT preparation.
To put it simply, have a calendar and follow it. Planning everything out in advance gives you clear directions on what to study next.
You might be trying to figure out, how much time should I spend studying for UCAT per day?
This is quite a big question, and even though it is variable for each person, taking a quick UCAT test can act as a guide. If you have a UCAT goal score, and you’re not close to it, then you know you need to be spending a fair bit of time each day, maybe 30 minutes to an hour. In the few months till UCAT and HSC, each moment is precious and I strive to allocate my time with utmost efficiency and effectiveness.
Yes, distractions are tempting and differ from person to person. One big one for me was having too many tabs open on my computer when studying. All of these random tabs that were still open would catch my eye so it’s best to study or do homework in a new window all together. Phones should definitely be on silent, and any extra noise eliminated. Noise is particularly distracting so it’s best to work in a relatively quiet place if possible.
Aside from recognising and targeting your weaknesses, it is important to adopt and practise UCAT exam strategies that will keep you grounded and working quickly in the real exam.
Below are my go-to strategies.
Quantitative reasoning translates to Maths. The maths isn’t conceptually difficult in the sense that you don’t need to memorise formulas and such, but rather, it is deciphering what all the words mean. Each question is a small paragraph, and will give you some form of data (like a table, pie chart, graph, etc). One of the main skills is to pick out key information and focus on the question. The question will tell you what information you need, and then it’s your job to go back to the information above and fish it out. Once you master this skill, you’ll be able to solve the question quickly since the maths portion itself is not too complex.
But be careful! The calculator can slow you down! Try practising mental arithmetic so you don’t have to rely on it.
This might sound absurd, but inevitably there will be questions that stump you, and you quite simply don’t have the time to work them out. For example, if you take 40 seconds on a single Abstract reasoning question, but still can’t figure out the pattern, then you should pick a random option, flag it, and come back to it later. It drains way too much time to figure out a question and I often find it is best to revisit it. You also don’t want to be short on time for easy questions that will get you points.
I’ve learnt to figure out which questions I’m good at and which questions I’m not, and act accordingly. This is essentially a time-management skill where you need to quickly set your priorities and work on questions you know you can get quickly. There’s no point in being able to perfectly balance your time between UCAT and HSC prep, if you can’t manage your time in the actual exams.
A good example is working on shorter verbal reasoning passages. Of course, the longer, more complicated ones will get you more points. But I find it more efficient to get the points on the easier questions and come back to the longer ones if I have time.
It is well known that the UCAT time restrictions are extremely tight. So tight that even taking a sip of water will knock you back.
Here are the approximate times for each section:
You can find the full timings for each subtest on the UCAT ANZ website.
The time pressure is what makes UCAT so difficult. The questions aren’t too complicated, but the time pressure forces you to think both quickly and accurately. This mimics real-world applications of being a medical practitioner, making fast, accurate and logical decisions in order to help the patient in front of you. This time pressure forces you to maintain your emotions of anxiety and even frustration, but rather develop skills of time management and having a clear head under pressure. Balancing time between HSC and UCAT preparation is one challenge – managing time within the exam is another.
I would definitely first start practising without timed conditions, just to familiarise myself with the patterns, question types and skills that need to be worked on. It is during this time that I would start making notes on these question types. These notes are minor, more like aspects to keep in mind as I sit each practice test.
For example, I made a brief table to summarise what is and isn’t ethically accepted for the situational judgement subtest:
Then, as I become more comfortable spotting these trends quickly, I would start timing myself. You might find it challenging at first, but don’t be alarmed! The UCAT is designed to be difficult. It’s completely normal to start out with a pretty average score. This is the time to build up this skill and learn to practise under timed conditions.
Verbal reasoning is my weakest subtest – and It’s not just me – the average score for this subtest is approximately 47%. What makes this subtest so difficult is the ability to read quickly, and pick out important pieces of information. These key points will be addressed in the questions but it can be hard to tell what exactly is “key information”. As in, it can be hard to tell what the question will ask. For that reason, it’s important to pick up the skill of skim reading. That is, reading quickly and understanding the general gist of each passage. Also, since the passages are split into paragraphs, you can generally “locate” certain pieces of information by skim reading. When reading the question, you’ll know where to find the answer you’re looking for.
But I get what you’re thinking, How do you skim read?!
The UCAT Masterclass has super helpful tips on how to skim read the passage effectively, such as utilising peripheral vision. It also discusses how to turn off your “inside voice” – it’s that little voice in your head right now as you’re reading this. If skim reading the text first isn’t working for you, then you can try reading the question first. Some people find this approach faster, and is also practised in the UCAT course at Matrix.
The UCAT is known for being a very difficult exam especially during the HSC year. But, with the right mindset and approach, anyone can dominate it!
UCAT skills need to be worked on overtime and are not something that can be picked up or memorised a week before the exam. This is a long-term development, and for me, took about 6 months of preparation. However, I would recommend starting even sooner. If you know you want to study medicine, and the course you want requires UCAT, then start straight away. There is also no concept to learn, as you find with your regular school subjects, but it is purely skills based – skills that you may have never encountered before. I strongly believe that UCAT is an extremely long-term commitment. For that reason, it is very important to start early to balance your HSC and UCAT prep in a way that allows you to keep on expanding your skill sets.