How To Work Out Patterns In The UKCAT Abstract Reasoning Subtest

The abstract reasoning subtest is described as being intended to assess your ability to identify patterns amongst abstract shapes. The way the examiners do this is by asking you to identify to which group a particular shape or sets of shapes belongs. For each SET A and  SET B there will be five items (screens) and you will have to indicate whether you think the test shape belongs to the Set A, set B or neither. Students often struggle with this section as identifying the correct pattern can prove difficult and time consuming. It is fundamental that you have an efficient method of working out patterns. Perhaps the most useful method to use here is the three square rule:

The Three Square Rule – Identifying Patterns In The UKCAT Abstract Reasoning

With practice, you get better at adopting the the three square rule method, it involves solving patterns by starting with the simplest box and comparing the two other boxes either side of it. The method involves the following:

  1. Find the simplest box out of either set – normally the one with the fewest things inside it. (You have to remember that every box, however simple, must contain the rule used. The simpler the box, the fewer the number of distractors inside it -see below!)
  2. Look at two boxes either side of it
  3. Compare the three boxes, looking for any similarity with regards to the shapes, patterns, colouring or edges.
  4. Check if this works for the rest of the boxes in that set, and more importantly, not for any of the boxes in the other set.
  5. If this works, Great! If it doesn’t then repeat process again.

You will need some sort of checklist for recognising patterns amongst the boxes – I recommend using a mnemonic because it will help save time in the UKCAT constantly thinking about what to look for next across the boxes in a set. A very common mnemonic is SCANS.


Try working through the UKCAT abstract reasoning questions using the following mnemonic:

  • S – Shape
  • C – Colour
  • A – Angle/Arrangement
  • N – Number of (shapes, sides, intersections…)
  • S – Symmetry

I suggest practising SCANS with an online UKCAT course so  that you become familiar with the exam environment and hone the technique. Do remember, that this mnemonic is by no means exhaustive, but serves as a useful basis upon which you can work out what the rule really is! With practice you’ll get better at identifying patterns in the UKCAT abstract reasoning subtest using SCANS. Try to  identify the following  list of possibilities:

  • Shape of components
  • Type of edges on each component
  • Number of corners on each component
  • Colour of each component
  • Number of components
  • Orientation of components
  • Consistent position of one component relative to another
  • Size of components

The more abstract questions you practice, the easier you’ll find the abstract reasoning subtest. Applying the three square rule and SCANS  is a good starting point and may get you out of trouble if you are stuck on a question.

How To Identify Distractors

During your practice probably stumble across distractors these are misleading patterns to throw you off. For example, the shape colours will differ even though this is irrelevant to the actual pattern. Keep this in mind. Being able to spot a distractor will not only save you time, but help make your attempt at finding the pattern far more efficient, with enough practice it will become easier to work out which aspects of each SET is important.  Take note of  distractors you come across during practice it’ll be easier to notice them in the live test.

Inevitably there will be a couple of questions you will find tricky. Do not fall into the trap of spending too long working out the actual pattern. Flag the question and come back if you have time.

Practice using an online UKCAT course to mimic the real exam. I recommend the Job Test Prep UKCAT course it has excellent features and is affordable. You can read my review on the Job Test Prep online UKCAT Course.  

For more exclusive tips and advice on preparing for the UKCAT subscribe to the UKCAT BLOG. Join 10k+ subscribers and beat the competition for university places. 



About Mike 114 Articles
My name is Michael and I'm a Pharmacology graduate from the University of Manchester, I was able to improve my UK Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT) score from 2400 to 2840 and get offered a place at Warwick’s graduate-entry medical programme.