University of Oxford will now use UCAT as admission test for medicine applications

someone doing a test

The University of Oxford has recently made the decision to standardise the admission test for medical schools in the UK, switching from the BMAT to the UCAT. What could be the consequences of this? Photo credit: Ben Mullins via Unsplash

University of Oxford will now use UCAT as an admission for entry into medicine. This move by Oxford follows other universities, most noticeably Cambridge, which previously announced that it will be shifting to UCAT as its admission test of choice. BMAT was used by many universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial, to shortlist candidates for medicine. However, Cambridge Assessments Admission Testing announced that due to financial challenges it was no longer viable to deliver the BMAT test. This means that the UCAT test by Pearson which was previously used by most medical schools will now be used by all medical colleges in the UK.

University of Oxford will now use UCAT as an admission for entry into medicine.

Now that I have embarked on my Oxford life and have made treasurable memories, such as being matriculated in the splendour of Sheldonian theatre, on reflection, the extra effort of applying to Oxford seems to be worth it. I remember the endless hours of staring at my computer screen, analysing, scrutinising, comparing, and charting the changes in my UCAT score. Buoyed by a good UCAT score and optimistic that I stood a good chance, I then devoted all my attention to BMAT practice. I applied to Oxford on the 11h October, sat my BMAT on 18th October and results were released on 25th November. The long wait for BMAT results was defined by restlessness as I endlessly questioned whether I would score high enough to get an interview call. Luckily, I received an interview call in early December and was overjoyed when I received an offer for Medicine in January. This was the grand finale and culmination of hours spent curating my personal statement, attending taster days, participating in outreach programmes, scrolling through flashcards. However, for others, this was not the case. Despite devoting all of their energy to the BMAT, so that they could apply to Oxbridge, the financial cost of purchasing BMAT books, websites for preparation and test fees went down the drain, as well as diverting their energy away from other avenues, such as volunteering.

This highlights the positive aspects of UCAT. Firstly, the test cycle runs through the summer, from early July to late September so it is easy to reschedule the test date with appropriate notice, whereas BMAT is sat nationally on the same day and this lack of flexibility amplifies anxiety. Secondly, the test score for UCAT is given after a person has completed the test, a contrast to BMAT results being released more than a month after the test date, by which students have already applied to their chosen universities. The shift from BMAT to UCAT is not unprecedented, in fact it appears analogous to the American system, where the applicant is aware of their SAT score prior to applying for university.

After the UCAT test cycle is over, data showing the performance of the cohort is released which allows students to calculate their precise percentile, helping them gain an idea of how they fare compared to other applicants. This is invaluable since students have the time to research, shortlist and strategically apply to medical schools based on their UCAT performance. Considering that UCAS only permits students to make up to 4 applications for medicine, this is a great advantage.

However, there is likely to be increased competition for universities which have historically used BMAT, since more students will feel encouraged to apply to Oxbridge knowing they have a good UCAT score. This raises several challenges. Firstly in Oxford, the current number of students interviewed for medicine is capped at around 425, such that Oxford may have to increase the number of shortlisted candidates. Also, currently shortlisting for interviews is done mainly using GCSE performance and BMAT scores, along with personal statements. Switching to UCAT will of course mean that the shortlisting process will have to undergo a major overhaul and be redesigned.

…there is likely to be increased competition for universities which have historically used BMAT, since more students will feel encouraged to apply to Oxbridge knowing they have a good UCAT score.

This switch will be especially problematic for Cambridge, as Cambridge aspires to interview up to 75% of candidates, Cambridge will have either have to shorten interview times, making it harder to assess the suitability of candidates, or may have to conduct medicine interviews over more days or involve more academic staff as interviewers. The increasing importance of interviews could widen the educational gap since mock Oxbridge interviews for medicine carry a hefty price tag of up to £150. Schools with a rich tradition of sending students to Oxbridge may also see an increase in number of Oxbridge acceptances for medicine since alumni can be invaluable in sharing tips for interview and conducting mock interviews free of charge. A possible remedy to address these issues is by having more targeted outreach which helps to level the playing field. StepintoOxmed is a noble initiative by Oxford medical students, where current undergraduate medicine students volunteer to conduct mock Oxbridge interviews and provide feedback for free to applicants who meet the selection criteria.

One of the other pitfalls of using UCAT is that with ‘essay crisis’ being a quotidian hallmark of Oxbridge life, the UCAT does not assess a candidate’s essay writing ability. Section 3 of the BMAT specifically tested a candidate’s essay writing ability. It is likely that in the future a pre-interview science based MCQ test and essay is designed, which is sat by applicants in Oxford before they have their interview, or perhaps the creation of an entirely new admission may be created.

Ojas Rajkumar, CEO of My UCAT offered his perspicacious insight on the significance of Oxford University’s decision in a discussion I had with him. Ojas said that he had ‘mixed feelings’ as ‘there’s now only one exam to sit for all UK medical and dental schools and more time available to prepare for it. With the extra workload for an Oxbridge application now reduced, and the added bonus of knowing the UCAT score before applying, I think it would definitely encourage more historically reluctant students to aim for Oxford, particularly those from non-traditional backgrounds. That said, a lot of our past students have been fond of the BMAT’s science-based questioning and have benefitted from the “rescue” option of a second, backup exam.’ He also noted that ‘it’s quite a last-minute, unprecedented change – Oxford’s contract with Tata Consultancy Services to design a replacement examination was abandoned only quite recently. Though some evidence of the UCAT’s predictive validity for medical school performance has recently come to light, I would not be surprised if another BMAT-style, science-based exam was reintroduced in forthcoming years.’

Cambridge announced the decision to switch to UCAT earlier than Oxford. By not switching to UCAT, Oxford risked losing applicants of similar calibre to Cambridge. Using UCAT as an entrance exam reflects a pragmatic decision by the University of Oxford. One of the key questions which still remains unanswered is the admissions test which will be used by Oxford for Biomedical sciences, with the official course website ambiguously states it is ‘to be confirmed’.