Study Tips to Improve Your ATAR



Your ATAR (Australian Tertiary Admission Rank) forms a crucial part of your journey into medicine or dentistry. You will usually need an ATAR of 95 or higher to have a chance of receiving a commonwealth supported place (CSP) offer. 

Before reading on to find out how you can improve your grades, remember... It’s not one size fits all.

The revision methods that work for your friends may not work for you and you won’t be able to use the same revision method for every subject. Similarly, ways to de-stress are unique to each of us and will change depending on the situation.

This article will give you an idea of some study, motivation, and planning/organisation techniques available to you. Figuring out what suits you personally is the next step on your path to academic success, and experimenting with different techniques will be well worth the time you invest.

Study techniques

Don’t handicap yourself

It’s common for the peers and teachers you’re surrounded by to use and recommend diligent note taking for every subject. In fact, students often spend the majority of their study time taking or summarising notes without considering that other effective techniques are available to them.

Although note taking and summarising are incredibly popular among students, there is limited evidence that these strategies are effective ways to learn. In fact, you may effectively be handicapping yourself if you don’t try out other techniques. A 2013 study by Dunlosky et al. showed that some common strategies, such as highlighting and rereading, are not effective learning techniques. Instead, study techniques that utilise active recall and spaced repetition are far more efficient ways to learn.

You are going to spend countless hours studying, so it’s worth learning how to do it effectively. There are many resources available to help you find a technique that works for you (e.g. Science News for Students).

Slow and steady wins the race

Your revision and preparation should begin as early as possible. By compiling and regularly practicing with your revision materials throughout the whole year, you’ll be well prepared by the time you’re tested on the content. Research has shown that spaced revision is the most effective way to revise, which is why we recommend studying small amounts regularly instead of cramming just before exams.

It’s also important to understand things as you go. If there are any gaps in your knowledge at the start of the year, it’s likely that these gaps will widen as you get further into the subject. This is because what you learn at the start of the year often forms the foundation of what you’ll cover over the rest of the year.

Focus on your weaknesses

A student making notes on their weaknesses

You don’t need to be chronological in the way that you revise. Score yourself on each topic of the syllabus so that when you’re revising you can focus on the lowest scoring topics first.

You have the most room for improvement in your weaker topics, so focusing on these weaker topics is more efficient than spending hours remembering the small portion of content you don’t know in a subject you’re very comfortable with.

Create a resource bank

Create a list of all the resources available to you for each subject. This can include textbooks, websites, links to past papers and links to questions. This will give you an idea of everything that you can use for your revision. 

This is particularly useful if you want to use many practice questions to study. Once you have a list of all the questions you can possibly (or practically) do, divide the questions over a period of time and regularly work through them until your exams.

Prioritise active recall techniques

Highlighting texts or re-reading passages can make you feel like you're familiar with all of the content, but re-reading is actually of limited value when studying. Trying to recall the information you’re studying (active recall) is much more beneficial and is similar to an actual exam, so focus on techniques that incorporate this.

Examples of active recall techniques include:

  • Using flashcards
  • Explaining to others
  • Doing practice questions

Keep revisiting content

Regardless of which memorising technique(s) you use, regularly revisiting your materials is key to retaining information. The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve demonstrates how easily information is forgotten:

The Ebbinghaus forgetting curve, showing how information is forgotten over time.

Spacing out your repetition of content will help you remember it for much longer.

Understand concepts before memorising facts

It’s not uncommon for students to revise and memorise everything they need to know for a topic, but to be thrown off by a question that didn't look like anything they’d learnt before on exam day. 

Understanding what you’re learning is more important than memorising pieces of information. You can only apply principles in unfamiliar situations or contexts if you understand the topic well. Memorising facts is also essential for many subjects, but make sure you understand the broader concepts before moving on to memorisation.

Use flashcards

Use flashcards and carry them with you all the time. You will be amazed by how efficiently you can use bits of time here and there to boost your revision, and flashcards may work well as a main form of revision for some subjects. 

You can also use digital flashcards to test yourself. Some benefits of digital flashcards are that you can share your flashcards and use flashcards made by others, you can copy and paste diagrams instead of having to draw them out, and transporting digital flashcards only involves carrying your phone, tablet, or laptop. 

If you’re looking for digital flashcard programs, Anki and Quizlet are both great choices. Anki uses an advanced algorithm to space your revision, meaning that you will remember the content you need to as long as you revise flashcards when the programme recommends you do. Quizlet does not offer as much functionality as Anki but is more user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing. 

Practise with past papers

Take a look at past exams as soon as you can. Familiarity with the structure will give you confidence, and also help you focus on learning the right things. However, you may want to space out your past exams if you have a limited number of them as they are very useful to practise with towards the end of your revision.

Past papers will help you track your progress and see if you’re making improvements and they’ll also help you to practise your timings. This will give you the best chance of completing all questions on test day. 

You can use the past papers to practise your exam technique. If you have a choice, are you going to start with the multiple choice questions or do you prefer finishing the longest writing sections first? Doing past papers will give you the chance to experiment and find what works for you.

Stay ahead of the game

A student writing in a diary

Read through the content you’ll be taught in each class before going to that class. This will give you an idea of what you’re going to be taught. Then, during the class, you’ll be consolidating what you’ve already read, and it will almost be like you’ve already started revising that topic.

Many universities teach with a ‘flipped classroom’ approach, where students are expected to have a strong grasp of the week’s content before coming into class. As such, reading ahead will help you prepare for university as well as helping you achieve a strong ATAR.

Switch things up

Interleaving, or studying multiple topics in a single session, is an evidence-based method for more effective and longer-lasting learning. Mix several topics during your study sessions, but don’t switch your subjects too often.

Use multiple resources to enhance and reinforce your learning, including your teachers, classmates, textbooks, practice questions, and videos.

For example, textbooks are great for covering all contents in sufficient depth. However, other sources might explain difficult concepts more clearly and learning from multiple sources will give you a deeper understanding of the topic.

Use mnemonics 

Use mnemonics to help you with retention or retrieval of information. For example, memorising the sequence of orbitals for chemistry (s, p, d, f, g, h, i, k) can be hard as there is no pattern to the list of letters, but use the sentence, ‘Sober Physicists Don't Find Giraffes Hiding In Kitchens’ to easily remember this.

Use mind maps

Use a mind map to brainstorm or help you remember information pertaining to a topic. Write your subject in the centre of a page and radiate out with a hierarchy of linked topics and facts. When brainstorming, write down as many ideas about the topic as you can, then remove ideas that don’t suit the project before adding more detail to each remaining idea.

Mind maps are useful for remembering information as they allow you to practice active recall. First, make a mind map with whatever content you want to remember. Next, try to recreate the mind map from memory without looking at the original mind map or your notes. Keep recreating the mind map until your exams to help you remember the information on it. Repeat this process with any content that translates well into a mind map.

Read examiners’ reports

Examiners’ reports give you an insight into previous exams and show which topics and question types are generally more difficult for students. This allows you to structure your revision to address commonly problematic areas. Once you have a solid grasp of the subject’s content, understanding the viewpoint of examiners and what they’re actually looking for in an exam can be very useful. The reports may also include advice for candidates which is certainly worth considering!

Small steps

You may find that you need to work on the amount of time you spend studying. In that case, you should take small steps and build up the time you spend revising. Plan to start off by revising an hour a day for a week (or however long is an appropriate starting point for you). You can then bump it up to an hour and a half in the following week, and continue gradually increasing your study time until you’re doing as much as you think is necessary.

Motivation and mental health

Don’t forget your hobbies

A student playing the guitar

Engaging in your hobbies is an effective way to help prevent burnout because spending time on things you enjoy will lift your mood. Improved mood is important for your enjoyment and mental health, and it will also help you be more productive in your study sessions.

It can be tempting to forgo your hobbies in order to get a head start on that assignment, finish off that piece of homework, or any number of other school-related tasks. Doing so might work in the short term, but you’ll start feeling burned out after a while if you focus all your time and energy into studying.

There’s always more study that can be done and your academic work can suck up all your free time, but don’t let it! Use a planner to set aside time to unwind and enjoy your hobbies. This could involve spending an hour every evening practicing guitar, playing sport three times a week, reading a novel before bed, or going for a walk every weekend. Whatever your hobbies are, make sure to not let them be taken over by your academic commitments.

Have stress release mechanisms 

Year 12 will be stressful. It’s important that you know how to minimise and manage your stress, because letting all that stress build up will only do you harm. Some ways to destress include:

  • Breathing techniques. Breathing exercises are easy to learn and are a quick way to reduce stress. There are many effective techniques, one of which is the 4-7-8 method: breathe in for 4 seconds, hold that breath for 7 seconds, and breathe out for 8 seconds. Repeat five times, or until you feel calmer.
  • Exercise. Your body produces endorphins during physical activity. Endorphins boost your mood, something that is certainly helpful in stressful times! Exercising in the morning can help you start the day with energy, but exercising at any time is a great way to relieve stress.
  • Mediation. Meditation can bring calm to an otherwise stressful situation, and meditating regularly can have a lasting, positive impact throughout your day. If you’re new to meditation then you may like to start by listening to a guided meditation podcast or video, but there are countless techniques and resources available to help you relax with meditation.
  • Listening to music. Music can have a big impact on your mood, so choosing the right kind of music is important when trying to relieve stress. Aim for music with a slow tempo and soft instruments, as long as it’s music you enjoy - listening to ‘relaxing’ music that you don’t like is unlikely to help you destress!
  • Pursuing your hobby. If you make time for your hobbies, they can be instrumental in helping you through stressful times. Hobbies take your focus off stressors and shift it to something you enjoy, which is a powerful way to reduce stress and balance your workload.

Ask for help

If you're struggling with an academic topic at school, ask your teachers for help. They will have the expertise to assist you with the topic - it is their job, after all! More importantly, most teachers genuinely want to help students and will support you in whatever way they can, once you ask for it.

Likewise, if you are experiencing difficulty with your relationships, struggling to cope with your workload, or concerned about any other aspect of your mental health, ask for help. Speaking to your family, school counsellor, psychologist, GP, or anyone else in a position to support you can be the best way to work through any issues you’re facing. Everyone needs help throughout their lives, and asking for it is often the best way to handle a difficult situation.

Take breaks

Study breaks are important for improving your productivity as well as benefiting your mental and physical health. Be aware of your attention span and plan your study sessions accordingly, with quality breaks in between. 

A common way to structure study sessions is around the Pomodoro Technique, which involves working for 25 minutes then having a five minute break, and giving yourself a longer break every four cycles. This can help you work more efficiently for longer, and you can turn it into a game by seeing how much you can get done in each 25 minute block.

Ways to stay motivated

Surgeons performing an operation

Motivation can have an effect on your academic performance. Staying motivated means that your revision sessions will be more productive and you’ll be less likely to burn out. Everyone keeps themselves motivated in different ways, but here are some strategies that might work for you.

  • Remind yourself why you’re studying. Leave motivational messages around your study space. Changing them regularly means that you're more likely to stay motivated, otherwise they can seem to just become part of the decor. If you’re wanting to go to medical or dental school, put images of doctors and dentists or clinical scenes around your room and study space. This will remind you of your ultimate goal and will keep you focused.
  • Find meaning in the content. Adding meaning to the subjects and topics that you are studying can help you find interest in your work, and motivation to study becomes much easier to find when you are engaged with the content. For example, you will find chemistry more interesting after appreciating how the treatment of many diseases relies on a deep understanding of biochemical reactions in the body.
  • Reward yourself. Setting goals and rewarding yourself when you reach them is a great way to stay motivated. Watching an episode of your favourite Netflix show after you’ve studied for two hours or have completed an assignment can increase your motivation and turn your distractions into constructive rewards.
  • Study with others. Having a study buddy or study group adds accountability to your study sessions, as others are relying on you to show up and start working. Studying with others can increase the effectiveness of time you spend studying because you can share resources and teach each other, and a degree of tension and competition is good for keeping you on track. Also, studying with others can be a lot of fun!

Environment matters

Optimise your main study environment. Ensure that you have a well-ventilated room with adequate lighting, and a comfortable chair with your desk at an appropriate height. You might prefer to study in a quiet environment, but many study better with some background noise. Do whatever you can to help you focus.

Be free from distractions and interruptions: put your phone on silent during study sessions or, even better, leave it outside of the room. If this is not practical, turn off your notifications from distracting apps such as Facebook, Instagram and SnapChat.

Equip yourself with the resources you need, including stationery (e.g. notepads, pens, highlighters), study materials (e.g. notes, textbooks, workbooks), digital devices and study planners/calendars. Make sure everything you need is easily accessible to you. Having to go down upstairs to get your biology textbook can be a distraction and interrupt your work flow.

Planning and organisation

Choose subjects wisely

A lot of people say to choose subjects that are going to scale well. In reality, you need to choose subjects that you enjoy and are prerequisites for medicine or dentistry (e.g. English and Chemistry). You also don’t need to prioritise choosing subjects that will help you with your university degree, like human biology, since you will learn everything you need to know in the degree itself.

It’s true that some subjects that are less challenging tend to be scaled down, whereas other subjects may get scaled up. Don’t let this factor into your decision making too much. If you enjoy a subject and are passionate about it, you’ll do well in it, provided that you work hard.

Stressing and over analysing scaling will cause unnecessary anxiety and won’t necessarily translate into a higher ATAR. 

Make a plan and stay organised

A student going through her study plans on a board

Find out in advance when your exams will be and add them to a calendar. Have a weekly plan of what you want to cover in that week. This could include making flashcards for the topics you learn that week, working through practice questions, and revising topics from the previous weeks. 

Set yourself deadlines that are earlier than the true deadline. If you need to hand in an assignment for Tuesday of week 8, set yourself a deadline for Friday of week 7. This will help you stay on top of your work and will give you a few extra days to review your work. 

Learn to prioritise your tasks. A useful system for prioritisation involves assigning your tasks into four quadrants based on importance and urgency, as well as factoring in your readiness or progress. Remember to balance your study between your subjects, as you need high grades across most of your subjects to get into medical or dental school.

Use your holidays wisely

It’s important to have a break as you need time to refresh and reset yourself for the next term. However, it’s also important to use some of your holiday to revise the content from the previous term and read ahead into the next term’s content. 

This will help you to consolidate all the new things you’ll have learnt so when you revise these topics next time round they won’t feel as old. It also means you’ll have a head start on the content you’ll learn next term, so your workload will be more manageable. 

Use your syllabus

Get to know the syllabus inside-out as it’s an exhaustive list of what you need to know. There's absolutely no point learning things that don’t appear on the syllabus, as you can’t be assessed on them! So the first step is getting to know the contents, and the second is finding out how you will be assessed. 

One way to use your syllabus is as a checklist. You can tick off topics as your study progresses throughout the year to help you keep track of what you’ve covered and what’s yet to be covered. This will help you organise your study as you'll know exactly what to revise. 

Another good way to use the syllabus for revision is to turn it into questions. If you can answer the questions, you can confirm that you know that topic and move on. For example, a statement on the VCE study design for biology is ‘nucleic acids as information molecules that encode instructions for the synthesis of proteins in cells.’ You can write that statement as a question such as ‘what is the function of nucleic acids?’ and if you feel comfortable answering the question then you should move on to the next statement.

Set goals 

A student writing down a chemical formula

Setting targets for yourself is one of the best ways to organise your time, measure your progress, and ultimately realise your dreams. However, setting goals that aren’t clearly outlined is a sure way to not achieve them. An effective way to set sharply defined goals is by using the SMART mnemonic:

  • Specific – There’s no point having a vague goal. Make them precise so you know exactly what to do.
  • Measurable You should be able to quantify your goal so you know how you’re progressing with it.
  • Achievable Your goals need to be realistic. Setting unrealistic targets will demotivate you when you don't accomplish them.
  • Relevant Make sure your goal is linked to your studies, mental health, or other important areas of your life.
  • Time-bound Make sure you set a time for you to complete your goal by. Setting a specific, relevant goal but not deciding when you should do it increases your chance of procrastination.

Example of a poorly defined goal: 'I am going to do some chemistry study and ace my exam.'

Example of a SMART goal: 'I am going to do 40 practice questions on organic chemistry each day this week in preparation for my exam next Monday.'

What should I do one month before my UCAT?

Graphic of calendar showing one month left

Keep practising! A month sounds like a long time, but time will quickly vanish. Set SMART  (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely) goals such as reaching a certain score by a certain date or time. 

Niche down even further on your weaknesses – by this stage you should just be focusing on what you find hardest. Make sure you factor in breaks and days off into your schedule, as well as any important events which you need to attend.

Read the 'Good medical practice' by the Medical Board of Australia if you haven’t already. It will inform you about the different duties of healthcare professionals and how they should respond to different scenarios, which is essential for the Situational Judgement Test section of the UCAT.

Try Medify's Skills Trainers, such as inference scanning for Verbal Reasoning, to maximise your score (these are included in our UCAT ANZ Online Course). Make sure you've also completed plenty of UCAT practice tests.

The UCAT exam is two hours with no breaks in between, so practise at least two hours each time to build your mental stamina. You should also simulate the exam environment as closely as possible – this means treating every mock test as if it were a real one. 

For instance, you should sit mock exams at the same time of the day as your actual UCAT exam and ensure there are no distractions. By mirroring the test conditions, not only will it prepare you for what to expect on test day, it should also help to decrease any anxiety leading up to the exam. Otherwise, your brain has to process the ‘new’ way of completing the test.

What should I do one week before my UCAT?

Graphic of calendar showing one week left

At this point, you'll know the format of the exam inside out and will have practised the questions enough times to get used to UCAT timings. Don’t give up – keep preparing in an environment where you cannot be interrupted.

Remember, a lot of your preparation will have been done in the weeks and months before this final week, so be careful not to overdo it and become too fatigued. Your motivation may drop or you might ‘peak’ before the test. Your body needs rest too. 

Now is a great time to introduce or increase self-care in your regime. Whether it’s watching Netflix, gaming, or just running a bath, it’s important to detach yourself from UCAT revision from time to time to avoid the risk of burnout.

In this week you should also prioritise your nutrition and sleep. Eat well, do not miss meals and keep hydrated. Make sure you get a good night’s sleep in the days before the test by avoiding late night cramming or staying awake into the early hours.

If it puts your mind at rest, you can check last year’s UCAT scores, but remember that this is all about your personal journey and performance, so don't get hung up on that information!

What should I do one day before my UCAT?

Graphic of calendar showing one day left

We do not advise doing a mock this close to the exam. Revision won't help you much at this stage and can actually leave you worse off. Instead, use this time to wind down and get yourself into a relaxed state. This will enable you to perform at your best on test day.

Try to get to bed early and avoid things that can affect sleep, such as looking at your phone before bed. If you think that you will struggle to sleep on time, you could try doing some exercise during the day to tire yourself out. 

Exercise can boost your brainpower by oxygenating your brain, helping you learn and aid sleep. Plus, activity makes your body release endorphins, which can reduce anxiety and stress levels.

Make sure you double check your UCAT test centre information, the travel route to the test centre, the time of your UCAT exam, and so on, so you’re well prepared for test day. If someone else is giving you a ride to the test centre, it’s worth reminding them.

What should I do on the day of my UCAT?

Graphic of calendar circling today's date

You should start the day off with a nutritious breakfast and give yourself enough time to arrive early to the test centre to avoid feeling flustered, rushed or stressed.

Remember that buses and trains can be late and that traffic may be heavier than you had hoped, so allow extra time whichever way you are travelling. Find out how to choose a UCAT test centre.

Make sure you know how to get to the test centre – for instance you could consider taking a map with you. If you’re using your phone for directions, make sure it’s sufficiently charged and that you have spare data (otherwise you can download the map ahead of time to use offline).

On test day you will be expected to arrive 30 minutes before your scheduled test time to complete the check-in process.

You need to bring:

  • Your test confirmation email
  • Photographic ID from the approved list

When you arrive at the test centre, it’s likely that you’ll be experiencing a heightened sense of adrenaline. his is completely normal, but it could be helpful to learn some strategies for adopting a winning mindset on test day to reduce your stress levels, and enable you to perform at your best. For instance, you could focus on your breathing to help you relax.

Don’t forget, during your test there are one minute introductions between each subtest. You can skip these, but we recommend using the time to mentally refresh yourself.

If you’ve stuck to your revision plan, and followed our advice above, the best thing you can do on test day is to try and keep as calm as possible. Take solace in the fact that you have prepared for weeks/months to get to this point, and channel any nervous energy into doing the best you can during your UCAT test. 

What should I eat and drink leading up to the UCAT?

You should think about your diet well ahead of UCAT test day. Focus on foods that release energy slowly (that is, which have a low glycaemic index, or GI) which will stop you from feeling hungry. These are ideal for UCAT preparation, as well as on test day itself.

Try eating protein and low-GI carbohydrates, such as meat or baked beans, brown (whole grain) rice or pasta, or wholegrain breakfast cereals or muesli. However, do not stray far from your usual diet on the day of the test in case you feel sick. You may want to try these foods out at the same time of day a few weeks in advance.

Be wary of energy drinks and coffee. If you’re not used to them then don’t drink them, especially in large quantities. Caffeine can acutely increase anxiety, and the sugar rush of an energy drink is soon followed by insulin slamming on the brakes, leaving you feeling worse than before. These products are no substitute for a good night’s sleep, eating properly and exercising.

No food or drink is allowed in the test room so eat a healthy meal before your UCAT test and ensure you’re hydrated. While you should make sure you’re drinking enough water, do not overdo it, otherwise you might need the toilet while the timer is ticking.

Please note, access arrangements are available if you have a disability, learning difficulty or long-term medical condition. You may be entitled to extra time and/or rest breaks, and allowed certain items, such as water, at your test centre workstation. 

What happens at the UCAT test centre?

  1. At the registration desk, you will be asked to show a valid photographic ID and a printed/electronic copy of your confirmation email from Pearson VUE. 
  2. You will be asked to sign a signature pad and take a photograph.
  3. You will be given a laminated notebook and a black marker pen. You may also request earplugs.
  4. Do not take anything other than your ID into the examination room. A locker or a coat hanger will be available.
  5. Go to the bathroom if you need to.
  6. Once the staff have prepared your exam, you may enter the exam room. You may be asked to undergo a body check (e.g. turning up your pockets and rolling your sleeves).
  7. The staff will guide you to the seat, or you may be able to choose your desk. Take some time to prepare yourself and relax. Your two hours have not yet started.

What is the UCAT test environment like?

This image shows a typical UCAT test environment:

Taking the UCAT at a test centre

There is no audio element to the test, but you can request earplugs to block out any noise that might disrupt your concentration. 

You will have access to a basic onscreen calculator which may be useful for the Quantitative Reasoning and Decision Making sections.

You will be given a laminated notebook and marker pen. Consider using these for:

If you require an additional notebook and pen, you can raise your hand and ask the invigilator. Although the invigilator will check that your pen is working before the test, we advise double-checking this to avoid seeking assistance during the test.

What happens during my UCAT test?

  1. Once you are ready, follow the on-screen instructions.
  2. Your exam will be in the following order:
  • Verbal Reasoning
  • Decision Making
  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Abstract Reasoning
  • Situational Judgement
  1. You will have one minute before each section to read the instructions. You can skip it, but this will not give you an extra minute to answer the questions. Use this time to give your mind a quick break.
  2. If you have any issues, such as requiring a toilet break, you can quietly raise your hand. However, your time will continue running.
  3. After your exam, there may be an opportunity to answer a short optional survey on UCAT ANZ preparation and the quality of the venue.
  4. Raise your hand when you've finished and the examiner will guide you out of the exam room. You need to return your laminated board and marker pen.
  5. Collect your belongings and leave the test centre.
  6. Your UCAT ANZ results will be available in your Pearson VUE account within 24 hours. You will receive an email with instructions to access your score report through your account. All results will be delivered to UCAT ANZ Consortium universities automatically.
  7. If you’ve achieved the scores that you desire, well done.
  8. Even if you haven’t achieved the scores you wanted, congratulate yourself for getting through a really tough process. You've done exceptionally well just to get to this point. Plus, you can always take the UCAT again next year or consider graduate entry to medicine – do not give up on your dream!

Do you need help preparing for the UCAT ANZ? Head over to our UCAT ANZ Online Course and we’ll get you signed up to guide you through the whole process.

We provide a huge bank of 20,000+ questions, 24 unique full mock exams, 40+ mini-mock exams, 50+ hours of video tutorials, and performance feedback. We've also upgraded our UCAT mock exams 13-24 and revised our practice question bank to enrich your preparation journey.

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