How to succeed in the BMAT writing task


This blog is written by Jason, who is available for private tutoring.

As in the other sections of the BMAT test, speed and accuracy are essential for the Writing Task of Section 3. Unlike the previous two sections, rather than being graded 1-7, this paper is graded with a number for content and a letter for the quality of communication, with the highest mark being 5A. Only 30 minutes is allowed.

The Writing Task gives you a choice of three questions, each consisting of a statement, or proposition. Usually two of the propositions are clearly related to medicine, and one is more general, or related to science and technology more widely.  Here are some recent examples:

  • “The health care profession is wrong to treat ageing as if it were a disease.”  
  • “The option of taking strike action should not be available to doctors as they have a special duty of care to their patients.”
  • “Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.” (Pablo Picasso)

Clearly each of these offers potential for some lively discussion. Once you have chosen, the examiners state that you must:

  • Explain or discuss the proposition’s implications;
  • Suggest a counter argument or proposition;
  • Suggest a (method for) resolution.

In order to be awarded a top mark, you must write an answer that is “cogent”, which is an examiner’s way of saying that it needs to be a clear, logical and convincing answer.  But what exactly does that mean in practice?

In Section 3 of the BMAT, a cogent, high-scoring, response should be:

Your whole answer needs to fit onto the answer sheet provided – one side of A4 paper. Every word you write must be to the point – there is certainly no space for any repetition or anything not directly relevant to your exploration of the proposition. And you certainly shouldn’t waste any space copying out the question before you begin.

A clear, three-part answer is required, divided into three indented paragraphs. The questions are designed to see whether you can organise your thoughts clearly, selecting your best ideas for the answer – you won’t be able to write all of them. This requires discipline, practice, and of course a plan.  Even though time is limited, the best answers will always be planned, with ideas for each paragraph, key words, and examples jotted down on a separate piece of paper. This is the only way to ensure that you pace yourself correctly and build an argument that leads towards what they call a “compelling synthesis or conclusion”.

One of the greatest challenges of writing a successful answer for Section 3 is that as well as being interesting, logical and intelligent, the examiners expect it to address “ALL aspects of the question”.  In order to achieve this, it is important to begin with a thorough analysis of the proposition, discussing its main implications and demonstrating an appreciation of the reasoning behind it. Answers that open with a simplistic “translation” or summary invariably run out of steam and fail to achieve the breadth that is needed for a high grade.

The BMAT seeks to identify candidates with “a tendency to take approaches that are critical, evidence-based, and which consider alternatives.”  Section 3 gives you an opportunity to demonstrate this by presenting a strong counter argument in the second paragraph of your response. This needs to be totally convincing and argued in just as rational and persuasive a fashion as the opening paragraph.

Your response to the proposition needs to be firmly grounded in evidence. The examiners refer to such evidence as “general knowledge”, by which they mean that you may refer to non-specialist sources (rather than scientific or medical journals), cases from the news and the media about drug trials, new treatments, patient data breaches, funding shortages, the medical uses of AI, advances in genetics, the emergency services, and so on.

Communication is paramount in Section 3.  Clear writing conveys clear thinking. You need to express yourself fluently and with a “good” vocabulary – rather than grandiloquence – to achieve an A. Resist the temptation to show off!

As in most public exams, autocorrect, spelling/grammar-checkers are not allowed. If you are typing your response, it is therefore a very good idea to practise coping without these tools at home: capital letters, spellings, and correct punctuation between sentences will all make a difference. However, it is also worth noting that examiners expect candidates to have “sound” (not perfect) grammar, and “good punctuation and spelling” for a top mark: answers do not have to be flawless, and a “few slips or errors” are tolerated.

To make a success of the Writing Task therefore requires plenty of practice under timed conditions – both writing and planning answers.  

It is also vital that you choose the right question. The best advice is to avoid questions you feel very strongly about. Instead, choose a proposition that you find layered and interesting; ask yourself whether you are able to devise a strong counter argument; check whether you are able to think up a good set of supporting examples to use as evidence – ensuring that your evidence assists you in responding with a broad discussion, rather than leading you towards a narrow and reductive one.

Finally, remember the importance of background reading. No doubt you will already take an interest in medical and scientific stories in the media, but start recording the key facts of cases that catch your attention, and sorting them into categories.  As you approach the exam and begin practising more frequently, you will be surprised how many of them prove invaluable in your answers.

References above are from the BMAT test specification, assessment criteria, and explained answers, which are available in full from the BMAT website:

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