Can you buy success in the Hpat tests?

Q. My son would like to study medicine, and is likely to do well in his Leaving Cert, but the Hpat is an unknown quantity for us. I know there has been some controversy about it. How do you score well in the Hpat? Are there tricks and tips? Does practice help? Do we need to shell out for the expensive coaching sessions? (And if they work, doesn’t this undermine the whole point of the test?)

A. The Health Professions Admission Test (Hpat) was introduced as an additional assessment on top of a student’s Leaving Cert points score, to determine their suitability for a career in medicine.

It tests an applicant’s skills in logical reasoning and problem solving, interpersonal understanding, and non-verbal reasoning.

Although the Hpat designers ACER claimed intense grinding wouldn’t improve a student’s scores, a review by the five medical faculties three years after its introduction found 40 per cent of successful applicants each year had improved their Hpat score and so got a place in an undergraduate medical school.

The report found the greatest improvement in the non-verbal reasoning section. In 2014 its weighting was reduced to 20 per cent of the overall marks, and points for medicine dropped by 14-18 across all five medical schools. In 2015 they increased again by two to three CAO points.

In fairness to ACER, they always said practice of the sample questions provided to all applicants improves performance. Parents and students who have the financial resources take that to its logical conclusion and seek intensive preparation courses to help get a place in medicine.

Some students who get at least 550 CAO points in their Leaving Cert (points between 550 and 625 are discounted down to 20 per cent of their value for medical applications) spend an additional year doing a Hpat revision course. One student I know did so last year and improved her Hpat score from 35th to 83rd percentile.

It is therefore beyond question the introduction of Hpat has put up a huge financial barrier to aspiring medical students. One of the biggest providers of Hpat courses told me that he is embarrassed by the obscene sums he is making from these courses, but because of the huge demand he serves the market.

A number of medical faculties now want to drop the test but don’t want to return to students repeating the Leaving Cert to gain five or 10 extra points for a place. The solution is simple: allocate a high fixed percentage of all places to first-sit Leaving Cert students. Will this happen? Not likely; the present system locks out those without wealth, and suits those in whose interest it is to reduce competition for places.

For more information about the HPAT exam or to book a HPAT preparation course click here.

Brian Mooney, Irish Times.