Medicine is largely a people-oriented career, which is one of the reasons HPAT tests how well you can understand people in a personal and professional setting. Whilst you can try to “study” for this section of the exam, the best way to develop and refine your interpersonal skills leading up to the HPAT is via emotional reflection and understanding certain concepts. ‘Understanding People’ questions will frequently require you to assign a specific emotion a person might be feeling at a given time. This blog will cover how to approach such a question methodically, in various steps.


STEP 1: Recognise what is verbally expressed in the text by looking at direct evidence from the dialogue. Important verbal cues to look out for are responses from characters in the form of questions and answers and any “strong language” that might be used.


STEP 2: Assess the appropriateness of the dialogue within the context of the passage. That is, reflect on the setting that the characters are in and what the purpose of the dialogue might be. Also consider the time and sensitivity of the topic covered. Sometimes insight can be gained by the repetitiveness of the questions/responses. For example, if the patient is using urgent language and repeatedly asking the same question, that might indicate worry or distress.


STEP 3: Mentally assign what the “primary” emotion might be concerning the character. These can be wide categories such as happiness, empathy, depression, anger, fear, confusion etc. This can help frame the way you think about the text and characters involved.


STEP 4: Identify anything that might be non-verbally expressed. Look at evidence from the text such as hesitancy to participate, body language and use of punctuation. Many non-verbal cues can be gleaned from the way characters describe the surroundings and environment. For example, the use of silence or lack-lustre responses can be evident in doctor-patient interactions. The aim of identifying these non-verbal cues is to help define the primary emotion you assigned by adding depth, direction and stance.


STEP 5: Mentally assign what you think the “secondary” emotion might be. This could be a subset of the primary emotion. For example irritation, rage, disgust and exasperation can all be secondary to the primary emotion of “anger”.


STEP 6: Add to the secondary emotion by understanding the “relative positioning” of the character in question. This can include their designated role or any underlying expectations. One factor to consider is the nature of the relationship and whether there is any dependency; such as in implied friendships, doctor-patient interactions or parent-child relationships.


STEP 7: Mentally assign what the “tertiary” emotion would be. This would be different levels of intensity of a secondary emotion. For example aggravation, agitation, annoyance, grumpiness are all different intensities of “irritation”.


STEP 8: Finally, after considering all this, choose the emotion in the question stem that best fits the situation. If two emotions are given for each option, choose the option where both emotions are correct in describing the situation.



It is important to improve your emotional vocabulary. There are lists available on the LMS as well as other internet resources. Emotions are subjective and people can interpret certain situations differently. By having a strong understanding of what certain emotion words mean, as well as carefully looking at all the evidence provided, you can have rational approach in understanding people.