How to Prepare for the Thinking Skills Assessment at Oxford, Cambridge and UCL
Updated 23 June 2021
Candidates who are planning on entering further education at some of the UK’s top universities may be required to take one or more tests known as the Thinking Skills Assessment.
Candidates who apply for specific courses at the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge or University College London (UCL) will be expected to take this assessment in either one or two parts.
What Is the Purpose of the Assessment?
The TSA is designed to measure a candidate’s competence in the areas of critical-thinking and problem-solving. These are deemed key skills within the field of further education and an aptitude in these areas is a prerequisite for entry to some courses.
Because no specialized knowledge is required for the TSA and candidates cannot revise a particular subject area, the assessment is designed to promote equality amongst applicants.
Students are graded on their own merits in response to the questions presented to all candidates.
Who Is Required to Take It?
Applicants to the following courses at the University of Oxford should expect to take the TSA:
- Economics and Management
- Experimental Psychology
- History and Economics
- Human Sciences
- Philosophy and Linguistics
- Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE)
- Psychology and Linguistics
- Psychology and Philosophy
Applicants for the following courses at the University of Cambridge should expect to take the TSA:
- Computer Science
- Human, Social and Political Sciences
- Land Economy
- Natural Sciences
Applicants for the following courses at UCL will be required to take the TSA:
- European Social and Political Studies
- European Social and Political Studies (Dual Degree)
What Exactly Is Being Tested?
The TSA aims to measure a candidate’s critical-thinking skills and their ability to comprehend arguments and apply reason to scenarios they are presented with. It also tests their ability to solve problems and apply logic.
It is defined as testing ‘generic academic skills’ which are necessary across a broad range of subjects. This helps to define which candidates have the required entry-level skills to be successful in their chosen courses.
Format of the Assessment
The assessment varies slightly depending on the university.
Candidates applying to Cambridge or UCL are required to take a 90-minute test comprising 50 questions in a multiple-choice format. One mark is available for each answer.
University of Oxford candidates are expected to take a test of two hours in total. This is divided into two sections: a 90-minute test of 50 multiple-choice questions and a 30-minute written assessment.
Section One of the Oxford TSA
This primary section comprises the Thinking Skills Assessment portion of the test. This is made up of 50 multiple-choice questions, the same as for the other universities. This test lasts 90 minutes and there is one mark available for each question.
This part of the assessment tests a candidate’s critical-thinking abilities (verbal reasoning, competence in comprehending arguments or information) and problem-solving (including a student’s ability to process numbers and their spatial reasoning skills). There are 25 questions of each type.
Section Two of the Oxford TSA
The second part of the test is a written assessment. This part of the test aims to assess how clearly and concisely a candidate can communicate their ideas in writing.
This section will be assessed by an admissions tutor instead of being graded against a specific score.
Students select one question from four possible questions. Essays must not be longer than two sides of A4.
Scrap paper is provided for planning purposes which will not be marked.
There are certain exceptions to the two-part assessment rule for Oxford candidates. Students who are applying to study History of Economics are not required to take Section Two (the written assessment).
TSA Example Questions
If Bateman & Sons refuse to increase wages, staff morale will continue to decline and productivity will also drop. This would mean a decrease in company profits and potentially the end of the family-owned business. The company must either pay higher wages to its staff or run the risk of having to close down permanently.
Which of the following would best express the conclusion of the above argument?
A. Staff morale has reached a critically low level
B. If wages are not increased the business could cease trading
C. The employers have to accept a dip in productivity
D. A dip in productivity could mean the end of the business for good
E. If wages are raised then the company will be saved
If you read the first two sentences carefully, they set out the consequences of the firm not increasing wages: staff morale will continue to drop and productivity will fall, leading to reduced profits and the possibility of the business ceasing to trade.
The final sentence indicates exactly how the company must act to avoid these consequences: it must pay higher wages or run the risk of closing.
Essentially, we can ascertain that: we must perform X, or Y will probably occur. This is comparable to saying that if we do not perform X, then Y may occur.
Answer B expresses this and is the correct answer.
A is not the conclusion because the argument does not make this claim. It goes so far as to say that staff morale will continue to drop unless wages are increased but lacks the confirmation that morale has reached a critically low level.
C is not the conclusion because the argument implies that there is a way to avoid a decrease in productivity.
D is not the conclusion. It instead informs the conclusion.
E is not the conclusion because it goes beyond the parameters of what the argument claims and works on the premise of assumption: the company may not be saved either way.
My grandmother often says, “One spoonful for each person and another for the teapot,” as she makes tea for us all.
We used to have to buy one packet of tea every week but since I got married and my husband has lived with us, we buy two packets every fifth week and only one the rest of the time.
How many people lived at home before my husband arrived?
The correct answer is A.
The family is now using six packets of tea in the same time frame that they used to only use five. From this, you can conclude that adding one more spoonful every time the husband arrived has increased the amount used by 20%.
The only corresponding numbers that differ by 20% would be 5 and 6, so keeping in mind ‘one for the pot’ there would be 5 people at home now so 4 before the husband arrived.
TSA2 – Written Assessment
The most popular essay question from the second section of the 2019 TSA was:
'Should children strike to demand action on a major issue such as climate change?'
Previous questions include thought-provoking titles such as:
'Why is vision so important to humans?' and 'Is "ethical consumerism" a solution to poverty or a dangerous distraction?'
Model answers will focus on the specific question at hand rather than addressing the subject broadly. They will use defined arguments, rather than those based on conjecture.
What Is an Acceptable Test Score?
For the first part of the assessment, marking is automated and a score between 1 and 100 is available. The vast majority of students who apply to Cambridge will score somewhere in the mid to high 50s and only a small proportion will achieve a score above 70.
For those who are required to take Section Two of the assessment, it is more difficult to quantify the expectations around test results because it is essay-based and graded by individual tutors.
Specific grading criteria for the TSA2 is unavailable and will be at the tutor’s discretion.
What to Expect
The first part of the assessment (TSA1) is made up of 50 questions and students are allocated 90 minutes to complete the test.
Candidates are advised to attempt all questions as marks are not deducted for incorrect answers.
The second section, or TSA2, is a 30-minute essay-based question. Emphasis is on quality and not quantity, therefore the university advises students to THINK, PLAN, WRITE.
The more successful essays tend to have a word count of 450–550 words.
Where Can the TSA Be Taken?
The assessments are taken at specialized test centres around the UK.
Candidates who are applying to the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge are required to find their local test centre and register themselves.
University College London arranges the test for candidates at their local test centre and will contact students with the relevant details.
Although administration fees can be charged by local testing centres, the TSA itself does not require a specific fee.
Candidates should expect to undertake both of these assessments under usual exam conditions, without the use of calculators, and no external learning materials are permitted.
All assessments are in pen-and-paper format, although relevant provisions should be made for students with disabilities to take the TSA in an accessible way.
When Can Students Take the TSA?
The dates vary year by year and depend on which university students are applying to.
The University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge usually publish their registration and test dates well in advance and these can be accessed online.
As UCL arranges the tests on behalf of their candidates, it is advisable to contact the admissions team directly with any questions regarding where or when the TSA can be taken.
When Are Results Released?
Students applying to Oxford or Cambridge are notified when their results are available and these are accessed through an online portal. They are usually only available for 60 days from the January following the test.
Result-sharing methods vary at UCL so it is best to consult with the admissions office.
Best Ways to Prepare for the TSA
The most effective preparation for the TSA is to thoroughly utilize the wealth of information available online.
- Past papers can be viewed on the Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing website
- The University of Oxford website offers clear guidance on the essay-writing portion of the TSA
- Helpful videos which include text, infographics and narration regarding the TSA are on Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing’s official YouTube channel.
As the aim of the TSA is to test knowledge and assess skills that students already possess, practising past questions under timed conditions should provide sufficient preparation.
The last few questions of the assessment are the most difficult, so it is advisable to keep this in mind and possibly consider practising this section of the test first.
If you are feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of taking the TSA, your tutor will be able to offer advice on how to proceed so that you don’t take the assessment feeling unprepared.
Some students may decide to pay for private tuition or to enrol in a test support program. However, the amount of free information online means there is no need for the majority of students to spend money on preparing for the assessment.
If you decide to receive paid tuition, Uni Admissions has a dedicated TSA program and claims its students are three times more likely to gain a place at Oxbridge (a term that refers to Oxford and Cambridge together) than the average student.
It provides intensive courses, one-to-one tuition and specialized courses delivered by Oxbridge tutors. It offers a 14-day money-back guarantee for those wishing to pursue paid tuition or who are still exploring their options.
A good TSA score is a prerequisite to gaining a place on certain courses at some of the UK’s top universities.
If you choose a course which requires candidates to successfully pass this assessment, you must prepare thoroughly and use the information and tips widely available online. This will provide you with the best chance of achieving success, bringing you one step closer to realizing an accomplished, productive future within your chosen further-education field.