Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA)

This admissions test is taken for some Oxford and Cambridge courses.
Last updated: 1 year, 2 months ago


The TSA forms a key part of the admissions process for many courses at Oxford, and some at Cambridge. It is a challenge. But it doesn’t need to be daunting. With a bit of preparation, you can familiarise yourself with the TSA and get ready for the exam - and maybe even improve your thinking skills a bit in the process!

How to Prepare

Here are some general resources related to the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA). Use this page as a hub to branch off and use other resources!

The Basics

‘The Thinking Skills Assessment is a paper-based test, divided into two parts: a 90-minute, multiple-choice Thinking Skills Assessment and a 30-minute writing task.

If you are applying for one of the following courses at Oxford, you will be required to take both sections of the TSA: Economics and Management 🔗 | Experimental Psychology 🔗 | Human Sciences 🔗 | Philosophy, Politics and Economics 🔗 | Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics 🔗.

However, if you are applying for either Chemistry 🔗 or History and Economics 🔗, you will be required to take only Section 1.

At Cambridge, Section 1 of the TSA is required from applicants to the Land Economy 🔗 course.

Section 1 is made up of 50 multiple-choice questions and aims to assess the following: problem-solving skills, including numerical and spatial reasoning; critical thinking skills, including the ability to understand an argument; and the ability to reason using everyday language.

Section 2 is a writing task that seeks to evaluate a candidate’s ability to organise ideas in a clear and concise manner, and communicate them effectively in writing. Questions are not subject-specific and candidates must answer one question from a choice of four.’

(Source 🔗 Accessed: 29/09/2019.)

You need to be registered. This is done separately to UCAS. Please check the details and dates for Oxford 🔗 and Cambridge 🔗 respectively.

Getting Started

Oxford TSA Introduction and Past Papers 🔗 🌟 Visit this page to find out more about the basics, like what this test is and if you’ll have to take it.

Cambridge TSA introduction 🔗 🌟 At the time of writing, the TSA Cambridge is required only for Land Economy. (Thinking Skills / Problem Solving sections are a part of some of the other Cambridge admissions tests, though.)

TSA Support Workshop webinar by Jesus College, Oxford 🔗 🌟 An introduction to the types of questions you may face in the TSA, along with suggestions on how to tackle them.

TSA Oxford video 🔗 This video explains the structure of the TSA, as well as going through some example questions and giving some basic information on how to prepare. (TSA question explanations start at 5:45.)

TSA Oxford FAQs 🔗 Have any questions? They might be answered here…

TSA Cambridge FAQs: 🔗…or here. (These pages are very similar.)

Taking the Plunge

TSA Specimen Paper 🔗 🌟 Try taking this specimen Section 1. (This one says ‘Oxford’ but is identical to the Cambridge specimen.)

Explained answers to TSA specimen paper 🔗 🌟 Then go through your answers, right and wrong, and compare your reasoning to the explanations here.

Pushing for Progress

The TSA does not require a lot of learning and memorisation. In this way, it is not like an A-level. Content is not king; what matters is your ability to think quickly. You can improve this ability and prepare to exercise it within the specific constraints of the TSA, but you can’t really revise (study) for this test like you might for normal academic exams.

Probably, the best preparation is to take past papers in timed conditions, and then carefully go through your answers. Some people find it useful to note down the errors that they have made along the way.

Here are some other things you could look at to try to improve your score.

TSA test specification 🔗 This document is very useful. It gives a worked example of each type of Problem Solving and Critical Thinking question you will come up against in Section 1, as well as explaining the ‘mathematical knowledge and skills needed’ (on page 10). The maths you need isn’t advanced, but this list is worth checking if you haven’t done maths for a while.

Wi-Phi (Wireless Philosophy) Critical Thinking videos 🔗 These videos provide a fun and straightforward introduction to critical thinking, and may be useful in developing the skills you’re being tested on in the Critical Thinking questions.

‘How to Beat the TSA!!’ (Jesus College Oxford) 🔗 🌟 Dr Matthew Williams explains what the TSA is and why it exists, as well as providing some tips on how to do well in this test.

Similar Questions

The TSA past papers available online should give you more than enough practice material, but here are some others if you yearn for yet more!

BMAT Section 1 🔗 The newer BMAT papers are closest in format to the TSA.

ECAA Section 1 🔗 The specimen and past papers for Cambridge’s Economics Admissions Assessment provide useful Problem Solving questions. Some, but not all, of the Problem Solving questions are also used for the GAA, so it might be a good idea to take the GAA Section 1 under timed conditions and then come to these questions.

IMAT ‘General Knowledge and Logical Reasoning’ 🔗 Ignore the ‘General Knowledge’ questions. This type of question will not come up in the TSA.

If you want even more questions, then you could try
- Repeating past papers you have already taken.
- Some A-level Critical Thinking questions, which are designed to test similar skills to the Critical Thinking questions in the TSA. (However, these are usually in a different format.)
- UKMT questions, or international equivalents, which test related problem solving abilities in maths. Some people recommend these as practice, but it’s worth pointing out that they are often very different in style to TSA questions.
- Mock TSA questions or papers from books. These might be useful, but aren’t necessary for success: there are plenty of other resources out there, and lots of people score high marks without any of these resources. Also, sometimes the questions aren’t very well-written. If you do want to use them, check out your local library.

Section 2: The Essay (Oxford only)

For most courses at Oxford (but not all), you will also have to write a 30-minute essay as part of your TSA. It does not seem to be as important as Section 1, but it’s an unusually short amount of time and so probably worth practising if you get the chance. The content of your essay does not need to be incredible. The most important thing is to have a clear, logical structure.

Here are some resources to help.

TSA Writing Task Guidelines 🔗 🌟 This is a brief introduction to the writing task, written by Cambridge Assessment, which is a test of skills.

TSA Section 2: the half-hour essay 🔗 This document answers some questions about the essay section, as well as discussing three essay questions.

‘Write a Perfect TSA Essay!!’ (Jesus College Oxford) 🔗 Dr Williams has experience marking this section. Here is his advice on how to tackle it.

‘Admissions Test: How to write a timed essay’ (Jamie Miles) 🔗 🌟 This entertaining video provides a student’s perspective on how to tackle the essay section.

Tips and Tricks

Here are some more ideas that might be useful. But remember that they’re just personal opinions, so don’t take them too seriously :)

- As a challenge, try taking a TSA paper in less than the normal amount of time. You might (or might not) find this ‘altitude training’ useful.
- On the other end of the spectrum, you could try spending as long as you like on a paper, working at it until you’re confident in all of your answers. That way, you could separate errors where there might be conceptual gaps from errors that were made because of time pressure.
- Try answering the questions in a different order. Some people find it helpful to answer questions by category, or even taking the whole paper backwards! (But it is probably a good idea to try this on a past paper before trying anything radical in the actual exam.)
- If you find yourself struggling to understand why certain questions have the answers they have, try talking to friends or teachers about them.
- If you’re still not sure, it might be worth trying to get hold of a ‘worked solutions’ book. You might be able to find one in your local library. Although you don’t need one of these to do well in the TSA, they can be useful.
- To do well in the TSA, you need discipline and focus. These things are made much easier when you look after yourself: try to get good sleep, consistently; eat healthy food; and talk to people if you’re finding yourself with runaway stress. You will have probably heard these things emphasised before, but that’s because they really are important!

Good luck!