University entrance exams: TSA 101

Students will be asked to take the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA) if they apply for:

  1. Land Economy at the University of Cambridge
  2. European Social and Political Studies (ESPS) at UCL
  3. Chemistry, Economics and Management, Experimental Psychology, Geography, History and Economics, Human Sciences, Philosophy and Linguistics, Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE), Psychology and Linguistics or Psychology and Philosophy at the University of Oxford

The TSA is designed to test two types of thinking: problem-solving and critical thinking.

The TSA is designed to test two types of thinking: problem-solving and critical thinking. Problem-solving is the process of finding solutions to difficult or complex issues. Critical thinking is the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgement.

In the context of the TSA, problem-solving is basically non-verbal reasoning, and critical thinking is basically verbal reasoning. Both problem-solving and critical thinking are assessed by multiple-choice questions in the TSA S1 (the part of the TSA taken by all TSA entrants). The TSA S1 is a 90-minute test. The questions are presented in order of difficulty, with the different types of question interspersed throughout the test, so that students will be exposed to a fair balance of the different styles of question if they don’t finish the test in time.

The TSA Oxford (the version of the test students will need to take if they are applying for a relevant subject at Oxford) includes an additional 30-minute writing task.

Students should being their preparation for the TSA S1 by consulting the TSA test specification. It explains what the TSA is testing, and sets out the types of questions they will be asked.

Students should check that they’re happy with concepts such as percentages, and with extracting information from graphs and tables, especially if they’re not doing Maths A level.

The mathematical knowledge and skills needed for the problem-solving questions are listed on page 9 of the test specification; students should check that they’re happy with concepts such as percentages, and with extracting information from graphs and tables, especially if they’re not doing Maths A level.

Students will be asked three kinds of problem-solving question in the TSA 1: relevant selection, finding procedures, and identifying similarity. In a relevant selection question, they’ll need to select the relevant information and use it to solve a problem. In a finding procedures question, they’ll need to find a procedure which they can use to solve a problem. In an identifying similarity question, they’ll be presented with a set of information and asked to identify if another set of data has a similar structure.

Page 10 of the test specification presents a method for understanding arguments based on reasons, conclusions, and assumptions. An argument is good provided the conclusion follows from, or is supported by, the reasons. Sometimes a conclusion is introduced by words such as ‘so’ or ‘therefore’, but sometimes it is not. A conclusion can appear at the beginning, middle, or end of an argument. Some arguments may omit a stage in the reasoning – an assumption must be made in order for the conclusion to follow. Students will need to be able to identify assumptions and reasoning errors in order to answer some of the critical thinking questions. They’ll be asked seven kinds of critical thinking question in the TSA 1: summarising the main conclusion, drawing a conclusion, identifying an assumption, assessing the impact of additional evidence, detecting reasoning errors, matching arguments, and applying principles.

Working through the specimen test, marking work using the specimen answer sheet, and understanding why they made the mistakes they made using the specimen explained answers is the best way for students to prepare for the TSA. They can work through the past papers here until they’re familiar with the format and style of the test.

“Ignore people who say you can’t prepare for the TSA – I definitely got better with practice. You’ll come across the same sorts of question in each test, so over time you’ll get the hang of what you need to do.”

“Ignore people who say you can’t prepare for the TSA – I definitely got better with practice. You’ll come across the same sorts of question in each test, so over time you’ll get the hang of what you need to do. Make sure you take the time to understand why you’re making the mistakes you’re making, so you can learn from them. It can be helpful to go through some past papers with someone else, because it’s not always easy to understand why one answer is right and another isn’t. I worked through the past papers with my mum, but someone who’s actually done the test might’ve been even better!” – James C, PPE at St Anne’s College, Oxford University

“I enjoyed preparing for and doing the TSA – I’d never done anything quite like it, and it was really good fun! It’s not a test of what you know, so you have to think on your feet. When I tutor the TSA, I ask my student to do a paper before each tutorial, and then we discuss the questions they found hardest in the tutorial. It’s good to chat about the answers – that way, you can work out how to get through the paper at speed. For the essay, I think reading the headlines regularly is really important – you need to have a good understanding of what’s going on in the world. The essay is not like other essays – you don’t have much time at all, and it’s not subject-specific – so it’s a question of trial and error. It’s great to see how much – and how quickly – students can improve!” – Eleanor F, PPE at Somerville College, Oxford University

If your student applies for Economics and Management, Experimental Psychology, Geography, Human Sciences, Philosophy and Linguistics, Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE), Psychology and Linguistics or Psychology and Philosophy at the University of Oxford, they will do the TSA S1 and the TSA Oxford writing task.

The TSA Oxford writing task is designed to test students’ ability to select, develop and order their ideas in a clear and concise manner.

The TSA Oxford writing task is designed to test students’ ability to select, develop and order their ideas in a clear and concise manner. There will be a choice of essay questions, none of which will be subject-specific. Students will only have 30 minutes to write their essay – making planning all the more important. A concise and well-structured one-page answer may be more effective than a longer answer. Remind your students that it is essential to address the question directly, as they don’t have time to go off-topic. Students should also remember that the quality of their writing is being assessed!

Example questions include ‘In order to be a successful leader, is it better to be loved or feared?’ and ‘Why is vision so important to human beings?’. The questions don’t have right or wrong answers. Planning answers to past paper questions is one of the best ways to prepare.

“When presenting your argument, try to anticipate the counter-arguments, and set out why your conclusion is stronger than the alternatives.”

“Plan your essay before you start writing – otherwise, it’ll be difficult to structure your essay properly! The introduction is really important: clearly set out how you intend to answer the question. Hinting at your conclusion in the introduction will help you to stay focussed throughout the essay. Each paragraph in the main body of your essay should build on the paragraph before it. Begin each paragraph with a sentence that makes the point of the paragraph clear, and relates the subject of the paragraph back to the question. When presenting your argument, try to anticipate the counter-arguments, and set out why your conclusion is stronger than the alternatives.” – Joe M, PPE at St Catherine’s College, Oxford

“First of all, think about what you’d do if you had to answer Yes, No, or Maybe. This will help you structure your essay. If you answer Maybe, make sure that the main body of your essay doesn’t come across as non-committal, and that you have good reasons for not being able to give a Yes or No answer. One such reason would be that the answer to the question is highly contextual.” – Sophie A, PPE at Balliol College, Oxford

First of all, think about what you’d do if you had to answer Yes, No, or Maybe. This will help you structure your essay.

“Choose the question that interests you the most, not the question that you find the easiest. You’ll show off your academic potential best if you’re writing about something you really care about. Answer the question. Don’t go off on a tangent – you don’t have time, and Oxford tutors hate waffle (trust me!). Take a side. Show you’re aware that there are different points of view, but don’t let your essay become too descriptive. Use counter-arguments to bolster your own argument.” – Tom R, MPhil in Politics (Comparative Government) at St Anne’s College, Oxford

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