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How to Prepare for the NSAA

How to Prepare for the NSAA

4 min Read|September 26 2023
|Written by:

Thomas Babb


When it comes to Natural Sciences and Veterinary Sciences at Cambridge, over 65% of students regularly have a total of over 90% UMS across all of their A-Level subjects. To further distinguish between students, the Natural Sciences Admissions Assessment (NSAA) was introduced.

The NSAA is a two-hour long exam which is split up evenly between two 60 minute sections. There are absolutely no resits within this paper, with students only getting one chance to apply during an admission cycle.

In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the NSAA and how to prepare for the NSAA so that you’re ready come exam day. Let’s get right into it.

How is the NSAA Structured?

There are a total of 60 questions on the NSAA, split across two sections. In Section 1, there are 40 multiple-choice questions within two subjections (20 per part). In Section 2, there are only 20 multiple-choice questions in total. Students should aim to spend 60 minutes on both Sections, taking up the full two hours.

NSAA guide


Each part of the question paper focuses on a different set of skills, with each Section testing your abilities in different ways.

Section 1 NSAA

The first Section consists of four parts: Maths, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. From these four, you’re able to choose Maths and one of the sciences, completing a total of two question sets within this Section. Every single question in these two subsections is worth one mark.

Depending on which science you choose within the exam, you’ll have to know a range of different ideas:

  • Physics - Thermal Physics, Matter, Waves, Electricity, Magnetism, Mechanics, Radioactivity.
  • Chemistry - Periodic Table, Chemical Reactions and Equations, Inorganic Chemistry, Separation Techniques, Atomic Structure, Particle Theory.
  • Biology - Genetics, Enzymes, Plant Physiology, Ecosystems, Animal Physiology.

Depending on what you want to specialise on when you’re studying Natural Sciences, you probably have a favourite science that you’re better at. You should always attempt the questions that you feel most confident about within this first Section.

Remember that the Maths section is required, no matter which science you want to do, so be sure to brush up on your A-Level Maths before the exam.

Section 2 NSAA

Section 2 is all about pushing students out of their comfort zone and testing their applied thinking skills. Beyond just core knowledge that was needed in Section 1, this part of the exam is all about thriving in unfamiliar contexts.

Within Section 2, there are three question sets that you can focus on, with students having to focus on only one set of questions. Each of the potential sections represents a science, with a pathway for Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.

Within these questions, you’re tested on advanced knowledge from the science, as well as your mathematical skills. This Section is considerably more difficult than the first, resulting in a question set that takes students much longer to get through.

Within Sections 1 + 2, you are graded on a scale of 1-9, with 9 being the highest possible grade.

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How to Prepare for the NSAA Exam

The NSAA exam is far from easy, with students having both exam pressure and the pressure of choice. Typically, students end up scanning all of the question sets before beginning to answer their questions, which can waste a lot of time in the exam. Considering that there isn’t much time to begin with, and that the Section 2 questions are very long, you’ll be working right up to the last minute.

With this in mind, we’ve constructed a few core tips that will help you to prepare for the NSAA exam:

  • Thrive in Uncertainty
  • Practise Past Papers

Let’s break these down further.

Thrive in Uncertainty

One of the main aspects that students who take the NSAA struggle with most is the fact that they often have to read paragraphs of text before getting to the question they’re being asked. Instead of a paper that gets to the point, the NSAA provides a huge amount of context, with part of the exam being for students to sift through information and find what is useful.

While this seems like a situation that would fill most students with panic, you need to learn to thrive in the uncertainty. Spend time working through problems and pulling out key information so that when you arrive at the question itself, you’re able to answer it with all the available knowledge.

Thrive in the uncertainty of the question, and you’ll do well in this exam.

Practise Past Papers

Although only around 10 years old, this paper has a huge range of past papers that you’re able to work through. Be sure to spend time practising all of these past papers as they’re the best possible reflection of what will come up on exam day.

Each of these past papers comes with a mark scheme, allowing you to work through questions, check if you’re right or wrong, and then work out exactly how to answer the question. By going through all of the past papers, you’ll have a great base established when it comes to the exam day.

Final Thoughts

The NSAA exam will put students from around the UK to the test, forcing them to draw upon all of their knowledge in Maths and their preferred sciences in order to perform well. As an exam where many students have to rush through questions, there is a lot of pressure on individual exam takes.

We recommend that you spend at least a month or two working through past papers and fine-tuning your skills in A-level Maths, A-Level Physics, A-Level Biology, and A-Level Chemistry to ensure that you’re as prepared as can be come exam day.

If you’re looking for an online NSAA tutor or a tutor in the A-Level Sciences, then be sure to reach out to one of our top tutors at TutorChase. Get in contact today and we’ll be able to match you with a professional online tutor that has taken and excelled in the NSAA exam themselves.

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Professional tutor and Cambridge University researcher

Thomas Babb

Written by: Thomas Babb

Oxford University - PhD Mathematics

Thomas is a PhD candidate at Oxford University. He served as an interviewer and the lead admissions test marker at Oxford, and teaches undergraduate students at Mansfield College and St Hilda’s College. He has ten years’ experience tutoring A-Level and GCSE students across a range of subjects.

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