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Oxbridge Admissions Tests Explained

Oxbridge Admissions Tests Explained

10 min Read|February 17 2024
|Written by:

Thomas Babb

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Gaining admission to the prestigious universities of Oxford and Cambridge, collectively known as Oxbridge, is a process marked by rigorous academic standards and competitive selection criteria. Central to this process are the admissions tests, which play a pivotal role in evaluating the aptitude and potential of applicants. These tests, tailored to assess skills beyond standard examination content, are designed to identify students who are likely to excel in the challenging academic environment of these institutions. The following article offers an in-depth exploration of these admissions tests, providing prospective students with essential information and guidance.

What are Admissions Tests?

Admissions tests at Oxford and Cambridge Universities are a series of standardised assessments intended to evaluate specific skills and knowledge pertinent to the course an applicant is applying for. Unlike typical A-levels or equivalent qualifications, which assess broad subject knowledge, these tests are designed to probe deeper into the students’ ability to think critically, solve problems, and apply their understanding in novel situations.

Purposes and Goals

The primary goal of the admissions tests is to provide a fair and objective measure of an applicant's suitability for their chosen course. Applicants to Oxbridge, who generally possess exceptional academic records, are further evaluated through admissions tests. These tests serve as an additional tool for the universities to assess the unique skills of the students.

Admissions assessments help admissions tutors to discern candidates' abilities in critical thinking, reasoning, and subject-specific skills that are essential for success at Oxbridge. The tests are an opportunity for students to demonstrate their potential, particularly in courses where the subject matter is not covered extensively in standard school curriculums. Due to the high academic standards of these tests, students typically prepare well before the test dates, often with the help of qualified Oxbridge tutors.

Cambridge University Admission Tests Overview

For applicants to Cambridge University, various admission tests are integral to the application process, with the nature of these tests depending on the chosen course. These assessments, designed to evaluate a range of skills and knowledge, play an important role in the university's selection criteria.

Types of Tests at Cambridge

Since 2023, Cambridge conducts two types of tests:

  • Tests conducted before applicants are shortlisted for an interview.
  • Tests conducted after applicants are selected for interview, known as 'College Admissions Assessment.'

Tests Conducted Before Interview Selection

For certain courses, applicants need to take specific tests before they are shortlisted for interviews at Cambridge. Applicants must register for these tests in advance and take them at a designated test centre.

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List of Pre-Interview Tests at Cambridge

1. The Engineering and Science Admissions Test (ESAT):

The ESAT has replaced the former Natural Sciences Admissions Assessment (NSAA) and Engineering Admissions Assessment (ENGAA) tests at Cambridge.

From 2025 entry onwards, the ESAT will be conducted for the following subjects:

  • Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology
  • Engineering
  • Natural Sciences
  • Veterinary Medicine

Format of ESAT:

Computer-based multiple-choice assessments.

  • Duration: Each assessment lasts 40 minutes, taken consecutively on the test day.
  • Total Test Time: Typically 120 minutes.
  • Compulsory Assessment: Mathematics 1 is mandatory for all candidates.
  • Additional Assessments: Depending on the specific Cambridge course applied for, two additional assessments are required from: Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics 2. Specific assessments to be confirmed on 2025 entry course pages in March 2024.
  • Scoring and Approach: No pass or fail grading. Scores based on the number of correct answers. No penalties for wrong answers; advisable to attempt all questions.

2. Test of Mathematics for University Admissions (TMUA), Pearson VUE

This test replaces the previous TMUA conducted by Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing and will be applicable for students applying for the 2025 admissions cycle and onwards.

The updated TMUA is required for students applying to the following courses:

  • Computer Science
  • Economics

Format of TMUA:

  • Total Duration: 2 hours and 30 minutes.
  • Structure: Divided into two parts.

- Part 1 - Applications of Mathematical Knowledge:

  • Objective: Assessing the ability to apply mathematical knowledge in new situations.
  • Content: 20 multiple-choice questions.
  • Duration: 75 minutes.

- Part 2 - Mathematical Reasoning:

  • Objective: Assessing skills in mathematical reasoning and elementary logic.
  • Content: 20 multiple-choice questions.
  • Duration: 75 minutes.

Test Conditions:

  • No use of calculators or dictionaries allowed.

Scoring and Approach:

  • No pass or fail grading.
  • Scores based on the number of correct answers.
  • No penalties for wrong answers; advisable to attempt all questions.

3. University Clinical Aptitude Test (UCAT)

From 2025 entry, the UCAT replaces the previous BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT) test conducted by Cambridge for medicine applicants. The UCAT, which is also used by most other UK medical schools, is typically taken between July and September.

UCAT will be required for applicants to the following courses at Cambridge:

  • Medicine (Standard Course A100)
  • Medicine (Graduate Course)

The test is structured into five distinct multiple-choice sub-tests, each with a specific focus and timed separately:

1. Verbal Reasoning:

  • Evaluates the ability to critically analyse information in written form.

2. Decision Making:

  • Tests the ability to make informed decisions and judgements using complex information.

3. Quantitative Reasoning:

  • Assesses the ability to critically evaluate numerical data.

4. Abstract Reasoning:

  • Measures the use of convergent and divergent thinking to deduce relationships from information.

5. Situational Judgement:

  • Gauges the capacity to understand real-world scenarios, identifying key factors and appropriate responses.

The total duration of the standard test is 2 hours.

Format of the UCAT:

UCAT Format

UCAT Format

4. Law National Admissions Test (LNAT)

Students aspiring to read law at the University of Cambridge will need to take the LNAT, the standard law admissions test that is used by a number of other UK universities too.

Registration for the LNAT takes place between August and September, and the test is administered from 1st September onwards.

Format:

  • Total Duration: 2 hours and 15 minutes.
  • Divided into two sections.

Section A:

  • Format: Computer-based, multiple-choice exam.
  • Number of Questions: 42, based on 12 passages (3-4 questions per passage).
  • Time Allocation: 95 minutes.
  • Focus: Testing comprehension of the passages.
  • Scoring: Checked by computer, with a total mark out of 42 (LNAT score).

Section B:

  • Format: Essay writing.
  • Number of Essay Options: 3 subjects to choose from.
  • Time Allocation: 40 minutes.
  • Assessment: Marked by tutors at the applicant's chosen college.Purpose: To demonstrate the ability to construct an argument and reach a conclusion.

Tests Required Post Interview Selection (College Admission Assessments)

Many courses at Cambridge do not require pre-interview tests, but do require college admissions assessments that are conducted if, and after, applicants are shortlisted for interview.

Registration Not Required

Applicants are not required to register for college admissions assessments. Instead, if you are shortlisted for an interview at Cambridge, the college conducting your interview will organise the necessary college admission assessment for your course.

When Are College Admissions Assessments Conducted?

Depending on the course and college, this test may be conducted at the time of the interview or after it. The relevant Cambridge college will provide specific details on when and how to take this assessment.

List of Courses that Require College Admissions Assessment

The following courses at Cambridge require applicants to take a college admissions assessment:

  • Archaeology
  • Architecture
  • Asian and Middle Eastern Studies (AMES): College admission assessment required for some language combinations.
  • Classics
  • Design
  • Education
  • English
  • Geography
  • History
  • History and Modern Languages
  • History and Politics
  • History of Art
  • Human, Social and Political Sciences
  • Linguistics
  • Mathematics
  • Modern and Medieval Languages (MML)
  • Music
  • Philosophy
  • Psychological and Behavioural Sciences

Courses Not Requiring Test or Assessment

Only a handful of courses at Cambridge do not require any test or assessment. These are:

  • Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic
  • Land Economy
  • Theology, Religion and Philosophy of Religion

Assessment Criteria

Cambridge University's admission assessments focus on evaluating:

  • Skills: This includes writing, language abilities, and mathematical problem-solving.
  • Subject Knowledge: Assessing understanding related to the chosen course.
  • Performance Expectations: It's important to note that not all questions are expected to be answered correctly. The assessments are challenging, and on average, successful applicants to selective courses score around half of the available marks.

Admissions Tests for Oxford

Pre-Interview Tests

Unlike Cambridge, Oxford uses only pre-interview tests. Many of these tests are unique to Oxford, while a few are shared with other UK universities. Also, compared to Cambridge, Oxford has a greater number of courses that do not require admissions tests. Let's go through required admissions tests at Oxford.

Admission Tests Common to Oxford and Other UK Universities:

1. Biomedical Admissions Test (BMAT)

Courses that require the BMAT at Oxford:

  • Biomedical Sciences
  • Medicine
  • Graduate Medicine

Students must register for the BMAT between 1st and 29th September.

Format of test:

  • Duration: 2 hours.

Section Breakdown:

- Section 1:

  • Focuses on problem-solving skills.
  • Understanding arguments.
  • Data analysis and inference.

- Section 2:

  • Based on general science and mathematics knowledge from non-specialist school courses.
  • Tests the application of this knowledge in possibly unfamiliar contexts.

- Section 3:

  • Assesses the ability to develop and effectively communicate ideas in writing.
  • Not a test of specific knowledge.

2. Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA)

Applicants to the following courses are required to take both sections of the TSA:

  • Experimental Psychology, Human Sciences, Philosophy, Politics and Economics, Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics:

Applicants to the following courses are required to take only Section 1 (Thinking Skills Assessment):

  • Economics and Management or History and Economics

Students must register for the TSA between 1st and 29th September.

Format: The TSA is divided into two parts:

1. Thinking Skills Assessment:

  • Duration: 90 minutes.
  • Type: Multiple-choice questions.
  • Total Questions: 50.

Aims to assess:

  • Problem-solving skills, including numerical reasoning.
  • Critical thinking skills, including understanding arguments and reasoning in everyday language.

2. Writing Task:

  • Duration: 30 minutes.
  • Objective: To evaluate the ability to organise ideas clearly and concisely and to communicate them effectively in writing.
  • Requirement: Answer one question from a choice of four.
  • Note: Questions are not subject-specific.

3. Law National Admissions Test (LNAT)

Courses that require LNAT at Oxford:

  • Law
  • Law with Law Studies in Europe

Register between 1st August and 15th September. The LNAT must be taken between 16 October of the year that you apply.

The format of the LNAT has already been discussed in the previous section.

Admissions Tests Exclusive to Oxford

Oxford is revamping testing arrangements for admission tests that are exclusive to the university. Registration and format details of these tests are hence unavailable at the moment. Oxford aims to provide further details about these tests in spring 2024.

Following is a list of the admissions tests exclusive to courses at Oxford:

1. Classic Admissions Test (CAT)

The CAT is required for applicants to the following courses:

  • Classics
  • Classics and English
  • Classics and Modern Languages
  • Classics and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies.

2. English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT)

The ELAT is conducted for students applying to the following courses:

  • English Language and Literature
  • Classics and English
  • English and Modern Languages
  • History and English.

3. Geography Admissions Test (GAT)

Student applying to the Geography undergraduate course at Oxford are required to undertake the GAT.

4. History Admissions Test (HAT)

The HAT is required for the following courses:

  • History, History (Ancient and Modern)
  • History and Economics
  • History and English
  • History and Modern Languages
  • History and Politics.

5. Mathematics Admissions Test (MAT)

Students applying to the following courses at Oxford are required to take the MAT:

  • Computer Science
  • Computer Science and Philosophy
  • Mathematics
  • Mathematics and Computer Science
  • Mathematics and Philosophy
  • Mathematics and Statistics.

6. Modern Languages Admissions Test (MLAT)

The MLAT is required for the following courses:

  • European and Middle Eastern Languages
  • Classics and Modern Languages
  • English and Modern Languages
  • History and Modern Languages
  • Modern Languages
  • Modern Languages and Linguistics
  • Philosophy and Modern Languages.

7. Physics Admissions Test (PAT)

The PAT is required for students applying to these courses:

  • Engineering Science
  • Materials Science
  • Physics
  • Physics and Philosophy.

8. Philosophy Test

Finally, the Philosophy Test is required for students applying to the Philosophy and Theology course.

Courses With No Admissions Tests at Oxford

The following courses at Oxford do not require applicants to sit an admissions test:

  • Archaeology and Anthropology
  • Biochemistry
  • Biology
  • Classical Archaeology and Ancient History
  • Earth Science
  • History of Arts
  • Theology and Religion

Upcoming Announcements

It is important to note that as both universities adapt to changing educational landscapes, more updates on the admissions tests can be expected. Applicants are advised to regularly check the official Oxford and Cambridge University admissions websites for the most current information.

Integrating Test Scores into the Complete Oxbridge Application

Rough Weightage of Oxbridge Application Parts

Rough Weightage of Oxbridge Application Parts

Impact of Admissions Test on Overall Application

Your test score is just one component of your broader Oxbridge application. It should be considered in conjunction with your academic grades (including predicted grades), personal statement, and references. A high score can enhance an unconventional academic profile, while a modest score can be offset by a strong overall application. Oxbridge admissions tutors evaluate applications comprehensively, considering each element's contribution to the bigger picture.

Moreover, admissions tests do not have official grade boundaries like GCSEs or A-Levels, making it challenging to know what scores impress admissions tutors​​. While a great test score is desirable, no score guarantees an interview or offer. Academic grades and the overall application are equally important​​.

Admissions Tests' Impact on Interviews

The Oxbridge interview is designed to assess a candidate's academic potential and ability to apply knowledge to new situations. Oxbridge interview questions go beyond testing academic knowledge, focusing on how students apply this knowledge in unfamiliar scenarios​​.

While your test score may influence your interview invitation, it's not the determining factor in the interview itself. Use your test results as a basis for discussion, demonstrating your subject understanding and eagerness to learn. Interviews are an opportunity to show your potential and articulate your academic aspirations.

Key Takeaway:

Oxbridge admission decisions are based on multiple factors, including the applicant's performance in interviews, admissions test scores, and the overall UCAS application. While excelling in admissions tests can significantly boost your prospects of gaining admission to Oxbridge, it's important to remember that these scores are just one part of a comprehensive evaluation process.

General Test Preparation Tips for Oxbridge Admissions

Preparing effectively for Oxbridge admissions tests is important for prospective students. Here are some key strategies to help students prepare for these challenging assessments.

Understanding the Test Format and Requirements

  • Research the Specific Test: Each test has its unique format and content. For example, the MAT (Mathematics Admissions Test) for Oxford focuses on mathematical thinking, while the TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment) tests problem-solving and critical thinking abilities. Understanding the specific requirements of each test is the first step in effective preparation.
  • Familiarise with Test Structure: Knowing the structure, including the types of questions and time allocation, can help in planning how to approach the test. Timed practice sessions mirroring the actual test conditions are invaluable.

Effective Study Techniques

  • Review Past Papers: Where available, practising with admissions tests past papers is one of the best ways to prepare. According to Cambridge University, "Practising the papers allows students to work out where they might have gaps in their knowledge and see which questions they find more difficult." For tests with significant changes or new formats, as seen in 2024 for some Cambridge tests, using old-style papers can still be beneficial for practice​​.
  • Focus on Weak Areas: Identify areas where improvement is needed and allocate more time to those topics. Tailored study sessions focusing on weak points can significantly boost overall performance.
  • Develop Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving Skills: These skills are central to most Oxbridge admissions tests. Engaging in activities that challenge these skills, such as puzzles, logical reasoning games, or discussions on complex topics, can be very helpful.

Time Management

  • Create a Study Schedule: A well-structured study plan that covers all necessary topics and leaves time for review can go a long way for successful test preparation. According to Cornell, effective study schedules should include focused study periods free from distractions along with regular breaks . Efficient review methods, utilising scattered free periods, and alternating study subjects can further improve learning efficiency.
  • Practice Under Timed Conditions: This helps in developing the ability to manage time effectively during the actual test. For instance, Cambridge suggests that "students also practise, using the past papers, under test conditions so they know how much time is available for each question."

Seeking Support and Resources

  • Utilise Available Resources: Many resources are available, including online courses, study guides, and Oxbridge tutors. Using these resources can provide structured guidance and valuable insights.
  • Join Study Groups: Collaborating with peers can provide new perspectives and approaches to solving problems. It also offers a support system during the preparation phase.

Mental Preparation

  • Stay Calm and Positive: The pressure of preparing for Oxbridge tests can be overwhelming. Maintaining a positive mindset and keeping stress levels in check are crucial for effective preparation and performance.
  • Rest and Relaxation: Ensure to take regular breaks and engage in activities that help relax and rejuvenate. Adequate sleep and a balanced lifestyle contribute significantly to the preparation process.

Final Preparations

  • Review Key Concepts: In the days leading up to the test, focus on reviewing key concepts rather than trying to cover new material.
  • Check All Logistics: Ensure all logistical aspects, such as the test location, materials needed, and travel arrangements, are sorted well in advance to avoid last-minute stress.

Key Takeaway:

Preparing for Oxbridge admissions tests requires a blend of focused study, skill development, and effective time management. With the right approach and resources, applicants can enhance their chances of performing well in these assessments.

Conclusion

This article has comprehensively the present admissions tests framework at the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford. These tests assess critical thinking, problem-solving, and subject-specific skills and are an important part of both universities' admission process. As we have seen, the nature of these tests varies at both institutions with Cambridge conducting tests before, at or after the interview, and Oxford only conducting admissions tests before the interview.

To prepare for their chosen course's admissions test, applicants should thoroughly acquaint themselves with the test's format and subject matter. This preparation should include diligent practice with past papers to gain a deeper understanding and enhance proficiency. Excelling in these assessments, in addition to presenting a well-rounded application, is key to demonstrating one's potential for success in the academically rigorous environment of Oxbridge.

FAQ

Can international students take Oxbridge admissions tests in their home country?

International students can indeed take Oxbridge admissions tests in their home country. These tests are usually administered globally, allowing candidates to take them at various authorised test centres worldwide. It's important for international applicants to check the specific registration procedures and available test centre locations for their chosen test, as these may vary. Furthermore, due to different time zones, the test timing might differ from the UK schedule, so students should confirm these details well in advance of the test date.

How are Oxbridge admissions tests scored?

Oxbridge admissions tests are scored with an emphasis on assessing students' aptitude rather than just knowledge. The scoring systems for these tests are designed to evaluate critical thinking, problem-solving abilities, and subject-specific skills. For instance, multiple-choice sections are often scored based on the number of correct answers, with no penalty for incorrect responses. Essay or written sections are evaluated for clarity of thought, argument construction, and writing ability. The exact scoring criteria can vary between tests, so it's advisable to review specific test guidelines for detailed scoring information.

How much are the registration fees for Oxbridge admissions tests?

The registration fees for Oxbridge admissions tests can vary depending on the specific test and where it is taken. Generally, these fees are set by the organisations administering the tests and can change annually. For example:

  1. BMAT: The Biomedical Admissions Test (BMAT), used for certain medical and veterinary courses, typically costs between £50 and £85 for UK and EU test takers, and slightly more for those outside the EU.
  2. TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment): The TSA, required for a variety of courses at Oxford, usually has a fee in the range of £50 to £75 for candidates sitting the test in the UK and EU.
  3. LNAT (Law National Admissions Test): For law applicants, the LNAT typically costs around £75 for UK and EU candidates and £120 for those outside these regions.
  4. UCAT (University Clinical Aptitude Test): Required for medicine and dentistry applicants at many UK universities, including some Oxbridge courses, the UCAT fee is generally about £70 for UK and EU students and £115 for international students.
  5. Subject-specific tests: For other subject-specific tests like the MAT (Mathematics Admissions Test), MLAT (Modern Languages Admissions Test), and others, the fees tend to be around £50 to £80.

It's important for applicants to check the latest fee information on the official websites of the tests or consult their school or college examination officers, as prices can change and may include additional administration costs if taken at certain centres outside the UK. Additionally, some tests might offer fee waivers or financial assistance to eligible candidates.

Are there fee waivers available for these admissions tests?

Yes, fee waivers or financial assistance for Oxbridge admissions tests are available in certain circumstances to help applicants who may not be able to afford the registration fees. This assistance is typically offered to candidates from low-income families or those who qualify for financial aid.

For instance, Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing, which administers several of these tests, offers a fee waiver to candidates receiving certain means-tested benefits, as detailed on their website. Similarly, the BMAT has provisions for fee waivers for candidates in financial hardship.

To avail of these waivers, applicants need to provide evidence of eligibility, such as proof of income or receipt of government assistance. The process for applying for a fee waiver varies for different tests and may require coordination with the school or test centre. It's important to check the specific requirements and application procedures for the test you are planning to take and to apply for the waiver well ahead of the registration deadline.

How long are admissions test scores valid for Oxbridge applications?

Admissions test scores for Oxbridge applications are generally valid for the specific admissions cycle in which you are applying. This means that the scores are typically valid for the year following the test date. For example, if you take an admissions test in November 2024, your score would be valid for applications for the 2025 academic year.

This policy aligns with the fact that Oxbridge admissions are annual, with each cycle considering fresh applications. Therefore, if you decide to apply in a subsequent year, you would need to retake the relevant admissions test. This ensures that the test scores submitted by all applicants are recent and accurately reflect their current abilities.

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Thomas Babb

Written by: Thomas Babb

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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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