How to Prepare for the TSA

The Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA) is an admissions test used by Oxford and Cambridge as part of their admissions process for certain subjects, usually in the social sciences. The TSA is made up of two sections. Section 1 is a 90 minute test consisting of 50 multiple choice questions, half designed to test critical thinking and half to test your problem solving abilities. Section 2 consists of a 30 minute writing task. Some subjects only require you to sit the first section of the TSA. You can find up to date information on which subjects are required to take the TSA, and which sections are required, on the Oxford and Cambridge websites.

The TSA is designed to test, well, your thinking skills, and is focused on natural ability. That said, there are some ways that you can prepare to give yourself the best chance at a top score.

How do I prepare for Section 1?

The first thing to do when preparing for Section 1 is to familiarise yourself with the kinds of questions that you may be faced with. It is useful to start by looking at the TSA Test Specification on the official website, which lays this out in detail along with some example questions and answers. The Specimen Test also comes with fully explained answers, and is a good place to start having a go at some of the questions yourself.

Essentially, Section 1 is designed to test two kinds of thinking skills: critical thinking and problem solving. Critical thinking invoices your ability to understand arguments and apply reason, whilst the problem solving questions are more mathematical in nature.

Let’s think about the critical thinking questions first. These questions are based on a passage of text in which an argument is put forward. An argument is made up of a set of reasons or premises that are put forward as good grounds for a conclusion, and an argument is good if the conclusion follows from those premises. An argument may also include assumptions. These are premises that are important to the argument but which are not explicitly stated; rather, they are taken for granted in order to draw the conclusion.

A Tutor’s Top Tip:

When it comes to answering these questions you should assume that the reasons given in the passage are true. The questions are looking for how you deal with reasoning and structure of arguments, not their content.

The critical thinking questions in the TSA take seven basic forms:

1) Summarising the main conclusion

2) Drawing a conclusion

3) Assessing the impact of additional evidence

4) Matching two arguments in terms of pattern or structure

5) Applying principles

6) Identifying an assumption

7) Finding errors in reasoning

A Tutor’s Top Tip

Read the question before reading the passage. That way you can focus in on what it is you’re looking for and won’t waste time having to read the passage again.

The problem solving questions are essentially non-verbal reasoning questions, though the maths involved will not go beyond GCSE level. These questions are essentially testing three main skills. The first is your ability to select relevant material. The question will often present you with more data than is needed to find the answer, and it’s up to you to zero in on only what is strictly necessary. Second is your ability to find procedures. Once you have identified the relevant information, you need to find the appropriate method or process to find your answer. The final skill is spatial reasoning, and relies on your ability to mentally visualise shapes and nets.

A Tutor’s Top Tip

If you struggle with spatial reasoning, bring a cube shaped rubber into the exam with you to help visualise nets etc. The more you can bring the shape you need to visualise into reality, the easier it will be!

Practice, Practice, Practice

Once you’ve initially familiarised yourself with the types of questions that come up in Section 1, the best way to prepare is to practise as much as you can. It’s best to start early. A few months or so the date of the test, start going through the Test Specification and Specimen Paper. After that, go through each of the practice papers - these are your most valuable resource so space them out rather than blowing through them all at once. You should always practice in timed conditions, as timing is half the challenge when it comes to this section. Get a sense of which questions take you a little longer and which you can get through fairly quickly. This will help you prioritise if you do find yourself running out of time at the end.

A Tutor’s Top Tip

Remember that the test is positively marked, so if you do find yourself running out of time at the end, it’s always worth a guess!

Once you’ve completed the test, go through it with the mark scheme and find your score. The mark scheme won’t explain the answers, but it’s important to know where you went wrong. This is where it’s useful to have a tutor or similar to help you figure it out when you get stuck. Write out the explanation

How do I prepare for Section 2?

For Section 2 you will have 30 minutes to answer one essay question, covering no more than two A4 pages. You will have a choice of four questions, all of which are general and do not require any specialised knowledge. This means that you can’t really ‘revise’ for this portion of the TSA, but you can prepare.

A Tutor’s Top Tip

The worst thing you can do in this section is sit on the fence. It’s important that you craft a strong argument that gives a direct answer to the question. This doesn’t mean you can’t introduce the other side of the debate, but you should always use counter arguments to bolster your own.

You are being tested on your ability to select, develop and organise ideas and to communicate these effectively in writing. The best way to prepare for this section is to practice these skills by doing past papers in exam conditions. There are no mark schemes for this section, so it’s very useful to have a tutor, friend, or family member who is familiar with what the examiners are looking for to give you feedback on your answer.

A Tutor’s Top Tip

You’ll need a strong structure, so it’s always a good idea to plan your essay before writing it. Begin your essay by clearly setting out what you will be concluding and how you intend to argue for it. Conclude in one or two sentences by briefly summing what it is you have argued, preferably using the language of the question.