Over the past few years, more and more students are achieving As and A*s at A level. As it has become harder to identify academically outstanding students through their A level results, both Oxford and Cambridge now rely on additional testing systems when selecting candidates for interview.
From 2017 entry, all Cambridge colleges will be introducing common format written assessments, to be taken by applicants for all subjects except mathematics and music, where applicants will be tested through short tasks at interview.
Our tips for taking Oxford and Cambridge written tests
1 – Don’t spend hours preparing to take these tests; in fact, if you need to undertake an enormous amount of preparation, it is arguable that you may not be an appropriate candidate.
2 – The universities give a full description of what the tests for each course entails on their respective websites:
Oxford written tests descriptions
Cambridge written tests descriptions
3 – Past papers are available for all tests and it is vital that you practise some of these in mock exam conditions to familiarise themselves with the format of the tests and the time constraints on the test.
Access the Oxford past papers for your subject here
Access the Cambridge assessment specifications for your subject
4 – Don’t be upset if you can’t answer all the questions. The tests are devised to be stretching and it is important not to panic if you come across something unfamiliar.
What you need to know about the Oxford and Cambridge written tests
The Oxbridge exams aim to highlight the natural intelligence and academic potential of the candidate and, in doing so, widen access. Since it is often difficult to revise for the Oxbridge written tests, students have to rely on their innate intellectual ability to complete them. In theory, students whose schools have provided less preparation should not be disadvantaged.
The style of testing also differs from what many school leavers will be used to. Whereas A levels often test factual recall, the Oxbridge written exams look for analytical and critical capabilities. It should be noted, therefore, that these tests are likely to be much harder than anything students may have experienced at school. This is taken into consideration, and admissions tutors do not expect students to achieve 100%.
Testing happens at various stages during the application process. Some tests are sat in early November at school. The results of these tests can then play a part in determining whether a student is called to interview. Some tests take place at the interview in early December. The results are then used, alongside interview performance, personal statement, school references and exam grades, to decide whether a student will receive a conditional offer.
Do not let these tests put you off applying. If you are serious about wanting a place at a top university, you should be able to do well without masses of additional tuition or extra work. It is very important, however, to go online and get full details of what the tests entail and to do some practice papers if they are offered.
Find out more about specific admissions tests here:
Find out more about getting into Oxford and Cambridge in the book by Sean P. Buckley.
Getting into Oxford and Cambridge 2017 Entry
by Sean P. Buckley
Find out more
For critical thinking, one book will have you covered
From my own experience as well as that of my peers this is you handbook for the maths/logic based critical thinking section.
Thinking Skills by John Butterworth and Geoff Thwaites is the only book I used for TSA preparation – though I did work through it from start to end. It helps largely for the maths and logic section.
The book will take a while to be delivered and in the meantime you can try these affrodable online TSA practice tests instantly.
You can buy it on Amazon
For the essay section, this is how you can prepare
There is no substitute for practice! Start writing with no time limit imposed so that you can prepare thoughtful, comprehensive essays (max. 1200 words) initially before working to do the same in the 30 minute time limit. Take a look at the essay questions in past TSA papers and prepare answers for one or two questions from each paper and have an experienced teacher or Oxbridge mentor mark them. Failing than, find a former Oxford or Cambridge student (or someone who has sat the test and been made an offer) to read over your answer – they should still be able to give you a good idea of where you can improve and feedback on your communication, structure, arguments and logic and language used.
Make sure your sentences are clear and easy to understand. Avoid using sentences that are too long – ensure that the reader will be able to read and understand your arguments easily.
- Introduction: Define any terms that are open to interpretation (e.g. patent laws, development) and prepare the reader for the arguments you will later make by outlining each of them in sentence.
- Arguments: Aim to make 3 distinct arguments. For example, for the patents topic, if your view is that patents encourage development, the arguments could be: i) patent laws provide an incentive for investment in R&D and this enriches quality of life (i.e. development); ii) patent licenses only last for a finite amount of time so counter-arguments about cost and quality for the consumer are only valid for a limited time (i.e. benefits are eventually widespread); iii) patents help smaller companies to create jobs because they increase security on near-future prospects for these companies (i.e. more employment is created)
- Conclusion: Summarise the arguments you have made in a sentence. Discuss their inter-relatedness. Discuss the importance of context (i.e. patent laws encourage development as long as the following conditions are met…). Do not make any radically new points but do discuss further research and arguments you also consider important but could not fully examine in the allocated time.
Arguments & Logic
This is of course dependent on the essay topic but the general rule of thumb is to prioritise arguments which you have the highest chance of defending. Spend 5 minutes planning your arguments before you start writing your answer. It helps a lot when it comes to writing the essay – a good investment of your limited time. There are broadly three types of argument you can make – philosophy/ethics [it is immoral to…], theories [this causes growth because it increases consumption], and current knowledge [cars are already taxed according to their carbon emissions, so there is no need to link parking fines to emissions too]. As an economist, I’m most comfortable with theories and current knowledge.
Typical written communication and essay rules apply here. Remember to use formal language (i.e. don’t use abbreviations – write out “it is” instead of “it’s”). If English isn’t your first language consider getting someone who is a native speaker to review your language.
Working through the Thinking Skills book and practising essays (and taking on board feedback!) should mean that you are well placed to sit the TSA and do well. Remember that TSA marks are often considered in conjunction with GCSE grades (i.e. if you have a low TSA mark but strong GCSEs – or vice versa – you could still get an interview). Most importantly, go into the test relaxed with a good nights sleep and a clear mind. Good luck! If you have any questions, fire away using the comments form below.