The TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment) test is an entry test for the following courses:
University of Oxford: Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE)
Economics and Management
Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics
History and Economics
Psychology and Linguistics
Philosophy and Linguistics
Psychology and Philosophy
University of Cambridge: Land Economy
University College London: European Social and Political Studies
International Social and Political Studies (ISPS)
It is notoriously hard and is used as a discriminator for gaining entry to some of the most competitive courses in the world. At the same time, it is also a good preparation for intelligence tests, which are a part of many job application processes, especially in banking, as well as for graduate entry tests.
Personally, I did the TSA test in the year 2020 and ended up scoring 70%. But I am not a really brainy, naturally intelligent person, so reaching this involved a lot of preparation and hard work. For my CAS project for school, I wanted to share some of the skills and knowledge that I gained throughout this experience.
What does the TSA consist of?
The TSA consists of Section 1 and Section 2, but most courses only require you to do Section 1 (Oxford requires Section 2 for some subjects – check on the course website or with Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing). Whilst Section 2 is an essay, for which there is 30min time, Section 1 is a multiple-choice test with a duration of 90 minutes. There are 50 questions, 25 of which fall into the category “critical thinking” (text-based questions) and 25 into the category “problem solving” (maths). There are no calculators allowed.
How is the TSA marked?
Technically, every question in Section 1 is worth 1 point. However, due to the fact that these are automatically marked using the Rasch statistical technique, a different total number of points will be worth a different percentage depending on how many people have achieved that total number of points. This is why it is recommended to always answer every question and also why it makes no sense to do the questions in a different order. Section 2 is not marked by Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing but is sent to the individual Oxford colleges instead. Usually it is possible in late January to see your results for Section 1 using a code, but you will probably never receive the results for Section 2.
Why is the TSA so difficult?
The TSA is known to be a very difficult – but why? Part of the issue is that the test requires no prior knowledge – it is simply testing your intelligence and analytical skills. Whilst this does not mean that there is no way to prepare (there certainly is!), it does make preparation a lot harder (as there is no specific syllabus to follow). The second issue is the timing: Whilst most people would be able to answer all of the questions correctly if they had the time, 1.5 hours is just not a lot of time, especially when that comes down to 1.8 minutes per question. Practice is really crucial here.
Where/how can I do the TSA?
You can sit the TSA at any test center registered with Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing. For people applying form the UK, check if your school is a test center as this is a place you can often sit the test free of charge. However, there is a place you can sit them in every country, even if you sometimes have to pay a larger sum. I, for example, had to pay around 240€ to sit my test. Just make sure to register in time, as the deadline is often before the deadline for UCAS applications to Oxbridge.
When do I sit the TSA? Can I sit it several times in a year?
There is only one TSA test every year, so the score you get in this test will be the one sent to the university you have applied to. Typically, it is sat in early November, last year’s date was the 4th of November. The only way that you can sit the test a year early is if you are applying for deferred entry. However, you can do the test and apply to the universities in several consecutive years.
How important is the TSA in my application?
Whilst I cannot speak for UCL, Oxbridge have indicated that the TSA is a significant discriminator and therefore very important in the application process. That being said, there continue to be people who score very high on the TSA and aren’t invited to interview and vice versa, so clearly the TSA is not the only important component of the application.
What is a good score in the TSA?
This answer really depends on how competitive the course is that you are applying to. The two courses which are known to require especially high results are PPE and E&M (Economics and Management) at Oxford. You can find course-specific expectations on Google. In general, however, you should not be scoring lower than 60%. 70% is a very good result, but for courses such as PPE and E&M you will want to aim for at least 72%. It is definitely worth taking the time to figure out what percentages the individual courses are looking for. You can usually find good Freedom of Information requests, and for example for PPE I discovered that, depending on the year, above 71/72 were labelled “recommended for interview”, 69-71/72 were labelled “maybe interview – see rest of application” and below 69 was labelled “not recommended for interview”.
Another important point to add to this is that when practising, do not simply calculate the percentage based on the points you got. If you are using a real past paper (available at Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing), google for example “TSA 2014 conversion table” – this will give you a more accurate percentage so that you know where you stand. Don’t be disheartened if your first results aren’t good enough – it takes time to get the hang of it!
This is a collection of tips that really helped me and would have made it even easier for me if I had known beforehand:
- * Start early: Whilst some people will find that they are naturally talented at this, for most of us, it just takes some time even if you are considered “smart”. Therefore, it really does pay off to start early and take the time to really inform yourself and practice. A good time to start? Better late than never, but I started slowly preparing in April/May.
- * Practise under timed conditions: Once you’ve got the hang of the question styles and have taken the time to figure out the thinking steps necessary, practice under timed conditions! One of the greatest difficulties of the TSA is the time-constraint, so getting used to this and figuring out different time-saving techniques is great! I started with timed papers every fortnight in May/June, and this really helped me to the point that time stopped being my issue.
- * Don’t try to save time with the wrong technique: There are many different opinions on the TSA out there. And whilst some say there is no right or wrong to studying, there is a few time-saving techniques which just don’t pay off in my opinion:
- o Doing the last 10 questions first – this is mostly an inconvenience when it comes to switching pages and actually doesn’t help since the algorithm doesn’t give you more points according to which individual questions were mostly gotten wrong but on how many points in total were gotten wrong – just work through it chronologically, it’s easier for you and helps you to keep an overview on which questions you have/haven’t done.
- o First doing all of the critical thinking questions and then the problem-solving ones, or vice versa – As you might already know, the questions are in a random order and often there will be one or two critical thinking ones followed by a few problem-solving questions – doing all questions of one specific type therefore once again brings the risk of you forgetting a question, or simply running out of time and not being able to complete the test because you don’t realise how many you still have to do. Switching between the two question types is easier than it sounds, especially considering that these two question types are already incredibly varied in and of themselves.
- * Use a sheet of paper to keep track of questions you are not sure about: In the actual exam, there is usually no time for you to go through every question again. Instead, it is smarter to just fill out the most likely answer if you are unsure and to write down the number you are uncertain about on an extra sheet of paper. This way, you can return to these questions if you have time left over.
- * Don’t rush to much: We all know that there is little time during the test, but another problem some people run into is panicking and just trying to answer every question as fast as humanly possible. Don’t spend ages pondering each question – but do take the time to do mathematical calculations if necessary, or to check that the other answer options are wrong. Don’t just estimate every question without actually solving it – this could definitely backfire, leaving you finished before the time is up and with a lot of wrong answers – try to figure out a good balance when it comes to timing.
- * Practice in the right format: Whilst this is not necessary throughout the entirety of your preparation process, it is useful to print out the answer and question sheet and practice with this/do the online practice tests in the right format, depending on if you are sitting the test on the computer or not. The goal is to be prepared for everything on the day of the test!
- * Make sure to correct your practice papers: This was probably the most useful thing I did in my preparation. Whilst sitting the tests in a timed condition (at the beginning I just used my phone timer, later I would set out my analog watch since this is the only thing you’re allowed to take with you) is helpful, it is even more helpful to figure out what you don’t understand and why. Answer keys are available online, just google.
- * Buy the guidebooks: This is a tip I personally found very helpful but it depends on what type of leaner you are (if you don’t want to pay, you can find some for free online). In general, especially with critical-thinking, I found it helpful to be talked through the question styles and how to solve them by several different authors. It helped me to really understand how the questions worked and it is something I actually became really good at. There aren’t that many guidebooks out there so I would buy the ones there are and make the best use possible of them (and the extra past papers are an added benefit, even if some are way easier/harder than the actual tests).
- * Use the Studentroom as a resource: The Studentroom is a chatroom that may feel quite old-fashioned to some but is an immensely useful resource! Not only can you ask the people there if there are ever any questions where you don’t understand the answer/need tips for the TSA and other parts of the application process, but these people will often be going through the same anxiety that you are going through so this can be very useful. Just don’t forget that at the end of the day, this is social media too, so don’t waste too much time!
The questions on critical thinking are easy for some and more difficult for others. Regardless if this is a talent of yours or not, there is always room to improve and lots of possibilities to learn important skills.
In general, critical thinking is the thing that school is supposed to teach you but often doesn’t. It’s reading between the lines and understanding the real meaning of a text or an assumption that is being made. Sometimes people find that they have a natural type of feeling for the correct answers here, but even if you don’t there are ways to learn.
What I would recommend first and foremost is reading a couple of books on critical thinking. Sometimes schools teach classes on this but especially if your school hasn’t, reading a few books (which often aren’t that long, so no need to worry!) can help you to become familiar with this concept and help you with these questions.
I read “Critical Thinking for Students: 4th edition” by Roy van den Brink-Budgen and “Critical Thinking: An Introduction” by Alec Fisher. I have also heard that “Thinking from A to Z” by Nigel Warburton is a good book. I would recommend reading one or two of these if you haven’t studied critical thinking before or skimming over them if you have. Sometimes just taking some time to emerge yourself into a new topic can significantly help you to gain a deeper understanding. When I finally started working on past papers, I think it was my prior knowledge from these books that made it easier for me.
Another useful thing to look at is the basics of logic and how arguments work, since this is the basis for critical thinking. (Logical) fallacies in argumentation can be a useful thing to cover as well since this can help to answer quite a few different question styles. Definitely worth a quick google search!
Another important thing to consider is that these questions will always be based on short text passages. Especially if English is not your first language but even if it is, it is therefore important to make sure that your academic English is up to scratch. Of course reading English books and watching English movies is a good place to start, but this often won’t be sufficient. Reading journals/academic magazines relevant to the field you want to study is therefore a great idea, especially as it is not only useful for the TSA but also for any potential interviews.
One book I would recommend wholeheartedly and which you should definitely take the time to read (I actually read it again the night before the exam, so it is a quick read) is “Think You can Think? Cracking the Thinking Skills Assessment” by Minesh Tanna. It is especially good for critical thinking questions (but not the skill per se, for that the aforementioned books might be better) and I swear that this book contributed significantly to my success. When I read it, I had already practiced a few TSA-style questions and was finding them harder than I had expected – this book took me through the thinking process step-by-step and really helped me to improve my score. Go buy it!
So this is the preparatory reading I think you should do. Besides that, I think practice is key!
Regarding the format: There will always be a text and then a standard question below this, referring to the text. Important: The question is looking for the answer according to the text, and not according to your own knowledge! If it’s not in the text or assumed by the text, then it cannot be the answer!
These are the question types:
- * Finding the conclusion in the text
- * Drawing the conclusion from the text
- * Finding underlying assumptions
- * Finding flaws in the logic of arguments
- * Parallel reasoning
- * Weakening arguments
- * Strengthening arguments
Question type: Finding the conclusion in the text
This question type is, as the title states, all about identifying the existing conclusion in a text passage and will come in the form of:
“Which of the following is a statement of the main conclusion in the above argument?”
“Which of the following (best) summarises the conclusion of the argument above?”
“Which of the following best expresses the main conclusion of the argument above?”
I am aware that this sounds like the easiest and most obvious question ever. You might be wondering: If these are the questions, why do people think the TSA is so difficult? And maybe for you they are easy. But for most people, these questions aren’t quite as easy as they sound.
How to start:
First read the question, then read the text passage with the question in the back of your mind. Ask yourself: What is the key meaning of this text? What is it arguing for? Try to find the key sentence/part of a sentence that shows this key meaning. The conclusion will be written in the text.
Then look through the five answers and, either by the process of elimination or because it is clear to you, select the conclusion. Sometimes they will try to phrase it differently to confuse you, just try and see if it still contains the core meaning.
(Important note: The text passages will probably not relate to your specific chosen field of study. They will be from random academic essays, often using statistics and terminology which you are not necessarily expected to know but which you shouldn’t let yourself be distracted by as they really aren’t that important.)
What to look out for:
Sometimes the conclusion is obvious. Good places to look are the beginning or the end of the text passage. Words like “therefore” and “in conclusion” are clues. However, there are things known as preliminary conclusions that are sometimes included in the texts to confuse you. These are conclusions, but they aren’t the main conclusion. Good ways to identify them is to try and find the most important sentence of the text passage (this should be the main conclusion, which you are looking for) or, when dealing with the preliminary conclusion, to see if there is another conclusion in the text which has this conclusion as the necessary logical step before. This means that the preliminary conclusion is a necessary step to arrive at the main conclusion.
Ready for it to get even trickier? Sometimes the main conclusion won’t be in the last sentence but in the second-to-last sentence. The last sentence will then be an implication of the main conclusion, meaning that this implication is not as related to the text as the conclusion but a kind of further extension of thought after the completion of the argument. How can you tell if you are looking at a conclusion or an implication? If you are choosing between two sentences (or parts of sentences) which could both be the conclusion, see which one is more related to the text body as a whole. If the theme is mandatory seatbelts in cars and the second-to-last sentences states that these are a necessity to prevent deaths and then the final sentence talks about how seatbelts will also be important in the future for flying cars, then the second-to-last sentence will be the conclusion and the last sentence is the implication as this is not the key essence of the text but just a further addition.
A hint for that there might be several (preliminary) conclusions in a text can be when the question asks for the main conclusion (but it doesn’t have to be – there are no fixed rules!). A further aspect to look out for is that sometimes the problem isn’t that there are several ideas which could be the conclusion and you have to choose the right one, but that you know what the conclusion is but cannot decide which of the answer options is the right one for it. In this case, there are several things to look out for:
- * Does one of the answer options include things which aren’t explicitly stated in the text (eg. further implications)? – if so, you can choose the one which more accurately reflects what is actually in the text and not what might also be true
- * Look out for the degree of certainty – does the conclusion in the text say it always, never, may happen(s)? Make sure that your chosen answer reflects this level of certainty!
- * Too general or too specific
- * Does it include the right information? Sometimes everything seems right but then a fact/figure is actually written down wrong in the answer – check for this!
It can often be helpful to underline or highlight sentences you think are really important. Make use of this if you are sitting a paper-based test!
In this text type, the conclusion will not be written in the text. You need to look at the answers and figure out what the text passage above is arguing for, choosing an answer which could plausibly be the conclusion and doesn’t require an additional paragraph of argumentation to be the conclusion.
Possible phrasings of the question include:
“Which of the following is a conclusion that can reliably be drawn from the above argument?”
“Which of the following conclusions is best supported by the above argument?”
“Which of the following is a conclusion that can be drawn from the above argument?”
How to start:
Read the question, then read the text passage. Take a second to think: What is the main conclusion of this text? What position is the text trying to argue/convince me of? Here it is important to remember that the actual conclusion will not be written in the text. Ask yourself after reading: Therefore what? Think of what you think the conclusion should be, then look at the answers and find the answer that reflects that.
What to look out for:
Sometimes the conclusion you thought of is not one of the answer options. It happens. If that is the case, make sure you understand what the text passage is trying to tell you and, through process of elimination, figure out which conclusion is the most plausible. You can also, if you have the time, read the text passage and add the conclusion you think is right to the bottom of the text and see if it makes any logical sense or if it is too much of a jump/factually wrong.
Once again, they will be trying to confuse you. Often some of the answer options will just be obviously wrong, so it is good to eliminate these immediately. When reading through the answer options, consider what kind of argument you would write if this were the conclusion you would want to arrive at. Is this somewhat similar to the text passage you just read?
Things to look out for:
- * Use only the information in the passage to draw the conclusion
- * Degree of certainty (this can also be conveyed by statistics: How much do the statistics really tell you? What can you not conclude if these statistics are all you have?)
- * Make sure you really understand the position that the text is arguing
Question type: finding underlying assumptions
This question type is often considered hard, but in my opinion this is mostly because it is misunderstood.
Possible phrasings of the question:
“Which of the following is an underlying assumption of the argument above?”
“Which of the following is an assumption on which the argument depends?”
An assumption is something an argument rests on and it will not be stated in the text passage itself. It doesn’t even need to be really specific to the question! The key thing: If the assumption wasn’t there, then the conclusion would not follow.
How to start:
- Read and understand the text passage and, if possible, identify the conclusion (in questions like these, the conclusion will usually be quite easy to identify).
- Then you can have a think about which assumptions the argument rests on, but it is often quicker and easier to have a look at the answer options.
- As a first step, eliminate everything that is stated in the passage or that is factually wrong.
- Then, look at the remaining options and the conclusion. Going through each of them, think: If this were not the case, would the conclusion still stand? Through this method, it should be possible to eliminate quite a few answer options.
- If you are still struggling between two options, consider: Which of the two assumptions is more important? What would be worse: If assumption 1 or if assumption 2 did not exist? Maybe you can find that one of the two is more irrelevant or is not that important to the conclusion’s logical existence.
- But: Before you waste too much time, after some thorough thought, pick one and write down the number of the question to return to if you have time later. It’s worse if you cannot finish and have to guess 10 answers than if you get one answer wrong!
What to look out for:
Often they will try to trick you by confusing you regarding what an assumption actually is. Occasionally, one of the answer options will be a conclusion or a premise instead – eliminate these immediately! Anything explicitly stated in the text will definitely not be an assumption.
Sometimes your gut feeling can be really helpful here. Do you think that this fundamentally underlies the whole argument and is important for the conclusion, or is it simply adding more information to a premise which is really irrelevant? Basically: Is it writing out knowledge that the argument already assumes or is it adding new info? Any new information will not be an assumption since this will not be necessary for the conclusion to be logical.
Question type: Finding flaws in the logic of arguments
An important thing to know about this question type is that the flaw can’t ever be that the information is factually incorrect because you are an expert in this field. The flaw should be visible to everyone regardless of their knowledge in the field. Instead, these flaws are often missing information or a missing statement which just mean that the flow of the argument is not logical without you adding the necessary information in your head.
It could be that the conclusion does not follow from the premises but is another premise instead (which was falsely presented as a conclusion using phrases like “therefore”). You are looking if the necessary links are being made between different components and, if any jumps are being made, this can be seen as a flaw.
These questions will look like a variation of the following:
“Which of the following is the main flaw in the above argument?”
“Which of the following is the best statement/expression of the flaw in the argument?”
“Which of the following best explains a flaw in the above argument?”
How to start:
- 1. After reading the question, read the text passage and try to really understand what it is trying to say.
- 2. Look out for words that suggest links between different ideas (causal relationships)
- 3. Go through the answer options and eliminate things that are not mentioned and which are just restated premises/conclusions
- 4. Also eliminate options which are not actually relevant to the conclusion that is being argued
- 5. Of the remaining options, pick the one that most closely resembles an important assumption you have to make in order for the argument to work
What to look out for:
What can sometimes be difficult to distinguish is if there is a flaw in the argument or if the argument is just badly argued. Wrong or weak premises are not flaws per se. Adding to the persuasiveness of an argument is not necessarily solving a flaw, so beware of this – a flaw needs to be something which is substantially weakening the argument as either the conclusion makes no sense or you are having to make jumps in your reasoning.
Some of the answer options will also just contradict the material you have read, in which case, these will not be the flaw. Another thing to look out for is that often all the answer options will be phrased differently than the text. They will use different terminology and this can confuse you as it looks like none or all of them fit. Don’t panic! Sometimes very general statements can be the flaw as this would be a necessary thing to mention, but it just isn’t mentioned.
Once again, just padding out a premise and making it more convincing is not a flaw. It really needs to be a logical problem! Sometimes there are several options which detract from the logic of the argument, but then it is your job to find the real dealbreaker.
Other things to check:
- * If the statistics given in the text are insufficient – does adding another statistic increase the logic as this actually shows what the conclusion is suggesting?
- * Are definitions of terms given? If so, are they followed throughout?
- * When causal relationships are given, do these make sense? Do they follow from the information given in the text?
This is a question type that is slightly different from the other types of critical thinking questions. With these questions, you will be looking at the argumentation structure and then trying to identify the same argumentation structure from the answer options (each of which will usually tackle a completely different subject matter – it’s not about the content, it’s about the argumentation!)
These questions look like variations of this:
“Which of the following most closely parallels the reasoning used in the argument above?”
“Which of the following arguments has the same structure as the argument above?”
“Which of the following illustrates the principle that the author argues for/underlying the argument in the above passage?
There is a useful technique for solving these questions. To identify the argumentation structure of the given text passage (which will usually be quite short), you need to label it. For example take this passage:
If it rains, Angela will wear a raincoat. It always rains only on Tuesdays. Today is a Tuesday, therefore Angela is wearing a raincoat.
If you simplify this argument, it goes like this:
If a, then b. if a then c/if c then a. it is c, therefore b.
So, basically try to use letters for the different components of the argument.
How to start:
- 1. Find the argumentation technique by substituting letters to find the pattern
- 2. Go through each of the answer options and assess them individually to find their argumentation techniques
- 3. Then compare these argumentation techniques with the one in the question – which ones match up?
- 4. If several match up, look again: is the certainty of the statements the same (usage of words like may/will/always/only/maybe)? Do they feel like they use the same argumentation style?
What to look out for:
Don’t go for an option just because the subject matter is similar to the text passage given. They will usually add one option like this, but this is mostly because they are trying to confuse you to see if you even understand what the question is asking for.
Check the certainty of statements, as well as the logical order. Is it “if a, then b” or “if b then a” or both? This can be a really make an important difference!
Another good thing to look out for is the number of components. An argument that is a+b+c will be more similar to a question that is a+b+c (as a number of reasons or conditions, for example), but, if there are no other options, then a question with two conditions is better than a question with only one condition.
Practise is really important with these questions to figure out how specific each argument style needs to be.
Question type: Weakening arguments
These questions are as straightforward as they sound: Choose an answer option that substantially weakens the argument either by introducing opposite evidence or by decreasing the validity of already existing statements. The most successful ones will destroy the logical structure of the argument, meaning that it doesn’t work anymore.
Which of the following, if true, would most weaken the above argument?”
How to start:
- 1. It is important to understand the passage and its conclusion – what is it arguing for?
- 2. Eliminate answer options which actually strengthen the argument
- 3. Eliminate answer options that are irrelevant – they have no impact on the conclusion
- 4. With the remaining one, try to find an answer option that is really relevant to what the text passage is saying and, if possible, completely discredits the argument
What to look out for:
It is important to assume that all of the answer options are true. There is no point in assessing the validity within the subject matter, only what it does to the argument!
Take each answer and test it on the conclusion and see if it is significantly weaker. Make sure that the information is specific enough so that it is not open to interpretation and could either weaken/strengthen the argument. Always ask yourself: Is the conclusion impossible or more difficult to reach as a consequence of this answer option?
Question type: strengthening arguments
These questions are essentially the same as the ones before with the difference that they go in the opposite direction. Here, it is important to eliminate those which weaken the argument and to see if the argument is more convincing as a result of adding the different answer options. This mostly just takes some practice.
The problem-solving section is basically composed of maths and intelligence questions. There is not a particular style to these, as by their nature they are trying to test what you can figure out for yourself without studying. That being said, whilst the precise question styles will vary, there are definitely ways that you can and should prepare for this section.
The TSA does not assume that you have studied Maths at A Level, so the actual maths required will be at the level of GCSEs (you can look the curriculum up). So it is definitely a good idea to revise this if you haven’t done any maths in a while or if you were never that good at maths in the first place.
As no calculators are permitted, you should also brush up on your mental maths. This includes basic maths (addition, subtraction, division, multiplication), which you should definitely be able to do on paper and, if possible, quite a lot of them also in your head. A great way to prepare for this (if you still have math class) is to try and do as much of your maths homework without a calculator (if possible) to get your brain used to those types of calculations again. You can also get into the habit of calculating day-to-day calculations (during baking, regarding expenses) in your head or get your parents/friends to ask you some additions/subtractions. Usually, however, the mathematical calculations will not be too and it is mostly about figuring out what to calculate – just make sure not to lose too much time on the calculations themselves.
Whilst there are no particular question styles, they can be split into different groups:
- * Data questions
- * Venn Diagrams
- * Speed questions
- * Time questions
- * Expenses
- * Spatial reasoning
- * Other
Whilst I will run through these question types and add some extra useful tips, it must be said that with these types of questions, they are trying to catch you off-guard so something different entirely might come up instead. In general, it is a good idea to buy a book with practice questions (just google, there aren’t that many, an example: TSA Guide 300 questions) so that you see as many different question styles as possible and get used to solving them at speed.
Just beware: Some question books will have questions way harder/easier than the actual tests, but those are good practice regardless.
And another hint: Don’t try to estimate the answer based on the answer options given. This can be useful in certain situations, but using it as a general rule will usually not be that time-efficient and can falsify your results.
Sometimes, questions are given where there is a massive table of data above. These questions often look very intimidating, but they are actually not that tricky, if you can figure out how to do them quickly.
For one, read the question first! From the question, figure out what you are actually looking for. Often, the data tables will include a lot of unnecessary information to confuse you and make you tired – it’s good to cross out the data you definitely don’t need immediately!
The, look at the answer options. Cross out anything that isn’t one of the answer options – it’s not worth looking at them as they couldn’t be the right answer anyway. This seems obvious – but too many people forget it and this is a useful way of saving seconds!
Often, the data will for example be about different types of cars and you have to figure out which one fulfills several criteria (the best). After figuring out what you are looking for and crossing out anything that is definitely wrong, go through the different criteria systematically. Immediately eliminate anything that fails in one criteria. It is often good to do this visually by just striking that entire line out so that you can quickly and easily see which ones are still in the race. Keep eliminating until you find the best option.
Alternatively, tables can also include different countries and their incomes and losses (or something like that). Here, basic mathematics might be necessary to figure out profits or f.e. the percentage that the profit is of the revenue. Make sure you are not doing any unnecessary maths! Strike through any countries that are not in the answer options and any columns that show data that is not necessary for the answer. Write down the numbers that you calculate for each country so that you can compare them (don’t rely on your memory).
Another common form in which data tables are used is to figure out what combination of goods is the cheapest to buy/costs exactly 4.20$/gets the most toilet rolls for the lowest price. Here, it can also be good to look at the answer options to figure out what exactly you are looking for and what options there actually are. Depending on the question, it can be the fastest to just calculate how much each of these options cost/which work out under the given criteria.
In general, with data questions they will try to surprise you with the subject content. Sometimes mathematical steps are necessary, sometimes not – and you need to figure out what exactly they are looking for and how you can get that. These questions can take a lot of time if you go about them the wrong way – so try to save time wherever you can. Remember: Whilst on average you should spend 1.8 minutes on a question, try to do them faster than that so that you have time to think about questions you really don’t understand.
Venn Diagrams are used in a lot of different contexts in the TSA so it is good to familiarize yourself with the concept. If you haven’t covered them in class, watch a few Youtube videos on them. They can come up in two different ways:
Here, there might be a number missing or they might ask you to interpret what it means.
This is basically the same conceptually but a bit different when applied: For these, they might not even draw a Venn Diagram but ask you a question where the best way to solve it is to draw a venn diagram on your paper.
How do you spot these? Easy: Venn Diagrams are often used when people in a class are part of different sport groups and you need to figure out how many, for example, don’t do any sport or do a certain combination of sports. Another example is when you they are introducing new imaginary terms and defining them in terms of each other. Here, it can be useful to visualize it using a Venn Diagram.
You can expect one or two speed questions on the exam. These come in different variations, but basically it is often about trains and what speed they are travelling during a journey considering they make several stops. It can also be about where/when two trains will meet. Different variations of the same thing include general travel questions where you might have to figure out which train is the best one to take.
How can you solve these questions?
It is really important to practice these questions as they are quite common and some people struggle with them. It is also important to remember to look at every question individually as, even if you know similar questions, every question will be unique and create a specific scenario you need to solve.
In general, many people benefit from visualizing this, drawing out the journey that the train(s) travel, stops they make. In this way, you can also figure out what exactly you need to calculate as you see the question in a different way (so I would really recommend doing this!).
As a next step, it is crucial to know that speed= distance/time. You can also google “Speed triangle” to figure out how to work out calculations like this. Another good thing to know is the conversion between meters/kilometers and seconds/minutes/hours – bear in mind that applying this also takes practice and is about more than just knowing the theory. Always make sure to be working in the same unit!
Time questions come in many different shapes and forms and that is why it is hard to generalize. You will need to look at every problem individually. That being said, it is important to know:
-what the numbers on digital clocks look like
-what the angles between different numbers on an analogue clock are
-how to reflect numbers
-conversions between seconds/minutes/hours/days/months/years
Questions which can come up are very varied, so just make sure that you look this up and practice calculating how much time has passed in any given scenario.
These questions follow the same principle – read the question first, look at the answer options to eliminate impossible ones, then either try out the different combinations that the answers provide or calculate the answer on your own. Here it would be good to practice adding lots of smaller amounts, as figuring out techniques that work for you can save you a lot of time.
Sometimes there is a “trick” with these questions which means that upon discovery it is not a lot of manual calculating – spend some seconds looking for a faster way to solve it, but don’t get too hung up on that. If doing the maths the long way is the only way you will get the right answer, then stick to that and try to do it as quickly but accurately as possible.
Another tip: In general, whilst this test requires you to solve questions fast, there is no point in rushing. It is better not to finish it than to only estimate every answer and get lots of them wrong. That being said, don’t waste too much time on a question and return to it later if you really can’t solve it.
This is an interesting section. Previously, there have always been one or two questions in this style in the exam, but the 2020 exam featured none for the first time. Read into that what you will.
Spatial reasoning is something that people often say you either can or can’t do. I would argue that there are a few people who are really gifted, and a few people who really struggle, but that most of us just really need a bit of practice. Whilst I can’t promise that with practice you will suddenly become a genius and be able to solve every question, it is worth trying to find some techniques that help you solve these questions – but if you really can’t get the hang of them, I would suggest you focus on something else. (In general: Due to the unpredictability of the test, don’t get too hung up on anything – try to learn and practice different skills, but if something is really not working, move on.)
There are different ways of solving spatial reasoning questions. You should definitely give that a Google. For me personally, when figuring out questions involving shapes on different sides of cubes, I use my hand. I ball it into a fist and tap the different sides according to what I can see in the given picture of the cube/the cube map. That can help me get a sense of what is possible and what is not. Some of my friends also move around the paper and look at it from different sides to figure out the right answer.
In general, it is good to figure out the “rules” of the game. What is opposite what in the cube? If the question is written in a confusing way, you can write it out again in bullet points, or you can deduce your own rules by looking at the given images (it pays off to write them down!). Also pay attention to the way in which the patterns on the different sides of the cube interact.
These questions can usually be solved well by eliminating the impossible answers. I always cross out the answers that are clearly wrong, then look at the ones where I was uncertain again and figure out which one of those is wrong, leaving the right answer.
This section exists for the sake of pointing out that this is by no means an exhaustive list (different to the critical thinking styles). Any questions which don’t fall into the given criteria of critical thinking are problem-solving questions, and as these are 50% of the test you should definitely prepare for these too. Be prepared to see a few questions you have never seen before! The TSA likes to keep us guessing, so it is just really important to have solid ground skills so that you can deal with the unexpected.
Another tip: Often, the universities like to see a relative balance between Critical Thinking and Problem-Solving. You will have a total score and an individual score for each, and whilst most people are better at one than the other, make sure that neither is low and that it is as balanced as possible.
Math skills to know – useful tips
This is a compilation of mathematical knowledge that I found useful. In general, familiarize yourself with GCSE maths (as mentioned before). This goes especially for students who did not study under the British system and therefore, whilst they did similar maths, never sat the GCSEs. Take a look at the syllabus! Make sure you still know how to do everything, by hand!
The TSA Essay is somewhat difficult to prepare for. Here are several things you should do to improve your scores on these:
- * It is de facto an argumentative essay, so practice these!
- * Improve your spelling – whilst they do not technically assess your spelling and grammar mistakes, they are checking to see if you can write essays. Numerous spelling or grammar mistakes will therefore make their impression of you worse, and it will also make the essay harder to understand so then your arguments will seem less convincing.
- * Read up on your choosen topic – there are four questions you can choose from and they will be the same for everyone who sits the test. They will therefore not be testing knowledge specific to something you will be studying during your degree, but it will be loosely related. Therefore it is important to read widely around your topic – for PPE, it can be useful to read sources such as The Economist to get that extra knowledge. Just reading newspapers in general will really help with this.
- * Practise argumenting – they will be assessing the arguments you come up with and how you prove them. They literally only give you a prompt, so you will have to come up with a thesis and points quickly and creatively. This takes practice.
Here is a good structure to go about these questions:
- 1. paragraph 1: hook, definitions of key terms in the question (you can make this up, but if you implement restrictions make sure not to argue against these restrictions you created later on in the text), thesis (In this essay I will argue that….)
- 2. paragraphs 2-4: think of arguments. These can be two supporting your thesis and one sandwiched in the middle that discredits it but that you then weaken (you can also show insight, but it is important that you outline the limitations of this as you have a clear thesis you are arguing for). Use examples, either from real life or made-up thought experiments (basically make up (day-to-day) scenarios to show your point).
- 3. Paragraph 5: conclusion – answer the question! (should be the same as your thesis). Here you can repeat the arguments you made. As a last sentence, it is good to include some implications for the world of your answer.
It is important to remember that these essays are different than the ones you write in highschool. For example, there is no issue with you using “I”.
Really practice writing these in 30 min and include a solid 5 minutes to plan your arguments so that they flow logically. The prompt will usually not be easy but pick a side and then support it (it doesn’t have to be the one you necessarily agree with but one that you can argue well).
When picking a pormpt, it is usually good to pick something you have some idea about but it is important not to get too emotional about a topic or get lost in the details. An essay written in 30min will not be the best essay you have ever written but reading a lot and definitely practising 2-3 essays as a minimum will really help you. I would also recommend you watch the video by Jesus College on the TSA Essay (just google it). That’s a really good starting point in terms of thinking about the type of questions that are asked!
- * Intro – arguments – conclusion
- * Use definitions in your introduction!
- * Make sure you have a thesis statement
- * Acknowledge counterarguments! (this shows you are using critical thought)
- * Think about implications in your conclusion
That concludes my advice on the TSA. It is important to be informed but it is even more important to practice. Good luck!