How to Prepare for the NSAA

The Natural Sciences Admissions Assessment (NSAA) is an admissions test used by Cambridge University to assess your mathematical and scientific knowledge in preparation for a science-based degree course. It is designed to be challenging to all candidates, no matter their current attainment, so it’s important that you prepare adequately and cover all of the topics in the NSAA specification.

That’s where The Profs’ expert NSAA tutors can help. With first-hand experience of the exam content, tried-and-tested strategies for approaching the questions, and an understanding of how it fits into the wider admissions process, our tutors are able to help you perform well in the NSAA and secure a place on your chosen course at Cambridge.

Please note: The NSAA is being discontinued. The Engineering and Science Admissions Test (ESAT) will be used for degree programmes in Engineering, Natural Sciences, Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, and Veterinary Medicine at Cambridge. It will also be used for Physics and most Engineering degrees at Imperial. Information on the ESAT is available here. We will also be releasing an article on the ESAT shortly, so keep your eye out.

What is the NSAA?

The NSAA (Natural Sciences Admissions Assessment) is a subject-specific admissions test for students applying to some scientific courses at Cambridge. It is designed to assess your ability to use and apply your scientific and mathematical knowledge.

There are many elements to the NSAA that candidates struggle with. Not only is the content challenging, but the time allocated is short and the questions are often different in style to those in school-level exams. It is therefore crucial that you prepare thoroughly for the NSAA. Read on to find out how to begin preparing or get straight in touch with our team of NSAA experts to get started today.

Which courses require the NSAA?

The NSAA is required by Cambridge University for the following courses:

  • Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology
  • Natural Sciences
  • Veterinary Medicine

All of these courses are incredibly competitive and not only require a strong performance in the NSAA, but also an excellent application and successful interview. Reach out to The Profs’ admissions consultants to help secure a place on your chosen Cambridge course.

What is included in the NSAA exam?

The NSAA is a 2-hour exam which is split into two sections, each lasting 60 minutes. Section 1 consists of four parts of which candidates should answer two (Mathematics and one of the sciences). Part A is on Mathematics, part B on Physics, part C on Chemistry and part D on Biology. Each part contains 20 multiple-choice questions, so you will be answering 40 questions in total in section 1.

Section 2 consists of three parts of which candidates should answer any one. Each part
contains 20 extended multiple-choice questions in Biology, Chemistry or Physics.
The topics that the questions will be based on (Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Advanced Mathematics, Advanced Physics, Advanced Chemistry, and Advanced Biology) are covered in the NSAA content specification provided by Cambridge. They consist of the following topics listed in the table belows.

Section 1

Ratio and proportion
Thermal physics
Atomic structure
The Periodic Table
Chemical reactions, formulae and equations
Quantitative chemistry
Oxidation, reduction and redox
Chemical bonding, structure and properties
Group chemistry
Separation techniques
Acids, bases and salts
Rates of reaction
Cabron/Organic chemistry
Kinetic/Particle theory
Chemical tests
Air and water
Movement across membranes
Cell division and sex determination
Gene technologies
Animal physiology
Plant physiology

Section 2

Section 2 will cover some content from Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology as shown in the table above. It will also cover topics in Advanced Mathematics, Advanced Physics, Advanced Chemistry and Advanced Biology, as shown in the table below.

Advanced MathematicsAdvanced PhysicsAdvanced ChemistryAdvanced Biology
Algebra and functions
Sequences and series
Coordinate geometry in the (x, y) plane
Exponentials and logarithms
Graphs of functions
Forces and equilibrium
Newton’s laws
Atomic structure
Atomic structure
Bonding and structure
Inorganic chemistry and the Periodic Table
Organic chemistry
Cell structure
Biological membranes
Cell division and organisation
Biological molecules
Nucleotides and nucleic acids
Animal physiology
Plant physiology

Cambridge’s NSAA content specification details exactly what you’ll need to know for each of these topics, so make sure you refer to this during your preparation.

How is the NSAA marked?

In both Section 1 and Section 2, each correct answer is worth 1 mark. Results for each part will be reported separately and no marks will be deducted for incorrect answers, so it’s recommended that you answer as many questions in your chosen sections as possible.

Your marks for each section will then be converted into a score using a scale ranging from 1.0 (low) to 9.0 (high). You can see the scores achieved in each section of the NSAA in Cambridge’s 2021 Explanation of Results.

When is the NSAA?

The NSAA takes place on Wednesday 19th October. You must ensure you have registered for the test through an authorised test centre (see below) before 30th September to ensure that you are eligible.

It is not possible to re-sit the NSAA more than once in the same application year. If you feel you did badly due to extenuating circumstances, such as being ill on the day of the test, then your test centre can submit a special consideration form for you. However, application forms must be received within 5 days of the test date.

How do you register for the NSAA?

To register for the NSAA, you will need an authorised test centre to register you on your behalf. For most candidates, their authorised test centre is their school or college, however you should check this with your Exams Officer to make sure. If your school or college is not authorised, they can register to become a test centre at any time before the 16th September. Alternatively, you can find an open test centre to register with. You can find your nearest test centre via the Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing (CAAT) website.

In order to register, you will need to provide your personal details and UCAS number, as well as the name of the university (Cambridge), course and course code, which you can find on UCAS. You can register from the 1st September and you must have your candidate entry number as proof of entry by 30th September.

Please note that while registration is automatic for some admissions assessments at Cambridge, it is not automatic for the NSAA, so you must register through a test centre before the 30th September.

How much does the NSAA cost?

Cambridge University does not charge candidates to take the NSAA. However, some independent test centres do charge an administration fee to candidates, so contact your local test centre for details.

When can you find out your NSAA results?

Your NSAA results will be published to Cambridge’s online results system, Results Online, on 11th January.

4 tips for preparing for the NSAA

1. Choose which sections you’re going to answer

The NSAA is relatively unique among Oxbridge admissions tests in that it allows you to choose which sections to answer from a selection. It’s therefore a good idea to know which sections of the exam you are going to answer and which you are not. This will allow you to tailor your preparation and go into more depth on the relevant content you’ll need to know, rather than covering everything in less detail.

Knowing which sections you’re going to answer beforehand will ensure that you do not waste valuable time in the real exam browsing through the questions on offer. Past papers can be a great way of deciding which sections are best suited to you – you can experiment with trying out the different sections and see which ones give you the highest score overall.

2. Practise questions from a range of sources

There aren’t a huge number of NSAA past papers, so it’s a good idea to practise questions from a range of sources. NSAA questions will also look different to A level Maths and Science questions, so try to avoid using only your school textbook to prepare for the topics included. There are lots of resources out there that you can use to help you prepare and to familiarise yourself with different types of questions. Some resources to try include:

Cambridge also provides two specimen papers which come with answers and explanations for those answers. These can be helpful in your preparation as they can help you to not only learn what the right answers are, but understand the ways in which you can come to these answers yourself in the exam.

Top tip: Don’t be afraid to use other Oxbridge admissions tests to help you practise your knowledge. For example, if you’re preparing for the Physics section of the NSAA, you can use PAT (Oxford’s Physics Aptitude Test) or ENGAA (Cambridge’s Engineering Admissions Assessment) past papers to practise applying your knowledge to relevant questions.

3. Take practice tests under timed conditions

One of the best ways you can prepare for the NSAA is to complete past papers under timed conditions, just as you will face in the real exam. One of the main areas candidates struggle with is time-keeping and finishing all of the questions in the NSAA, so practising with time pressure will help you to work out how much time you should be spending on each question to ensure you complete the paper within the 2 hours.

You can find the past papers from 2018-2021 on Cambridge’s Natural Sciences page, so use these to your advantage in your preparation. Work your way through as many papers as you can throughout your preparation, as these really are the best way of familiarising yourself with both the content and the types of questions that you will encounter. This will ultimately give you a huge advantage on the day of your test.

The answers to each of the NSAA past papers are also included at the end of the test, so you can mark your paper yourself to gauge what you know and don’t know, and predict how you will perform in the real exam. You can also ask a teacher or professional NSAA tutor to mark your past papers, as they will be able to offer more insights into what you got wrong and why, where your weaknesses are, and what you need to learn in order to maximise your score.

4. Get help from a professional NSAA tutor

How you perform in the NSAA will impact how likely you are to be offered a place on your chosen course, so it’s really important that you are prepared to do as well as possible in the exam. Unfortunately, schools and colleges are oftentimes not equipped to provide specialist NSAA preparation due to a lack of experience, expertise or resources. In addition, Cambridge does not publish the mark schemes for each of the past papers, so only a teacher or an experienced NSAA tutor can mark your practice papers based on their knowledge of the subject and the test.

As a result of these difficulties, we advise seeking a professional NSAA tutor to help you through the process. The Profs’ NSAA tutors have many years of experience preparing students for the NSAA exam, with many having actual experience as university admissions officers as well. Over these years, they have built a bank of previous questions and developed in-depth knowledge of the mark scheme, so they know exactly what examiners will be looking for.

If you work with The Profs, you are more than three times more likely to get into Cambridge, ranked as the best university in the UK for Natural Sciences. You’ll also gain invaluable independent study skills that will prepare you for higher education, as well as a deeper and broader understanding of the subject area.

Plus, you can trust us to guide you through every stage of the admissions process to ensure that you don’t just succeed in the NSAA, but also achieve top A level or IB grades and perform well in your interview. Reach out to our team today to get started.