How to Prepare for the TSA

The TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment) is a university admissions test required by some courses at Oxford and UCL. The aim of the TSA exam is to help universities assess your problem-solving, numerical reasoning, and critical thinking skills, which are integral to university-level study.

You are unlikely to have encountered TSA-style questions or faced such a test of your intellectual stamina in school-level exams before. It’s therefore critical that you prepare for the challenges of the TSA exam and learn actionable strategies for success.

That’s where The Profs’ expert TSA 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 for top universities, our tutors are able to help you perform well in the TSA and secure a place at your first choice university.

What is the TSA?

The TSA is an admissions test used by the University of Oxford and University College London (UCL). It is designed to assess your problem-solving, numerical reasoning, and critical thinking skills, all of which are important skills to have in order to be able to succeed at university-level study.

Which universities require the TSA?

Oxford and UCL are the two universities that require applicants to take the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA). Cambridge used to use the TSA for its Land Economy degree course but no longer does. The table below shows the courses that require the TSA at each university:

UniversityCourses requiring the TSA
University College London (UCL)European Social and Political Studies
International Social and Political Studies
University of OxfordEconomics and Management
History and Economics
Human Sciences
Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE)
Psychology (Experimental)
Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics

Please note: For the 2024 application cycle, the TSA is either being totally discontinued or adopted from the CAAT by the TCS. Hence, Oxford and UCL may announce that they are replacing the TCS with another admissions test for the above programmes, so keep your eye out. 

What is included in the TSA exam?

Each university has its own ‘version’ of the TSA: TSA UCL (also referred to as the Thinking Skills Test (TST)) and TSA Oxford. Both TSA exams include a 90-minute paper containing 50 multiple-choice questions. These questions are divided into two types: problem-solving (including numerical reasoning) and critical thinking, and the difficulty of these questions is randomly distributed throughout the paper.

In addition to the multiple-choice paper (section 1), Oxford University’s TSA also includes a writing task known as the TSA essay (section 2). The TSA essay paper is 30 minutes long and involves answering one essay question from a choice of four on just two sides of A4 paper. The writing task is designed to assess students’ ability to organise ideas in a clear and concise way, and communicate effectively in writing.

The aim of the TSA is to assess not only your critical thinking and numerical reasoning skills, but your ability to maintain this level of thinking under pressure. You will have less than 2 minutes to answer each question in section 1 of the TSA, so learning quick comprehension skills and practising thinking under pressure is particularly important. Equally, if you are sitting section 2 of the TSA, you will have just 30 minutes to write around 1,000 words, so you will need to be concise and capable of quickly converting complex thoughts into clear written work. See our six top tips for preparing for the TSA below for more helpful information.

How is the TSA exam marked?

The TSA is a multiple-choice exam which gives 1 mark per question, meaning there is a maximum of 50 marks available. Scores are then calculated using the TSA scale (approximately 0–100) which makes candidates’ scores comparable by factoring in the difficulty of individual questions and the overall test. Marking of section 1 of the TSA is automated and you cannot request for your test to be re-marked.

Section 2 of the Oxford TSA is marked on an individual basis. Oxford states that “the people marking these tests do not have a ‘right answer’ in mind, nor a set list of points to be made. The marker need not have any answer of their own in mind at all, and, even if they do, they might be persuaded otherwise by a good argument from an applicant.”

What is a good TSA score?

It is not possible to define exactly what a ‘good’ TSA score is in terms of marks because the scale changes from year to year depending on the scores of the particular cohort of candidates. However, the TSA scale is designed so that typical applicants to the most selective undergraduate university courses in the UK will score around 60 (on a scale of 0-100). The very best applicants will score above 70, according to Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing, with less than 3% of applicants achieving scores above 80.

We can also look to the average scores of successful applicants to top universities to determine what score you should be aiming for. The table below shows the average scores of successful applicants to Oxford (UCL does not publish data on its TSA results):

UniversityAverage score among successful applicants
Oxford (all courses)75.14 (2020)

The following table shows a breakdown of the average scores among successful applicants to the three competitive Economics courses at Oxford:

Course (Oxford)Average score among successful applicants (2020)
Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE)75.39
History and Economics72.8
Economics and Management74.84

At the University of Oxford, for particularly competitive courses such as PPE (Politics, Philosophy and Economics), your TSA score, A levels and GCSE grades are weighted significantly greater than your UCAS personal statement and even your teacher’s reference. There is no hard cut-off TSA score for acceptance, but no candidates with a TSA score less than 60 were offered places at Oxford in 2021. Therefore, in order to be competitive and stand out to Oxford or UCL, you should be aiming for a score above 70.

When is the TSA exam?

TSA Oxford takes place after the Oxbridge application deadline, in October, in early November. TSA UCL takes place after the UCAS application deadline in January and March. You will be told which test to register for by UCL.

How do you register for the TSA?

Registration for the TSA isn’t automatic; just completing your UCAS application won’t register you for the test. Instead, to register for the TSA, you’ll need to speak to your exams officer to find out if your school is a registered test centre. If it is, your exams officer will be able to register you for the TSA. If it is not, you can find a local authorised test centre to take the exam through.

If you are applying to UCL, the process is slightly different. UCL makes offers to a few exceptional candidates on the basis of their UCAS application alone – these students will not need to take the TSA. The candidates who are required to take the TSA will be contacted by UCL via email with details on how to register for the test. UCL TSA candidates are able to take the TSA on their own computer at home or at another suitable location and will be monitored by a remote proctor.

When should you register for the TSA?

Test centres can begin registering candidates for the Oxford TSA from early September. Registration for the TSA then closes at the end of September.

TSA UCL takes place after the UCAS application deadline in January and March. You will be told which test to register for and when to register by in an email from UCL.

How much does the TSA cost?

Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing does not charge candidates to take the TSA. Some (but not all) test centres may charge an administration fee to cover the cost of invigilation and room hire which are essential for running the test, so you’ll need to contact your test centre or exams officer for details. There is no cost to sit TSA at UCL.

When can you find out your TSA results?

The University of Oxford releases candidates’ TSA results in early January. You will be issued a statement of results via Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing’s Results Online system. You may request feedback on your test results from the relevant Oxford college as part of Oxford’s usual feedback process.

Marking of TSA UCL is automated and Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing does not accept requests for re-marks. Results will also not be released directly to candidates and will instead be passed to UCL.

Admissions tutors will receive the results of all tests directly from Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing in time to make their shortlisting decisions in November, so you do not need to send your results to your university separately.

Can you appeal your TSA results?

Marking of section 1 of the TSA is automated and you cannot request for your test to be re-marked. However, if you believe there has been an error in the processing or reporting of your test result or have a complaint about malpractice, speak to your exams officer who can submit an appeal on your behalf.

6 tips on how to prepare for TSA

1. Get to know question types

The TSA exam questions can be separated into two types: problem-solving questions and critical thinking questions. Problem-solving questions involve using reasoning and numerical skills to solve unfamiliar problems in an innovative way. Critical thinking questions involve reasoning using everyday written language and often require you to consider an argument put forward to promote or defend a particular point of view or use logical reasoning to identify similarities and differences in pieces of text.

One of the reasons students find the TSA so challenging is because very few will have encountered questions like those included in the exam before. Just as the name of the exam suggests, the questions are designed to assess your ability to think through problems you may have never thought of before. That’s why knowing the types of questions that will come up and learning how to think through in an effective way is invaluable preparation for the TSA.

2. Formalise or simplify questions into their key elements

The TSA is designed to not only test how you think, but also your mental stamina. As well as putting you under time pressure, examiners will deliberately include extraneous information and filler content in questions to test your ability to prioritise information and draw conclusions efficiently. The difficulty of questions is also randomly distributed throughout the paper, so it’s not the case that they get harder as the test goes on. Actually, it’s more likely that the questions will begin to feel harder later during the test because you’re under more time pressure and have been tired out by the additional challenges presented to you.

That’s why it’s really important to practise identifying the key pieces of information in the TSA questions as soon as possible. Our experts suggest the following approach:

  • 1. Start by reading the prompt for each question. The prompt will usually be one line of text which tells you exactly what you are being asked to do and typically follows a passage of text presenting an argument or problem. For example, the prompt might be: Which one of the following most closely parallels the reasoning used in the above argument? In this example, you know you first need to identify the structure of the argument in the passage above.
  • 2. Once you know what the question is asking for, you can get to work on solving it. Using the above example, you know you need to find the crux of the argument or the key variables in the passage of text and then identify which of the answers most closely parallels it. You can then formalise or simplify the argument in the passage into its most basic form (for example, ‘not p ∴ not q’).
  • 3. Then, work through the answers systematically, identifying the argument in each and assessing whether it mirrors the text above before making your final choice.

This system helps prevent you from needing to read the question twice, which saves you time, but also allows you to filter out any unnecessary data that may cloud your judgement. This will help to maximise your mental stamina throughout and work smarter, not harder.

3. Practise past papers under timed conditions

The 90-minute TSA paper contains 50 multiple-choice questions, and you must try to answer as many of these questions as possible. One of the most common problems students face in the TSA is running out of time, so it’s important to practise being really strict with yourself on timings. As you practise past papers, begin to work out how long each question is taking you to answer. The timing you allocate to each question really depends on you and your own strengths and skills. Then, set yourself an amount of time per question that you think you should be spending and if you hit that time, move on.

4. If you’re applying to Oxford, prepare for the TSA essay

Unlike UCL, Oxford University requires most applicants to take an additional section of the TSA: the TSA essay. If you’re applying to Oxford, you’ll need to make sure you prepare for this section in addition to the first paper (the multiple choice questions). Here are some tips from our experts on how to prepare for the TSA essay:

  • Identify exactly what the question is asking of you. Focus on the ‘hook words’ that the question is based around, for example ‘Should’ or ‘Is it right/wrong’.
  • Break down the ‘hook words’ into their different aspects. For example, ‘should’ in almost every context has two meanings: should you do something because it’s just intrinsically right to do it (known as the deontological sense) or should you do something because it will lead to better outcomes (known as the instrumental or utilitarian sense). This is a good basis for forming your argument.
  • Practise reusing the question wording in your answer. This will help you frame your answer and ensure that you are in fact answering the whole question and nothing but the question. For example, if the question is ‘Should workers strike to demand action on issues such as climate change?’ you should either state: ‘Workers should strike to demand action on issues such as climate change’ or ‘Workers should not strike to demand action on issues such as climate change’. You should include this clear statement in the first line of your answer before going onto argue it.
  • Practise writing arguments in a logical way. After you’ve identified the key elements of the question and your key argument points, try to string these together in logical sequences so that your answer makes sense to your examiner.

5. Look after yourself and get plenty of sleep!

The TSA doesn’t just test how intelligent you are, but how you can solve problems and think critically under a sustained amount of intellectual pressure. Essentially, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. You wouldn’t run a marathon without taking care of your body and your mind, so don’t neglect that ahead of the TSA, either!

Make sure you are taking care of yourself (i.e. eating well, drinking plenty of water and allowing time to rest in between studying) and getting plenty of sleep in the months and weeks leading up to your exam. You might think this will make only a tiny amount of difference, but the difference between being in the top quartile and the second quartile comes down to a fraction of 1%, so even tiny differences matter.

6. Seek help from a TSA expert

How you perform in the TSA will impact how likely you are to be offered a place by Oxford and UCL, 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 TSA preparation due to a lack of experience, expertise or resources. As a result, we advise seeking a professional TSA tutor to help you through the process.

The Profs’ TSA tutors have many years of experience preparing students for the TSA exam, with many having actual experience as exam and admissions officers as well. Over these years, they have built a bank of previous questions and developed effective strategies to help students ensure they are performing to the best of their ability.

If you work with one of The Profs’ tutors, you are more than three times more likely to get into Oxford. You’ll also gain invaluable independent study skills that will prepare you for higher education, as well as a deeper and broader understanding of a range of philosophical concepts and critical thinking approaches.

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 TSA, but also achieve top A level or IB grades and perform well in any potential interviews. Reach out to our friendly team today to get started.