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If you’re applying for a degree involving Economics at Oxford, you’ll have to sit the dreaded TSA. It’s a notoriously time-pressured and difficult entrance test. But don’t worry! We’ve got a complete guide to the TSA, along with a host of top tips for maximising your score and standing out.

What is the TSA?

The TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment) is designed to test your critical thinking and problem solving abilities. It is made up of two sections: 

  • Section 1: Thinking Skills Assessment
  • Section 2: Writing Task 

The TSA is the admissions test used for Economics: 

  • PPE: All of the TSA is required
  • E&M: All of the TSA is required
  • History and Economics: The first section of the TSA is required, and the HAT (History Aptitude test) is required. 

You will also have to sit the first section of the TSA if you are applying to Chemistry at Oxford, or Land Economy at Cambridge.

Section 1 of the TSA

Section 1 of the TSA is a 90 minute test, consisting of 50 multiple-choice thinking skills questions. It is primarily a test of your problem solving and critical thinking abilities. 

Problem Solving

Problem solving involves looking at a problem, and finding logical and creative solutions. The questions are often numerical in nature. 

Critical Thinking

Critical thinking involves analysing arguments and statements, and finding problems with them, and constructing your own arguments, given a set of information. 

In section 1, you will be tested on your numerical and spatial reasoning, and on your critical thinking abilities when understanding argument and reasoning in everyday language. For each question there will be a stimulus, a question, and 5 options. The stimulus may be a diagram, a table, a graph, or a passage of text. 

What will the questions in Section 1 cover?

You can further break down the problem solving questions into three types: 

  • Relevant Section: requires you to analyse information to get a solution
  • Finding Procedures: involves manipulating relevant information to get a solution
  • Identifying Similarities: involves finding a situation with similarities to the one you were given

There will also be seven different types of critical thinking question: 

  • Summarising the main conclusion of the passage
  • Drawing a conclusion from the passage
  • Identifying an assumption in the argument 
  • Seeing if additional evidence strengthens or weakens the argument 
  • Identifying flaws in the argument
  • Looking for similarities within the logical structure of an argument
  • Identifying a principle relied upon by the argument

With section 1, the questions are roughly in order of difficulty, but the problem solving and critical thinking questions are interspersed throughout. It is very time pressured, you have 108 seconds per question, and many people do not complete the test.

Often those who do not complete the test are those who get bogged down on one question. Each question has an equal weighting throughout the section, so there is no point spending a disproportionate amount of time on one question. 

How well do I need to score in Section 1 of the TSA?

The TSA Section 1 is marked as a percentage, and different subjects have different cut off points for candidates they will and won’t invite to interview. At Oxford, the average cut off is about 60%. However, it is a lot higher for E&M (68), and higher for PPE than it is for PPL. 10 marks on the TSA is the standard deviation for the TSA.

Section 2 of the TSA

You will be given four essay titles, and you have 30 minutes to write one essay. This is testing your ability to organise your thoughts concisely and communicate them in an effective manner. The essay titles are not designed to test content you have covered in any of your A-Levels, but, rather, your ability to communicate clearly and argue convincingly. Here are some example titles to give you a taste of what you can expect:

  • Could a robot ever be deemed a human? If so, should it be granted a vote? 
  • Should we have more artists in positions of political power? 
  • If someone earns double your income, should they have to pay double the price for a pint of milk? 

Section 2 is marked by putting you in a band, where you are judged on your quality of written communication, and presentation of your argument. 

How should I prepare for the TSA?

The TSA is a very unique exam, and as it is not testing what you know there is not a syllabus to revise. However, preparation is still essential to secure a good TSA score. Here’s a list of ways in which you can prepare for the TSA. 

Section 1

  • Past Papers. As the TSA is so unlike any other exam, past papers are the best way to prepare. It is important to do at least a couple of past papers in timed conditions, as time management is so important. You could also set a timer for 108 seconds on loop, to make sure that you are never spending more than this on a question. If you can get into the habit of racing through as many of the questions you get as quickly as possible, and coming back to those you don’t instantaneously get later, this will serve you very well.

We also have video solutions for all the TSA papers. These are extremely useful, as you can learn and develop your problem solving and critical thinking skills from expert tutors, and learn an armoury of methods for solving for the questions. 

  • TSA preparation courses: At STEPMaths we also run TSA preparation courses, where you are given unique TSA questions not accessible online. You will then get one on one attention from an expert tutor, who will work with you to improve your critical thinking and problem solving abilities. 
  • Critical Thinking Improvement: To improve your critical thinking, in preparation for the TSA, it is useful to read and listen to a lot of speeches: for example politicians talking on the news. Reading is more useful, as this directly mirrors what you will have to do in the TSA, but it is also useful to listen too, just whilst you’re in the car or getting ready for school. At the end, pick out the key argument, ask yourself what premises were used, and try to provide as brief a synopsis as you can. Regular practice at this will serve well as preparation for the TSA. 

Section 2

Section 2 is very time-pressured, as you only have 30 minutes to plan and write your essay. This means you need to be quick at selecting and planning your essay; ideally, you won’t spend any longer than five minutes on this. A good way to prepare for this is to go through the TSA past papers and plan all the essay questions as quickly as possible.

It is also useful preparation to spend time reading contentious articles and news stories and forming an opinion about them. The admissions tutors marking the TSA are looking for interesting lines of argument that are executed well. You can improve this skill by reading controversial headlines and deciding what you would argue regarding the subject. However, the admissions tutors also want to see that you can have a balanced debate and weigh up both sides of the argument. Try and have debates about pertinent topics such as euthanasia, abortion, AI, and GM food supplies with your friends, family and teachers.

It is also important to prepare by writing essays in timed conditions. 30 minutes is not long at all to write an essay, and the admissions tutors are not expecting them to be very long. However, you want to present a well-rounded argument in this time, so each second is precious! For starters, make sure your essay has an introduction and conclusion

A good way to prepare for Section 2 of the TSA, as with lots of the other admissions tests, is to answer the questions you wouldn’t necessarily choose. This will force you out of your comfort zone; as a result, you’ll be more comfortable tackling tricky questions in the real thing.


The TSA is a challenging admissions test, but don’t be disheartened if you find it difficult. It’s meant to be heard: it’s designed to separate out the very best. If you prepare properly, and keep calm and focused in the exam, you’ll do yourself proud.

Undeniably, the best preparation for the TSA is practice, practice, practice. This is the only way you will get used to the style of questions asked, and it is through familiarity that you will be able to shave off time, and power through as many questions as possible. We’ve also got a guide to making the most out of your time in the exam room, and working through the paper as efficiently as possible. Do as many papers as you can, and take a look at our website for even more questions and resources to help you prepare.