How to prepare for the TSA and other ‘Critical Thinking’ tests


Many courses require candidates to sit a critical thinking assessment. This is true not only for Oxbridge  (Economics courses will generally require you to have sat the TSA) but also for courses such as mathematics (STEP) and medicine (BMAT). Indeed, even if you choose to do a Masters course such as an MBA you will probably need to sit a test like this.

So how can you maximise your chances?

In this article, the primary focus will be on the TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment) required by Oxford and some colleges at Cambridge. However, many of the points will apply just as well to other critical thinking assessments.

If you want to just cut to the chase and practice TSA tests online, click here.

The following Oxford courses require the TSA (for Cambridge here’s the 2015 list – PDF):

  • Economics and Management
  • Experimental Psychology
  • Geography
  • Philosophy and Linguistics
  • Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE)
  • Psychology and Linguistics
  • Psychology and Philosophy.

The TSA consists of a writing task and a critical thinking task

For Oxford the test is split into 2 sections. Section 1 is the critical thinking component – you have 90 minutes for 50 multiple choice questions. So that’s less than 2 minutes per question. The first 10-20 will take you far less whereas towards the end the difficulty increases and you might find yourself needing more than 2 minutes.

The second section is the writing task. You have 30 minutes to write a short essay. The essay topics vary and you will be given a choice out of at least three. Past topics have been:

  • Should convicted criminals be allowed to vote?
  • Should we have a right to choose when and how we die?
  • Does a country’s ideal political system depend on its level of economic development?
  • Could a robot ever think like a human?
  • Do patent laws encourage or hinder development?
  • Do coalitions necessarily adopt policies which unite party leaders but alienate party followers?
  • Is the general understanding of science damaged by the way it is presented in the media?
  • Should governments only fund scientific research if it is of direct benefit to society?

In each paper, you will find that some topics lend themselves to economics more naturally than others. In this case, its point 3 (economic development), point 5 (patents), final point (scientific research).

tsa preparation book

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.