Preparing for the Thinking Skills Assessment

For all student applying to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics and related subjects at the University of Oxford there is a requirement to take the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA). This is a test of 50 multiple choice questions that test both your Problem Solving and Critical Thinking skills. It is seen as important as it will be the only comparable test that every person applying will have sat, as students may be studying A-Levels, the International Baccalaureate or other international qualifications.  You have 90 minutes to answer the 50 multiple choice questions and then you have 30 minutes to write an essay.

How to register?

I registered by going to see my examinations officer, they asked for what my UCAS personal ID was and which college I was applying to and then they printed me out a confirmation to confirm I was entered with details of how to access my results.

How to prepare? 

I prepared for the TSA in a couple of ways. Firstly I read and made notes on Think You Can Think: Cracking the Thinking Skills Assessment by Minesh Tanna, this book divides the paper into the different types of question they may ask and how to approach each type. It then goes on to test this by giving you practice papers, these practice papers are useful as they explain why the right answer is right!! I then finally went on to answering real past papers in timed conditions, these gave me an indication of the score I could expect to get and a bit of practice answering the type of questions they ask, where I couldn’t work out why an answer was right I would ask friends and look at online forums. Remember that in the scheme of things the TSA is intended to be a test that can’t be gamed by memorizing answers, practice will help bring up your marks but loads of cramming won’t turn a fail into a pass.

What score do you need to get?

The TSA  is used to identify two different sets of candidates. Candidates who do very well are pretty much guaranteed to be interviewed presuming the rest of their application is acceptable, meanwhile candidates who do below average are unlikely to be interviewed unless there are mitigating circumstances.  From what I’ve heard if you don’t fit into either of these categories then admissions tutors will look at other aspects of your application to decide upon if to interview you or not. The below quote was included in my feedback from the PPE faculty (for 2016 entry), remember that these values will change slightly year on year.

Candidates that who score well in the TSA (above 65.2 this year) and had good exam results

and references were likely to be asked for interview. Candidates who scored between 62.4

and 64.3 may have been invited for interview. Candidates scoring below 61.4 will only have

been invited for interview with special consideration of other factors.


TSA Essay

The essay is intended to test your ability to write a concise argument in good English. From experience they tend to have a relatively diverse selection of questions as the TSA must be sat by students applying for a variety of subjects, you can always spot at least 1 question aimed at geographers for example. All the essay questions will have multiple viewpoints, the essay question that I answered was on whether whistleblowers should be encouraged or discouraged.  I wrote my answer a bit like the plan below:

Introduction: Definition of whistleblowers

Point 1: + Yes they should be encouraged, they can raise awareness of issues that may not be understood by the general public. For example Edward Snowden’s revelations about the actions of the NSA and GCHQ led to public debates about liberty along with the need for legislation to legalize this work to be enacted.

Point 2: However these revelations put lives in danger by perhaps disclosing techniques that communications were intercepted by to terrorists.

Point 3: + Whistleblowers can help to ensure that services are safe. On a number of occasions whistleblowers in services such as the NHS have reveled dangerously low staffing levels and abuse.

Point 4: No guarantee whistleblowers are being completely truthful. Perhaps laid off by employer and decides to lie, or wants increase in pay.

Remember you only have two sides of A4 to write your essay… if you have any space remaining you could add in another point or a conclusion.


Do not take everything on this page as fact, it is based on informal discussions I have had with admissions tutors and my own experiences.