TSA Section 2: The Definitive Guide to Section 2 of the TSA 2022
Written by: Matt Amalfitano-Stroud
Section 2 of the TSA isn’t a requirement for every course, but for those who do require it, it is incredibly important to your application. It’s also pretty difficult, as you’ll be writing a full essay in just 30 minutes. This guide will show you exactly what Section 2 of the TSA involves and give you tips on how to best tackle this short but challenging paper. Let’s get started!
THE BASICS OF THE TSA
Let’s start things off by recapping what we know about the TSA as a whole, including its format, sections and scoring.
What is the TSA?
The Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA) is an examination that tests general problem-solving critical thinking skills and verbal reasoning skills. It is primarily used by the University of Oxford, referred to as TSA Oxford, for a variety of courses, from Geography to Psychology. A small number of courses at UCL require the test but are no longer used by the University of Cambridge (the Land Economy course had used the admissions test until 2022).
The TSA Oxford has two variations. The majority of courses will require you to complete two sections, Section 1 and Section 2, although there are two exceptions to this which only require you to complete Section 1.
Section 1 is comprised of 50 multiple-choice questions testing skills in Problem-Solving and Critical Thinking. You will have 90 minutes to complete all of these questions.
Section 2 is named the “Writing Task”, as it will see you writing a 750-word essay in 30 minutes. The essays will need to answer one of four questions provided in the paper, all of which are not specific to the course you’re applying for. Instead, they cover a large variety of general topics based on politics, ethics and more.
This table summarises the basic TSA structure:
How is the TSA Scored?
Each section of the TSA functions almost like a separate exam, and part of that is due to their separate mark schemes. Section one is marked on a general scale that ranks an applicant within a 100 point scale based on the number of correct answers.
Unfortunately, the TSA Section 2 scoring system is generally undefined and unknown. Due to the smaller number of applicants required to take this section of the TSA, the examining body, Cambridge Applications Admissions Testing, does not mark essays themselves as they do for Section 1. Instead, it is down to the admissions teams within the Oxford Colleges to use these essays as an indicator for which applicants will go through to interview.
This is just a very basic overview of the TSA scoring system though, so you can learn more about it in our TSA Scoring and Results Guide!
When is the TSA sat?
Applicants sitting the TSA Oxford can expect to do so in the first few days of November at an approved testing centre, while the TSA UCL is taken online.
Bear in mind that you will need to register for a spot to sit either TSA. This process can be started from September 1st by speaking you your school/college’s exams officer, who will be able to get your slot booked! You can find out more about how to book here, or find out more about the full process of TSA preparation in our TSA 6-Month Preparation Timeline!
WHAT IS THE TSA SECTION 2?
It’s time to take a deeper dive into how exactly the TSA Section 2 works and what it will look like on the paper!
As we’ve already established, TSA Section 2 is a 30-minute essay writing task. Your essay will be based on one of four available questions, none of which will purposely be relevant to the subject that you’re applying for. The point of this section is to test your abilities in articulation and reasoning, as examiners will be looking for effective use of writing techniques and the ability to present and explain an argument.
While this may not seem like something that will be relevant to a subject like, say, Geography, it’s an important section to complete as it provides the admissions team at Oxford with an idea not only of your skills in writing but your ability to implement those skills in a high-pressure environment. Remember, you only have 30 minutes to develop your argument, plan your layout, write your essay and assess your work.
So, what will the TSA Section 2 paper actually look like? Here’s an example from a TSA Past Paper:
TSA Section 2 Example Page
As you can see from this page, Section 2 of the TSA is incredibly simple, format-wise. All it boils down to is a selection of four general questions and a single sheet of A4 paper to write your essay on. The essay is actually written on a separate sheet which will be given to you at the same time, so the question paper can be used to write any notes you may wish to make (although due to the lack of overall time, it wouldn’t be recommended to go too in-depth in your planning).
Outside of time restrictions, the amount of physical space the write your essay may also pose a problem for some people. Oxford themselves have explained why only one sheet of paper is allowed for the full essay. They state that writing over 2 pages worth of content “probably won’t work in your favour”, as a longer essay written in this time frame will most likely have the same or less meaningful content than a shorter one. Essentially, it encourages applicants to be more selective with their arguments and not ramble!
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WHAT MAKES A TSA SECTION 2 QUESTION?
So now we know what the paper will look like, but there’s one thing you won’t find out until you’re in the exam hall; the questions! However, there are certain factors that you can expect from a question in Section 2, so let’s take a look at them!
You will likely have taken exams before that require you to write short essays. However, those exams would probably have been focused on the specific subject you were studying, whether it be history, psychology, etc. The TSA is much broader in that sense; a typical question could be about thousands of different topics! There’s no chance that you’ll be able to prepare or revise a specific question topic beforehand, so you’ll need to be ready for anything!
Here are some of the key things you can expect from your TSA Section 2 questions. Take these four questions from the TSA Past Paper 2020 as an example:
1. Loss of schooling has a serious impact on children’s lives; attending school during a pandemic may risk the health of other people through encouraging virus spread. Is there a rational method of balancing these concerns?
2. What is the best way to handle those aspects of the legacy of history which we deeply regret?
3. Are there moral questions that science can help us to answer?
4. Does the response to the COVID-19 pandemic make serious political action on climate and environmental issues any more or any less likely?
What are some key factors that links these four questions?
These four questions are wildly different from one another. When we say this, we’re talking not only about the actual topic, but also the general style of question or type of answer that the question is expecting.
Obviously, the most noticeable difference between these specific questions is the topics, varying from history to science to COVID-19. Beyond that, however, we can see that questions 1 and 4 are much more specific than 2 and 3. Questions 1 and 4 could realistically (if ineffectively) be answered with yes or no, while 2 and 3 require fully-formed ideas to actually answer them.
None of these questions are simple to answer. They all deal with complex subjects that can be looked at from a variety of angles. You’ll likely have an opinion on most of these subjects in one way or another, so your essay is a platform for you to express and explain your opinion. Your marks won’t come from what your opinion of the topic is but from how well to present your argument.
Following on from the previous point, there really is no “right answer” to these questions. Examiners are looking for your abilities in reasoning and cognition, so the point you’re trying to make is nowhere near as important as the way you present and justify said point.
Of course, your answer should still be about the question, but you don’t need to limit yourself to what you feel the right answer may be. As long as you’ve presented your case in an effective way, your essay will be viewed positively by the admissions team.
A typical TSA question could have hundreds of different answers, but one thing that is always recommended in an essay task like this is to have a definitive point. Writers that sit on their fence in regards to their opinions on the topic are much less likely to provide anything meaningful in their work, as their writing isn’t working towards a single, underlying argument.
That’s not to say you should disregard any other sides of the argument. Acknowledging differing views can work in your favour when using effective comparisons. However, an examiner is going to get much more value out of an essay that effectively justifies one certain viewpoint rather than taking everything into consideration and ending with no real conclusion.
With all this to consider when looking at the four questions, you may find it difficult to even pick your question in the first place! Here are a few tips to help you make that decision quickly:
The first thing to consider is pretty simple; what subject do you want to write about? Is there a topic that you have a lot of personal investment in? Maybe that will be the best choice. However, in the TSA it’s not so much about what you “want” to write about(or what you know the most about), but what you can write the best essay about.
This is another important factor to selecting your question; you need to have a bit of knowledge on the topic! That’s not to say that you need to have an expert level of knowledge on every aspect of the topic, but you need to know enough to understand what the question is asking and develop an effective, fully formed argument that makes sense.
Definitely read through each question! Question 2 on the paper may sound very appealing, but always check the rest, just in case there’s a question with even more potential! As you read through one, perhaps spend a few seconds trying to come up with your underlying argument. If nothing comes to mind quickly, try the next one!
Don’t dwell on your choice for too long. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should pick one out at random, but you shouldn’t spend longer than 2 or 3 minutes making your choice. Quickly plan out your essay while making the choice; if you’re struggling to structure it, it perhaps isn’t the right question to answer.
TSA SECTION 2 ESSAY WRITING TIPS
Depending on your own personal skill set, essay writing may be the easiest or more difficult part of the TSA. Either way though, these tips will help you get the most out of your 30 minutes.
Practice is Key
It’s reasonable to assume that this Section of the TSA is hard to revise for. After all, you have no way of preparing for the questions that will be asked, right? While it’s true that you can’t revise your knowledge of the subjects within the questions, you have plenty of opportunities to practice your essay writing skills.
Due to the nature of the TSA questions, our first recommendation would be to check out the news. If you go through a newspaper, you’ll find hundreds of potential practice questions, including any questions you could make up yourself! From there, you’ll have ample opportunity to practice your writing and reasoning skills.
Of course, the most accurate way to practice is with actual TSA questions under proper exam conditions. Our TSA Preparation Platform provides the most comprehensive collection of TSA practice questions and past papers online, along with our realistic Exam Arena, where you can take full mock exams. Revising in this style will give you the best idea of what to expect in the actual exam!
Plan it Out!
With such a limited time frame to complete this essay, thorough planning will probably be the first thing that you consider getting rid of in order to focus on the actual writing. Of course, this is 100% a bad idea! You won’t be able to plan everything out in great detail but some kind of structure needs to be formed.
This structure only needs to be as simple as assigning major points to paragraphs in between the opening and closing. The important thing is that you have a flow to everything you write. Basically, don’t waste any space and ensure everything is linked! The planning phase is the best time to assure this is the case.
There’s one big question though; how long should you spend on this? We believe that an effective plan can be done in 2-3 minutes, but some people may require a little bit more time. However, we would say that planning should never go past the 5-minute mark, keeping in mind that you’ll need around 5 minutes after writing to double-check your work.
Decide on your Goals
A good way to look at your writing is that you are trying to complete a certain goal with your essay. Typically, this will be the goal to convince or inform. However, to do this, you need to be certain what it is you’re actually trying to convince or inform someone of.
To achieve this, your best bet is to start with the beginning and end of your essay before working on the main content. The opening paragraph should simply be there to explain in basic terms what your essay is about and what point you’re trying to make. This is repeated at the end of your essay, along with summarising the arguments that you’ve made along the way.
Limit your Arguments
There are two major restrictions that you’re going to be working with when taking TSA Section 2, the time limit of 30 minutes and the maximum word count of 750. With all this in place, it’s fair to say that no examiner in the world would be expecting a fully comprehensive discussion of the topic your question relates to. So you’ll need to be able to show self-restraint when it comes to your writing.
Depending on the question, you could have dozens of valid points that could help with your argument. Of course, you don’t have the time or space to fully flesh each of these out, so the best option is to pick one or two of the best ones to base the content of your essay around. After all, the exam is about the strengths of your writing, not the number of points made.
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TSA SECTION 2 EXAMPLE ESSAY
Now, considering everything we’ve discussed, let’s take a look at an example essay from the TSA Section 2 to get an idea of what a high-quality answer actually looks like!
TSA Example Essay: Is globalisation a threat to nations?
Globalisation, the process by which people and countries become more closely integrated across the planet, brings with it a number of benefits to individuals, businesses, and countries. These include the development of free trade and improvements to the mobility of labour. However, it also brings with it certain dangers, including environmental harm and exploitation of developing nations. Despite these dangers, globalisation presents more of an opportunity to nations than it does a threat.
Globalisation is generally considered to be an economic issue. The removal of barriers between nations allows for increased interaction, and opens up a truly international marketplace. Over the last century, technological developments in the fields of transport and communication have allowed for a significant increase in worldwide trade. The birth of the internet and the expansion of the aerospace industry have made the world a much more connected place, and businesses have capitalised on these advancements.
Imports and exports, once considered a rarity, are now a huge part of day to day life and consumers reap the rewards. Increased choice and lower prices are just some of the economic benefits to consumers brought about by globalisation, whilst businesses profit from access to new output markets. Nations have benefited from an increased quality of life, driven by the availability of import markets, and higher economic growth, driven by the availability of export markets.
A second economic benefit stemming from globalisation has been the increased free movement of labour. Globalisation has allowed workers to move between nations more freely, due to the removal of many existing barriers to geographical mobility of labour. This issue is a controversial one, with many citizens of developed western economies unhappy at the additional strain immigrants who fail to work place on their welfare system, but theoretically advantages all nations. Those economies with high levels of unemployment will see their workers move elsewhere for jobs, relieving the strain on the nation’s welfare system. Simultaneously, those countries which have excess jobs that need filling gain access to a vastly expanded labour market, and can use immigrants to promote the economic growth they are pursuing. This has seen to be effective in areas such as the EU, where the removal of labour mobility barriers has caused many Eastern Europeans to migrate west.
However, it is worth considering that these perceived economic benefits may come at a price for some nations. One threat of globalisation is that it makes developing economies increasingly vulnerable to exploitation from external sources. In particular, the increased access multinational corporations have to the resources of underdeveloped nations has the potential to be extremely damaging. Many struggling countries in Africa and Asia have seen increased activity from these international businesses, which are afforded the opportunity to extract resources for less than they would pay in a more established economy. This “investment” may initially seem beneficial to the nations involved, but in reality they would be better served using such resources domestically. Similarly, the global labour market may provide a “drain” which absorbs skilled workers away from the nation to take up positions abroad. These events are likely to impair the economic development of such nations, rather than provide the expected benefits of globalisation.
One further threat brought about by globalisation is that of environmental damage. As has been established, globalisation assists international capitalism through improved transport and communication links. However these links rely heavily on use of non-renewable, carbon based energy sources. Globalisation stimulates huge demand for such resources, to power everything from aeroplanes to computers, and nations suffer serious environmental damage as a result. Rising pollution levels and climate change pose real threats to the future of all countries, which if left unaddressed may result in serious international problems. It has been argued that this is not so much an issue with globalisation, but rather with the current methods of supporting globalisation. It is true that this is a threat that may be rectified in the future, but that makes it no less of a threat.
With careful consideration of all these arguments, globalisation should be seen as an opportunity for nations to benefit economically through increased trade and labour mobility. However, this does not mean that globalisation comes with no dangers. Legislators and governments must ensure that globalisation does not lead to the exploitation of developing nations, or to the exploitation of non-renewable resources, or they risk allowing globalisation to become a threat to nations.
TSA Examiners Comments
Upon first examination, this essay appears carefully considered, well structured, and concisely executed. The format is exactly what is expected, with a clear introduction and conclusion forming crucial elements of the overall structure. There appears to be a balanced consideration of more than one argument, with a logical judgement reached. One possible criticism may be that the candidate addresses the question purely from an economics perspective, and fails to investigate other interpretations of the issue. However, the response is a perfectly valid if they are applying to an Economics related course.
This is a very strong introduction. It is clear, concise, and immediately addresses the question. The applicant introduces the arguments which will follow, without wasting any time or space delving deeper than they need to. It is easy to predict how this essay will unfold after reading the introduction, which is a good indicator of a well-crafted opening.
The candidate clearly raises two arguments in support of the question, and two against it, and provides a well-balanced argument. There are a suitable number of points raised to allow each one to be explored fully without rushing. The candidate successfully addresses one idea per paragraph, and all the points are justified well. The points made are well supported to form a solid progression of ideas.
The logical flow of arguments is good, with clear signposting used throughout to indicate the direction the essay is taking. The candidate chooses to examine all arguments in favour of globalisation, and ensures that these are fully addressed, before moving on to criticisms. This provides a nice structure to the essay, and allows the reader to develop their own judgement alongside that of the applicant.
The conclusion reaches a definitive judgement, and shows that the applicant has formed their own opinions on the subject. There is no correct answer to a question such as this, and the conclusion is rationalised well. The final point, which suggests that if governments are not careful, globalisation could move from being an opportunity to a threat, is a nice addition that displays careful consideration of all the factors at work. Overall, the conclusion accomplishes its purpose well.
From start to finish, this is an impressive essay. The question seems to have been seriously considered, and the response itself is very carefully constructed. The one criticism that may be raised is that the essay is rather conventional and prosaic, but given the constraints of the task this is not surprising. The applicant clearly demonstrates great ability to communicate their ideas effectively, and engages with the question thoroughly to reach a personal conclusion. Overall, the work seems representative of that of a strong Oxford candidate.
Remember, there’s no right or wrong answer to the question. Examiners must mark you essay completely unbiased, so you essay will be judged solely on your writing ability.
Essay writing skills certainly aren’t exclusive to the TSA; you’ll be writing plenty of essays during your studies! This will likely be one of the most limited pieces you’ve ever had to write but starting your uni studies with such a challenging question is the perfect introduction to life as a university student! Build the skills now and you’ll enjoy all the successes that come with them down the road!
If you have any further questions about the TSA, our Definitive Guide to the TSA will be just the thing to give you a full understanding of the exam! Good luck out there, and don’t forget to keep on writing!
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