TSA Preparation: Your 6-Month TSA Preparation Timeline
Written by: Matt Amalfitano-Stroud
Welcome to Exams.Ninja’s 6-Month Preparation Timeline for the TSA.
Are you beginning to think about your application to Oxford or UCL? If so, one very important element of the process to wrap your head around is the pre-interview admissions test. For a broad variety of subjects at these unis, this involves taking the Thinking Skills Assessment. Although the TSA can seem daunting at first, particularly due to the immense time pressure, you should be able to tackle this crucial test effectively with some smart preparation. This article will give you a ‘bird’s eye view’ of the process of preparing for the TSA, with a timeline including monthly breakdowns of the most useful things to be doing.
Join us, alongside a successful Oxford applicant and TSA Expert as we unravel the mystery that is effective TSA preparation. Let’s get started!
Understand the TSA Format
The spring of Year 12 is a good time to start familiarizing yourselves with the basics of the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA). Firstly, it is important to check whether the course you are thinking of applying for requires it. This information can usually be found on the course pages of each universities’ website as well as the website of the test provider Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing.
It is important to remember that the information pertaining to TSA Oxford and TSA UCL are different, so make yourself aware of any important differences which might affect your preparation. Additionally, make sure you are aware of whether your course requires that you take Section 1 – the 90-minute multiple-choice exam focused on problem-solving and critical thinking – Section 2 – the written essay-based exam – or both. Economics & Management at Oxford, for example, has recently changed the process so applicants no longer have to take Section 2, so ensure you have the most up-to-date information by referring to the websites of the universities and the test provider.
Next, you’ll want to take a look at how the TSA is actually laid out. This table gives a basic overview of what you can expect:
Having a go at a past paper, which are found on the test provider’s website, is the quickest way of familiarising yourself with the format and accurately assessing your initial strengths and weaknesses. It’s a first-hand look at how the paper is laid out and what the questions are like.
Outside of this, you can see what people with TSA experience have to say by looking at videos, blogs and websites (like The Student Room).
How to Create a Preparation Plan
Once you’ve got a good idea of what to expect from the TSA, you can get started on creating a preparation plan. Planning out your time across several months is obviously a tough ask, and you need to allow for some flexibility, but perhaps start out by adding big deadlines such as the deadline to submit your UCAS application, personal statement submissions deadlines (internal to school or for the final application), and dates of any mocks, as well as activities that you undertake regularly at the same time every week. Find a set period of time every week to prepare for the TSA and make sure you have access to a distraction-free environment. At this stage, an hour or two is plenty! As you progress towards the autumn, however, increase this depending on how much you think you should be doing.
You may think that beginning revision six months in advance for a single exam is excessive, but look at it like this.
These charts show two different methods of revising. The first is a lot more fast-paced, while the second is about taking small steps over a long period of time. At the end of it, you’re going to have done the same amount of work, but is the quality of the work going to be the same if you did it all in one month compared to utilising the full amount of time available? Most likely not!
TSA Revision Begins
Considering what we currently know about the TSA, one large question looms over us: how can you actually revise the TSA?
The TSA is designed to test general thinking skills (hence the title). It doesn’t feature any specific syllabus and does not test you on any form of content knowledge. Therefore, revision isn’t going to be about learning facts or processes from a textbook, it’s all about the questions!
Before trying to take on the questions in exam conditions, you will want to spend some getting to know all the different question types. When looking through TSA questions, you should try breaking down the problem-solving and critical thinking elements into certain question types. From there, you can attempt each one and see what question types you excel at and which ones need improvement. This will act as the basis for the rest of your time revising. You can learn more about each of these in our guides for TSA Problem Solving and TSA Critical Thinking!
From our TSA Expert:
While I was going through all of the different types of questions in the TSA, I found that I was getting through the majority of the critical thinking questions pretty easily and usually getting them correct. What I struggled with were some of the problem-solving questions, particularly those involving measures. I had originally felt fairly confident in that area, but I wasn’t achieving the results I would want in the final exam, so it was clear to me that it was an area I should dedicate some extra time to.
Wider Reading and Numeracy Skills
This early on in the process, you do have enough time to improve your long-term numerical and critical thinking skills to enable you to perform better.
Attempt to improve your reading speed and comprehension by reading as much and as widely as possible. Subject-related reading will of course also come in handy when writing your personal statement and during the interview process, should you progress that far. Pieces of writing which aim to persuade you to a certain line of thinking, such as opinion pieces in newspapers, are also good ways to practise critical thinking. Think about the underlying assumptions in the argument and whether the conclusion implied by the writer follows reasonably from the stated line of argument.
To increase your speed when answering numerical questions, it can be useful to brush up on your mental arithmetic skills, such as by ensuring you know your times tables well (up to your 15 times tables as a minimum) and that you become more comfortable doing calculations in your head to save as much time as possible. Calculators are a massive “no” during your prep, as they will not be allowed in the test.
How to Use TSA Practice Questions
At this point of the preparation process, it is important to start doing practice questions. There are all sorts of places to find these, be it past papers, online articles (such as the ones you’ll find at exams.ninja) or from external question banks. As an example, you’ll have access to 500+ TSA questions from every section with our TSA Preparation Platform!
It is a good idea to save official TSA past papers for closer to the exam, as these are better to take in timed conditions when you have more experience with TSA questions. You ideally want to take past papers when you feel confident enough to get through the test in the time limit, but you don’t want to have already seen all of the questions as this won’t provide as much value as taking on a set of questions that are new to you.
So in the meantime, our best advice is just to carry on with individual questions! You should be at the point where you can try to answer questions without using any additional resources, as well as monitor the time taken to answer them.
For Section 1, you’ll have 90 minutes to answer 50 questions. Therefore, you should be aiming to answer one question every 90 seconds. That’s not a lot of time considering the lengths of some of these questions, but working to this time frame will give you some extra time at the end of your 90 minutes to double-check your answers and reattempt any questions you skipped over. Getting in this habit now will make things much easier in the actual exam!
A lot of people struggle to skip past questions once they’ve already started them. It’s understandable, as it feels like you may forget about it or not have time at the end to come back to it if you leave it now. However, this is a mindset that you’ll have to learn to get past, as skipping questions you find difficult is super important for using your time effectively in the exam.
Remember, time is very limited, so spending too much time on a question that you’re struggling to get an answer for will do nothing but lose you marks from all the other questions you would have answered in that time. Besides, assuming you’ve managed your time well, you’ll have a chance to reattempt the question once you’ve finished!
It’s never too early to start thinking about the TSA!
The time before your exam is incredibly busy, so getting your revision started early is the smartest thing you can do. And when you’re revising, you’ll want the best resources you can get, which is exactly what Exams.Ninja’s TSA Preparation Platform provides! You can even try it for free right now!
TSA Section 2
This is an area that we haven’t discussed in detail yet. This is because the use of Section 2 in the TSA is extremely limited – only certain Oxford applicants will be required to take it. That’s not an insignificant number of people, but it’s still important to know if you need to prepare for this or not.
For those that are taking it, the only way you can truly prepare for this is to carry on reading and writing. The wider reading that you’ve been doing for your critical thinking practice will be just as useful here, as you can analyse how these authors have explained their arguments and try to identify the techniques they use.
Using this knowledge, you can then give it a go yourself, writing short essays about a specific topic or argument. You could write about current affairs, topics that interest or challenge you or just attempt some TSA questions. Of course, you’ll get better practice if you stick to exam conditions and do it within the official time limits. In fact, it’s a necessity to do this at least once before your sit the exam – the last thing you want to do is leave the essay unfinished on the big day!
30 minutes to write a full essay? That’s practically no time at all! However, consider that the word limit for this essay is just 750, so nobody will be expecting a thorough and complete analysis of the topic.
A good way to approach this time limit is as follows:
- Take take around 3-5 minutes to plan out your main argument and any cases you want to present for it.
- Spend 20 minutes writing the essay.
- Give yourself 5 minutes at the end to read through everything and check for errors.
Taking Past Papers
As we get closer to the exam date, it’s time to start attempting serious mock exams to give you an understanding of just how challenging it can be to sit the TSA in proper conditions.
You may already have specified this in your prep schedule, but you should take some time to consider which papers you’re going to do and when. It’s better to save the more recent ones for closer to the exam, as they will have the most similar question types to the paper you’ll be sitting. Like most other exams, the specification and format may change between years, so always be aware of any potential difference when taking an older paper.
Let’s go over a few key tips for taking past papers:
The importance of keeping to time limits cannot be emphasised enough. Keep a close eye on the clock and do not spend more than 100 seconds at the very most per question (though don’t track this too obsessively or you may end up wasting more time than you save!)
Once you are done with a past paper, go through the mark scheme available online and mark as strictly as possible. It can be tempting to reward yourself after narrowing the options down to two plausible options and acting as if you would have got it right in the real thing! However, it is crucial to be as strict as possible when marking yourself so you can have the best understanding of your own performance and how to improve.
Re-attempt the questions you got wrong or skipped – you should be able to crack them the second time around without the time limit. Make notes on the type of question you got wrong and the process you took to solve it, so you can adopt a similar method if a similar question comes up again.
Keep a note of the number of right and wrong answers in each category – problem-solving vs critical thinking – so you can better understand your strengths and weaknesses and how you should perhaps allocate time in the exam.
TSA Registration Opens
This is the month when TSA Registration Opens. In most cases, the administrative side of sorting the enrolment of candidates for the TSA examination should be handled by your school/sixth form college, so it should not be a major source of stress for you. Just make sure to submit any required application forms on time and check your inbox regularly for updates on this.
The official deadline for registration is September 29th, but you’ll want to get the ball rolling on this as soon as possible, as some schools may enforce an early deadline. If you need access arrangements, they may need further details and evidence to support your application, so ensure you bear this in mind when making your application.
Here’s a quick rundown of the application process:
- First, you need to find your nearest test centre. This will either be your school or one nearby. If you’re not sure where it is, you can check for your nearest location here.
- Next, you will need to speak with your school’s exam officer. You will need to provide a few personal details, including your name, date of birth and UCAS number, as well as confirming which course you’re applying for.
- Once you’ve been registered, you’ll be given a candidate entry number. This will be your proof of registration so you cannot afford to lose it.
TSA Registration Closes
As we mentioned, the TSA registration finishes at the end of September, the 29th to be exact, so ensure you have been given your candidate entry number by your test centre before this date.
For Oxbridge applicants, October 15th is the deadline for your UCAS application, including your personal statement. Provided you planned your time correctly, you’ll have finished all of this and had everything submitted with time to spare. But if you perhaps forgot about this aspect of the application, you will likely need to set aside your TSA revisions for a week or so to make sure this is all as good as it can be. Of course, UCL applicants won’t need to worry about this as your UCAS deadline is January 15th the following year.
Final Weeks of Revision
The TSA is not a test you can cram for. Regular practice is the only thing that will allow you to perform well and maximise your score. If you are able to successfully create a well-thought-out plan and work according to this, you will be able to perform at your best. The only last-minute advice to bear in mind is to ensure you do not let your nerves get the better of you! The time pressure and additional stresses that come from putting in an Oxbridge application can be incredibly nerve-wracking, but ensuring you prioritise your sanity will improve your TSA performance in the long run!
From our TSA Expert:
I found that mindfulness and meditation can be helpful techniques for calming nerves, so regularly practising this in the run-up to the exam as I did may be beneficial for you. You’re not going to be performing at your best if your head is clouded by stress or negativity, so the key to a successful application is to look after your mental health just as much as your mental skills.
Keep things in perspective going into the TSA too! Although an important part of the process, it is not the be-all, end-all and your application will be considered holistically taking into account all aspects of your academic achievements, including the circumstances in which you achieved them!
TSA Testing Day
The TSA for Oxford in 2023 is scheduled for October 18th, while UCL holds the TSA over several different dates from January to March. More information about these dates can be found here. The TSA UCL is also taken by applicants at home on their computer, so you won’t need to worry about travelling to a test centre unless you’re an Oxbridge applicant.
Either way, it’s important to mentally prepare yourself for the TSA, so be sure to follow the following tips:
Most importantly, stay calm in the build-up! Keep your environment as stress-free as possible so you don’t distract yourself from the task at hand!
A final word from our TSA expert:
As with any important examination, the key to the TSA would be that practice makes perfect. Sticking to this rough framework can help you to ensure your practice is as effective and time-efficient as possible and that you can balance preparing for the TSA with all the other obligations that come up during your final years of school!
As we’ve said, all of this is just a guideline for you to build your own preparation plan from. We believe that the methods we have presented to you will be the most effective way to perform well in the exam, but you may have additional ideas for revision techniques which are massively beneficial! This is your time, so it’s down to you to make the most of it! Whatever you decide to do, we wish you the best of luck with the TSA and beyond!
If you want to learn even more about the TSA, then you can check out our Definitive TSA Guide, which covers everything you’ll need to know before you start preparing! Or if you want to learn about the TSA is scored, the TSA Scoring and Results Guide is for you!
Do you want the complete package TSA resources?
With the TSA Preparation Platform, you’ll be getting everything you could possibly need to get yourself ready for the TSA! You’ll get instant access to all of the following:
Training Temple- Learn the ways of the TSA in our collection of comprehensive tutorials, designed to teach you everything you’ll need to know!
Practice Dojo- With over 500 true difficulty practice questions to work through, you’ll be able to practice right through till the exam. Learn how to solve every single one with our worked solutions.
Exam Arena- When you’re ready to take the next step, we have 19 full past papers for you to complete! Each one is fully worked and provides true exam conditions, as well as automatic, accurate marking.
Sign up today to try the TSA Preparation Platform for free!