How do I score full marks on the TSA essay?
Advice & Insight From TSA Specialists
It is firstly important to understand what the TSA essay is testing, and why Oxford asks its candidates for certain courses to write essays of this type. The university is interested in seeing a candidate’s ability to do the following:
- Pay close, detailed attention to the wording of a question
- Provide good, well-argued points in support of their argument
- To anticipate objections to their argument, and either meet or at least acknowledge their potency
Additionally, the short time and space limit is designed so that candidates have to be selective: experience suggests that unlimited space simply produces a tendency to write a lot, rather than to write high-quality material. This should all inform how you approach the essay.
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Learn the best TSA strategies and practice with reflective TSA questions & worked solutions.
Here are some top tips to help you achieve a high mark in the TSA essay:
- Write a plan. Although you only have 30 minutes in which to write, your essay will be a better piece of writing if you are able to structure your thoughts clearly, so use some of the time to think about your approach to the question: what are you going to argue? Why do you think that? How many points do you have in favour and against? If you stall in coming up with points for an essay then the actual writing part is going to be very difficult, but if you do plan, then once the plan is written, all you have to do is put it into words – the hard work is done.
- Define the terms of the question. It is important in the introduction to your essay to say what you mean by the terms of the question so that yourself and the examiner are on the same page as the argument progresses.
- Consider the other side. Your argument will be much stronger if you can consider what someone who holds the opposite view might say in reply to your argument. If you have read any good academic literature, you will have seen that it is absolutely necessary to anticipate counterarguments and say why they are crucial. You should think of a neat and tidy way of adding these counterarguments into the structure of your essay.
- Take a number of different approaches. If you are applying for economics, it can be tempting to think that the best thing to do is to approach the question from a purely economic standpoint. For example, the recent question about child labour and Western nations refusing to trade often elicits responses from economics applicants which focus only on supply and demand. This is clearly not the whole story, and the question is obviously asking you to engage with the moral and political questions as well. It is an easy way to get a low mark to churn out a prepared essay on supply and demand, which you could write in an A-level economics exam. Instead, you need to be prepared to approach the question from multiple different angles: finding out what these angles can be is the first stage of answering the question.
- Add nuance. If you conclude any TSA essay with a hard-line view about the topic brought up in the question, then it is highly likely that your argument does not show any academic rigour, independence of thought, or a thorough understanding of the topic at issue – all of which are virtues of academic writing. It is much better to conclude with a nuanced position, such as “yes, euthanasia could be acceptable but only in the following situations” (followed by a list) than it is to give a simple yes/no answer. No TSA question is ever simple!
The final thing to say on this topic is that grammar matters! An examiner will not read your argument charitably if you have not written in good English and articulated your thoughts accurately and concisely. Make sure that you don’t slip up here.
All of this is best illustrated by examples, so I would encourage you to read through some sample essay plans which aim to do all of the above.