How long is the TSA Oxford exam?

Advice & Insight From TSA Specialists

The TSA Oxford exam is split into two sections. All students, apart from those applying for History and Economics at Oxford University and those applying for Land Economy at the Cambridge University, are required to take both sections. In these cases, section 2 follows directly on from section 1. Time allocations are as follows:

Section 1:
Thinking Skills Assessment

Section 2:
Writing Task

50 questions

One essay question

90 minutes

30 minutes

Section 1: Thinking Skills

In this section, you are required to read and answer 50 separate questions on a variety of topics that assess your problem solving skills and critical thinking skills.

Since you have 90 minutes, you can think of this as being equivalent to 1 minute and 48 seconds per question. This is useful to know because it gives you a guide as to how much time you should spend on each question, but some questions will take longer than others due to factors such as the difficulty level, the type of question, and your own familiarisation and ability to answer the question. For example, we could compare the two questions below. Both are worth 1 mark each, but you would probably not spend exactly the same length of time on each one:

Example 1

A child’s bus fare is cheaper than the adult fare but is more than half the adult fare. The total cost of a single journey for an adult and two children is £1.20. Adult fares are all multiples of 10p.

What is the adult fare?

A  30p
B  40p
C  50p
D  60p
E  70p

Example 2

Polar bears in captivity frequently engage in obsessive patterns of behaviour, pacing back and forth on the same spot, swinging their heads from side to side, and other signs of stress. They do this even when their living areas are quite spacious. What this shows is that conditions of captivity are not a satisfactory substitute for the natural environment of the polar bear species.

Which of the following, if true, would most weaken the argument?

A  Polar bears are especially ill-suited to a life in captivity.
B  Many polar bears in the wild engage in obsessive patterns of behaviour.
Polar bears in captivity are much better fed than those living in the wild.
Polar bears in the wild cover many miles a day when they are hinting for food.
E  Polar bears which have been reared in captivity are incapable of surviving in the wild.

As you will see, these two questions involve completely different skills. Example 1 is a problem solving type question involving the application of Maths skills (e.g. you could create an algebraic expression and use that to help you solve it, or substitute the answers to see which one fits the question). You might find you could work through example 1 quite quickly and use up much less than the 1 minute 48 seconds mentioned above. Or, on the other hand, you may take longer depending on your experience of this type of problem. Example 2 is certainly going to take a bit longer to read and understand due to the amount of information it contains. Also, because you are given an extra piece of information in the question, this may also take longer to comprehend.

The point here is that each question is going to inevitably take a slightly different length of time to answer depending on your familiarisation with the question-type, and whether it is a problem solving type question or a critical thinking type question.

Therefore, a more efficient way of managing your time might be to know how long you have available per 5 or even 10 questions:

Number of questions to complete





Time allowed

1 minute 48 seconds

9 minutes

18 minutes

90 minutes

Knowing that you need to work at a pace of about 9 minutes for every 5 questions that you answer may help you to manage your time more effectively. This could help you track your time as you work your way through the exam. Practice, familiarisation and undertaking timed mock tests, will help you master your pace of working. And remember, this section tests not only your cognitive ability but also your cognitive endurance!

Section 2: Writing Task

Section 2 follows straight on from Section 1, so bear in mind you may already feel quite tired by this point. You have 30 minutes to think about, plan and write your essay. Remember that good essays are those that answer the question being asked. You will therefore need to use you time efficiently so that you can create a quality piece of work (quality is more important than quantity) that focusses on the question and demonstrates that you can write a clear, coherent, concise and justified argument. Even though you haven’t got a lot of time, the most successful candidates devote some time (5-10 minutes) to the thinking and planning part, before launching into the writing.

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