Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA) Writing Task

What is the TSA and how is the paper formatted?

The TSA is an admissions test taken by candidates applying for a range of Oxford courses and is split into two parts. Part 1 is a 90-minute multiple choice section. You will answer 50 questions that will test your problem-solving, critical thinking and reasoning skills.

Part 2, which will be the focus of this guide, is a 30-minute writing task. The written task will test your ability to organise and express your ideas with precision and clarity. You will choose one question outr of a possible four to answer, with each question being non-subject specific (meaning, irrespective of what you have learnt at school, you will be able to answer any of the questions).

Past questions for the written task have included ‘Should children strike to demand action on a major issue such as climate change?’ and ‘Should the main objective of a business be to make money?’

What is the assessment criteria for the written task?

Markers are looking for:

  • serious attention to the question asked
  • good, well-argued content
  • objections to be anticipated, and met or at least acknowledged
  • all this to be done on two sides of A4 paper (or the equivalent word limit)

How to approach writing your essay

Make sure you answer the question and spend some time making sure you understand exactly what the question is asking you. You should also consider other sides of the debate, depending on the stance you take. Remember: an essay should be argumentative and be supported with evidence, so don’t sit on the fence! So, argue your case, acknowledge other sides of the debate and tell the marker why your side of the debate is most convincing.

Here is some guidance of how to answer the question ‘Should convicted criminals be allowed to vote?’ written by an Oxford tutor:

‘This is a nice, direct question, anticipating a conclusion of ‘yes’, ‘no’ or possibly ‘it all depends’. It’s very important for anyone wanting to argue for ‘it all depends’ that this isn’t a simple refusal to make your mind up between ‘yes’ and ‘no’! ‘Who am I to decide?’, you might think, but that’s exactly what the question is asking you to do.

Start by thinking of an argument for ‘no’. One obvious answer would be that criminals should be punished, and one form of punishment would be removing permission to vote. That of course implies that being allowed to vote is a good thing, which may make us wonder why it is – what sort of punishment is it to be deprived of a chance to vote? Is it worse to be deprived of a vote where otherwise one is merely permitted to do so, or where as in some countries it is compulsory?

One possible answer to the ‘Why is voting good?’ question is that it’s a chance to have a say in something – in who governs, in what policy is adopted, and so on. And criminals (one might suggest) ought not to have a say. We’ll come back to why that might be so in a bit.

Then what might count for an answer ‘yes’? Obviously we need to be talking about a situation where voting happens – it would be odd if convicted criminals were the only ones who were allowed to vote (in an absolute monarchy, for example)! Assuming there is indeed voting, we could say that whilst depriving criminals of their liberty and the chance freely to associate with friends and family is a perfectly proper punishment, depriving them of the chance to vote cuts them off from society, and we may hope that one day they will re-enter that society, so that they should have some chance to continue to shape it.

A thought that many people have about punishment is that it should ‘fit the crime’. If we think about depriving someone of a vote who has committed a serious assault against a neighbour, we may see no clear connection between a fitting punishment for the offence and losing their permission to vote. On the other hand, if the crime were a crime against the political system – murdering an MP or attempting to blow up Parliament as an extreme example, failing to pay Council Tax as a less extreme one – maybe it is indeed fitting to think of being deprived of a vote as a punishment. So that points us in the direction of an ‘it all depends’ answer, but one which has real content to it. It all depends on the crime committed – not so much its seriousness as the sort of crime it is.

One might also want to ask whether for a long sentence (20 years, say) one should be deprived of a vote at first but then – maybe 5 years before release, when returning to the community is no longer a distant prospect – voting is restored as part of rehabilitation.

All of this is quite abstract, but there is also a practical question. For a national referendum it may not matter where one votes. For a constituency-based democracy like that in the UK, prisoners would need to vote in a place. Should that place be where they are held prisoner? (Imagine a constituency with a very large prison in it, and a very close contest between two political parties.) Should it be where they last lived, even if that is miles from where they now are, and as part of their punishment they are banned, even when released, from ever returning there?’

Practically speaking, you should spend some time thinking about which parts of the question need to be addressed and formulating a simple and precise argument that directly answers the question. In the planning process, logically organise the points you are going to make in order to support your overall argument, for example starting with the broadest point or starting with the most important point, in your view. You want to make your essay easy for examiners to follow, so spend a bit of time thinking about how to best structure your essay. The planning process should take 5-10 minutes. This seems like a long time, but good planning will make the writing process much easier.

Answer the question in the opening line of your introduction. A top tip is to literally use the wording in the question to formulate your answer. So, for the question ‘Should convicted criminals be allowed to vote?’, a good opening sentence would be ‘Criminals should be allowed to vote’ or ‘Criminals should not be allowed to vote’. Use the introduction as a place where you define your terms, to show the examiner your interpretation of key terms. 

With regards to the bulk of your essay, you will probably only have time to make two major points, with a third paragraph dedicated to what critics of your argument might say and why you are not convinced by them. In these arguments, make your point, offer some evidence and then explain. In terms of evidence, think about real world evidence or a thought experiment (which is a hypothetical situation) that can make your argument more tangible and possibly easier to understand. You should try and reiterate your overall argument throughout the essay, where appropriate, so the examiner can see you are answering the question.

Finally, your conclusion should tie your essay together, by reiterating your argument and the points you have made.

Advice on how to prepare

There are lots of great resources to help you prepare for the TSA. Here are a few you can consult:

Introduction to the TSA:

Read the specimen papers and explained answers available on the ‘how to prepare’ tab here: TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment) | University of Oxford

Jesus College resource on how to write a TSA essay:

Past Papers:

TSA workshop video with advice from a tutor and current students: