Understanding university admissions tests

Students studying for university admissions tests
Find out everything you need to know about the different types of uni admissions tests.

Getting your head around the many different university admissions tests can be difficult, which is why we’ve put together this handy guide with all the basic information you’ll need – what the different tests are, how you prepare for them, and what to do if you don’t get the results you were hoping for.

What are the different uni admissions tests?

The most common admissions tests for universities are:

  • LNAT (Law National Aptitude Test) – used by nine universities, including Durham University, University College London and University of Oxford
  • BMAT (BioMedical Admissions Test) – used by nine universities, including Imperial College London, the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford
  • UCAT (University Clinical Aptitude Test) – used by 30 UK universities, including University of Warwick, University of Sheffield and University of Edinburgh. NB the test was previously known as UKCAT.
  • If you are applying to a university which requires you to sit one of the above tests, be sure to read our LNAT specific and BMAT/UCAT specific articles for more information.

Other common admissions tests include:

  • Cambridge Law Test
  • MAT (Mathematical Admissions Test) for Oxford (for both maths and computer science degrees), Imperial College London and Warwick*
  • STEP (Sixth Term Examination Paper) for maths courses at Cambridge and Warwick*
  • TMUA (Test of Mathematics for University Admissions) for maths and maths-related courses at the universities of Durham, Bath, Cardiff, Nottingham, Sheffield, Lancaster, LSE, Southampton and Warwick; it is usually optional rather than compulsory
  • TSA (Thinking Skills Assessment) for Cambridge, Oxford and UCL.

*Neither test is compulsory for Warwick, though it is recommended to take one of these or the TMUA.

What do these admissions tests involve?

The Cambridge Law Test is a one-hour test where you will be asked to answer one essay question. You are not required or expected to have any knowledge of law to answer the question – it is designed to test your critical reading and writing skills instead. There is no need to register for the exam or pay a fee. If you are invited to interview by a Cambridge college, it will arrange for you to sit the test on the same day.

The MAT is a two-and-a-half-hour test designed to test your maths skills. The level of the questions corresponds mostly to AS level maths and some A level maths. The questions you’ll have to answer will vary depending on which course you’re applying to – question 1 is multiple choice, while questions 2–7 require you to show your working. The MAT must be taken at an authorised centre (your own school or college may will be one of them, otherwise you can take it at a local test centre) and you must be registered as a candidate. Some test centres may charge a fee for you to sit the test.

The STEP consists of up to three three-hour papers intended to test your maths skills. You will usually only be required to take one or two of the papers, depending on what the university you applied to requires. For each paper you will have to answer six questions based on A level maths or AS level further maths. The process of registration and information about the fee for the STEP can be found on the Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing website.

The TMUA lasts two and a half hours and consists of two 75-minute sections each containing 20 questions. Answers are multiple choice.

The TSA consists of two sections. The first part lasts 90 minutes and involves 50 multiple-choice questions designed to test problem-solving skills and critical thinking. The second part lasts 30 minutes and is a writing task where you will be asked to answer one essay question. While Cambridge and UCL only require you to sit the first part, Oxford requires you to sit both. The courses that ask you to take the TSA vary from uni to uni, so it’s best to check the Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing website to find out if you’ll need to take this test. There is no fee for taking the TSA, although some test centres may charge an administration fee.

Do the tests require specific knowledge and is it possible to practice for them?

The MAT, STEP, BMAT and UCAT all require specific knowledge that you may need to revise, though it should be things that you’ve covered previously in your academic studies. The TSA, LNAT and Cambridge Law Test on the other hand test you on critical thinking and writing skills and therefore do not require revision.

That being said, it’s always wise to do what you can to prepare for these tests. There are many resources available online, including past papers, specimen tests, guides and test specifications. The TSA, MAT, BMAT and STEP preparation resources can be found on the Cambridge Assessment Admissions Testing website, while the LNAT and UCAT have their own websites, and the Cambridge Law Test preparation sample papers can be found on the University of Cambridge website. The best advice is to inform yourself thoroughly on what you need to know by going through their guides and specification and then practise, practise, practise.

How do universities consider the test results?

Most admissions tests only count for part of a university’s decision to accept or reject a candidate’s application. Other factors are taken into account, such as your personal statement, your performance at interview (if you are invited to attend one) and your academic record.

Furthermore, different universities and different courses will consider your test results differently. For some, it might be a way of distinguishing between candidates who have done equally well in every other step of the application process, while others might have a cut-off grade you are expected to achieve if they are to consider your application seriously. As a general rule though, test results tend to count less than exam results but more than your personal statement and references.

Because of the varied importance placed on test results, it’s important not to put too much stress on yourself regarding these tests. There is no pass or fail mark in most cases; instead the tests are designed to help you highlight knowledge or skills you already have. Strive to do your best but don’t neglect other elements of your application that might be equally as important in favour of devoting all your energy to revising for your tests.

What happens if your test results weren’t what you hoped for?

If you don’t get the results you were hoping for on your exam, there is sadly very little you can do about it. If your test results were particularly poor, most universities will not look on this favourably and you could lose your chance at getting on that particular course. If your test results were middling, the other elements of your application (personal statement, exam results etc) may still carry you through, but there’s no guarantee.

Because you can only sit these tests once a year, you’ll have to wait until the following academic year if you want to re-apply and retake the tests. Use that time to your advantage. If you didn’t do well on the tests, perhaps think over your choice of degree and university – are they really for you? If you’re sure they are then spend some time going over what you didn’t do so well on and improving your skills and knowledge so that you can do better next time around.

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