Apply to the universities of Oxford or Cambridge these days, and even before the interview, there is a reasonable chance a question such as this will crop up:
“Dates may be written in an eight-digit form. For instance, 19 January 2005 may be written 19-01-2005. In what year will the next date occur for which all eight digits are different? 2013, 2134, 2145, 2345 or 2456?”
This conundrum is taken from the Thinking Skills Assessment, which was rolled out at the University of Oxford in 2008 and is now required for seven courses, while its use at the University of Cambridge varies by college.
At Oxford there has also been a proliferation of subject specific tests, for courses ranging from Classics to Oriental languages. Meanwhile, the BioMedical Admissions Test is used by Oxford, Cambridge, University College London, Imperial College London, the Royal Veterinary College and, for graduate entry, the Brighton and Sussex Medical School.
The tests generally claim to assess an individual’s intellectual potential and thinking skills rather than knowledge, and it has been suggested in some quarters that universities may increasingly adopt them for their admissions.
Speaking to Times Higher Education, Mike Nicholson, director of undergraduate admissions and outreach at Oxford, and Simon Beeston, director of Cambridge’s Admissions Testing Service (which offers the tests), argued the case for the exams.
According to Mr Nicholson, they will give Oxford “stability” in its admissions process as the government embarks on a lengthy shake-up of the school exams system.
“Certainly in the short to medium term, the schools that will adapt the fastest [to new A levels and GCSEs] are already the schools that are successful in getting kids into Oxford and Cambridge,” he said.
But other students who are predicted to do poorly in the new A levels could still perform well in the TSA, he said.
The introduction of specific tests at Oxford pre-date the mooted A‑level changes, he noted, and have been a response to a greater “diversity” of candidates, about 30 per cent of whom now have non A‑level qualifications, often from overseas.
The tests help to identify students who have done well in educational systems with an “emphasis on rote learning” but who lack the critical thinking skills prized by the university, he explained.
Mr Nicholson also said that the scrapping of AS levels could deter students from less privileged backgrounds from applying because they would no longer have the confidence boost of good results in Year 12.
Mr Beeston argued that such specific admissions tests could help to encourage unconfident pupils in the absence of AS levels. “[There is] the suggestion that admissions tests are a way of excluding people, but I think you could make an argument for the opposite.”
He added that other universities had been carrying out pilots of the service’s tests, although he cautioned that it was “by no means certain” that the A‑level changes would trigger a “proliferation” of extra university exams.
One new adopter is the University of Leeds medical school, which has announced that it will require applicants to take the Bmat for entry in 2015.
Meanwhile, any students facing the TSA might like to know that the answer to the above is 2345, although it is just one of 50 questions to be answered in 90 minutes: a mere 1 minute 48 seconds per question.