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Admissions Tests: Essay Sections


Most admissions tests are made up of several different components and many will involve essays or an essay-based section. This resource breaks down each Oxford and Cambridge Admission Test that includes an essay element, and gives our Oxbridge graduate tutors’ advice on how best to approach it.


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ELAT (English / Oxford and Cambridge)

Essay Format
The ELAT gives you a choice of six texts (prose or poetry) and asks you to consider two or three of the different extracts, comparing and contrasting them.

When approaching the ELAT, a good starting point is to focus on specific literary devices. Try thinking about the imagery and language, as well as the rhetorical devices being used. Make sure, however, that if you’re using literary terminology you know exactly what it means and are sure that what you’re discussing is an accurate example, and always back up your definition with an explanation of why it has been used and the effect it’s having. When comparing the passages, think about how they differ or are similar. Think about this not just in terms of the content, but also the form, structure, syntax, and style of the writers so as to give a comprehensive analysis of the text from all angles.
In this test you are being assessed on your ability to analyse as well as your depth of analysis. You will also be required to demonstrate an eloquent writing style.

Top tips

  • ‘Many students are under the impression that picking three texts to compare and contrast rather than two may give them the advantage. The ELAT is all about close analysis, so the more detail you go into during the test, the stronger your essay will be. Thus, it would be unwise to bring in other texts if you don’t feel it is vital. Talking about outside texts may give the impression that you are avoiding the close analysis.
  • Make sure that you divide your concentration evenly over the sources. If you write on two texts, make sure that you spend half your time on each of the texts. This is a compare and contrast exercise, so this is important.
    Practice poems can easily found online, however support from teachers can be invaluable when locating examples of prose and plays, as thematically-similar extracts can be hard to find. Similarly, matching extracts with common themes can also be a useful practice tool in itself.
  • You should try to structure your argument thematically. Not only should you avoid talking about texts separately, but you should also avoid talking about form, language and style separately: use themes and ideas to integrate these points in each paragraph, talking about both extracts in each.
  • The ELAT shows students’ close analysis technique, which will underpin English courses at Oxford and Cambridge. At Cambridge, one of the modules, ‘practical criticism’, is virtually identical to this Admissions Test, and carries throughout the three years.’

CLT/LNAT (Law / Cambridge and Oxford)

Essay Format
In both the Cambridge Law Test and the National Law Admissions Test, you are required to write one essay in the space of one hour. These tests are designed to assess how well you can structure and make a convincing argument. The assessors want to see if you have the ability to weigh up both sides of an argument and make a persuasive case for one side or the other.

It’s important to remember here that examiners aren’t particularly interested in which side of the argument you take, as they are not assessing interpretation. Lots of students argue opposing sides of the argument, but still come out with equally strong marks. The test also does not require you to have knowledge of law terminology or any other subject for that matter, as it is first an foremost an exercise in essay writing and argument making. Make sure that you are up to date on current affairs to help inform your argument, brush up on your writing skills and eloquence, and always double check your grammar.
Before writing your answer, make sure that you have read the question properly and be sure not to rush into writing straight away. Think about how you’re planning to back up your arguments, and create a small written plan or at least a mental draft of how each point will flow into the next.

Top tips:

  • To be able to understand the abstract issues which underlie the question.
  • To be able to recognise the tension between the values expressed in the question. The question will most likely present controversial and complex ideas, and students should make sure that they do not underestimate their complexity.
  • To be able to argue clearly and concisely, writing in paragraphs that include an initial point, and then defend the point throughout the rest of the paragraph.
  • You may want to inform your arguments by bringing in examples, for instance if the question talks about liberty, you may wish to talk about recent terror attacks. If you cannot think of any relevant real examples, you can also use hypothetical examples.
  • Try to avoid preamble. You must remember to write an essay, rather than a speech, so don’t use rhetorical devices like adjectives and adverbs. Contrary to popular opinion, you can use the word ‘I’, however avoid phrases like ‘I think’ or ‘in my opinion’. It is best to use ‘I’ in the context of ‘I will conclude’, ‘I agree’ or ‘I will argue’.
  • In Oxford, studying Law Jurisprudence, you will write an essay a week following the LNAT format, the only difference being that you will refer to Law. The LNAT and the CLT give you the opportunity to show that you can write in this style competently.
  • Use this tip – Look through your paragraphs and check that every line advances the argument. If it doesn’t, then it needs cutting or rephrasing.
  • Don’t ‘beg the question’. Don’t assume the thing that the question wants you to examine. Make sure you really think about what the question wants you to discuss.’

BMAT (Medicine / Oxford and Cambridge)

Essay Format
The BioMedical Admissions Test essay section presents you with a quote which you will have to define, argue both for and against, and come to a conclusion on. The essay is used to determine whether you can present information in an organised and reasoned manner, so it’s important that you write concisely. Doctors are frequently asked to summarise cases, coming to a conclusion based on their professional opinion; this essay is designed to replicate such a task and test your ability to do so.

Particularly given that many Medicine applicants haven’t studied an essay-based subject since GCSE, this part of the test can represent a point of anxiety for many applicants. If you find yourself in this situation, it’s best to begin re-familiarising yourself with essay-writing as a skill. Remember to plan and structure your essay well (since you will only have one side of A4) before writing it in proper and eloquent English where possible. Make sure not to use any shorthand or bullet points as you will be marked down for this.

Top tips:

  • ‘Examiners assess how coherent and logical the argument presented can be. Unlike a Humanities degree, they are not looking for a creative, opinionated, imaginative essay, they are looking for a well structured, precise, short piece of writing.
  • The question or quote which is given can be extremely varied. They are usually scientific, either involving scientific language, or from a scientific source. There will always be a question that sounds medical, which the majority of students will choose. There is NO NEED to do that, it will not give you an advantage.
  • Unlike section two, there is no syllabus to revise, however despite this, the BMAT essay section is very easy to practice. The formula of the question is so predictable and methodical that you can easily use your own quotes or statements to make mock tests.
  • You shouldn’t feel like you need to shoehorn medical references into your essays. The essay section is about writing style and analysis, and less about your knowledge of the subject; this will be displayed in section two of the BMAT.
  • The essay is designed to show time management, precision and organisation within a highly pressured environment. This is to show that you have the desired transferable skills to be a doctor, or a scientist.


If you’re considering Oxbridge Medicine, it’s important you understand how it’s different from other Med Schools – and how you can choose between Oxford and Cambridge, because you can only apply to one. Read our guide we produced with our Dukes Family, The Medic Portal.

TSA Oxford (Experimental Psychology, Geography, Human Sciences, PPE, and PPL (Psychology, Philosophy and Linguistics) / Oxford)

Essay Format
If you are sitting the Thinking Skills Assessment for Oxford, you will need to sit an additional essay section. You will asked to choose one of four questions and write about your conclusions.
The questions aren’t subject specific, and there isn’t an set structure on how to answer this section, however it is best if you make sure you present an argument, back it up, assess the opposing side, and then come to a conclusion. Make sure you follow a reasoned and clear plan to give yourself the best chance of performing well.

Will Small is one of our top tutors for the TSA (Oxford and Cambridge). He studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at St John’s College, Oxford:
‘Examiners are assessing your ability to: write a structured and clear essay, be able to argue competently, and demonstrate an ability to work well under strict time constraints.
You will not have time to write in convoluted, flowery language. Your teachers can help refine your technique by ironing out individual idiosyncrasies within your writing style.
Your teachers can also help you to demonstrate your passion for your subject. If your application is pooled, then your Admissions Test can help you to stand out, and therefore you should have a curiosity and knowledge of your subject that informs your argument.
You will not need a bank of statistics, and should not think too much about bringing in outside sources or examples. Again, the allocated time is very short, and includes question choice and planning, so you should start arguing as fast as possible.
In my course (PPE), I was writing two essays a week, informed by an enormous amount of reading. This meant by the end of my first year, I was writing in an incredibly concise manner. The TSA (Oxford) gives you the opportunity to practice this skill.’

HAT/HAA (History / Oxford and Cambridge)

Essay Format
In both the History Admissions Test and the History Admissions Assessment, you will have a definition exercise, then an explanation exercise, and finally an essay. The essay part of the exam assesses how a student can structure an argument. Again, as is the case in many of the Admissions Tests, the essay section is not about what you know, it is about the skills you can display.

Be wary of waffling! In GCSE, and occasionally even A-level, students can sometimes get away with a lot of preamble and big ideas without backing them up with hard arguments and evidence. However, in both the HAT and the HAA, you are being assessed on your originality, clarity, and precision, as well as your ability to spot flaws, which leaves little room for pontificating.

Through tutoring the HAT and the HAA, our Oxbridge consultants have compiled these tips for the essays:

  • The HAT essay section is designed to test your ability to analyse a source critically and offer a coherent argument. You will be doing this throughout your course at either Oxford or Cambridge.
    Again, as a Humanities subject, there may be a temptation to write in a flowery, creative way. Due to the amount of time that you have, you should only spend half an hour on the essay section. This doesn’t allow for much time to demonstrate your essay writing prowess, so you should concentrate on your argument.
  • You are allowed to bring in other historical sources, however make sure that if you do that it informs the sources presented in the test. You should not spend too much time discussing something which is not on the paper.
  • The question may well be relatively open-ended, and whilst making sure that you answer the question directly, you should think about the different perspective lenses that you can analyse the content through. The source may be referring to a historical battle, but students could analyse through various different themes, such as colonialism or monarchy.
  • The examiner will appreciate originality and this can be presented in a variety of different forms. This may come in your perspective on a source, the areas of the text you choose to focus on, or your conclusions. Take time before you leap into writing your argument to think about how you can stand out from your peers.

It’s worth noting that, although these are the main tests required for the above subjects, some colleges have different entry requirements or may set different tests (sometimes for each candidate in rare circumstances) so always make sure that you’re preparing for the correct test(s) when using these resources.

Overall, an essay section of an admissions test is designed to give the admissions tutors an idea of your ability to structure an argument, reason logically, and persuade the reader in clear and concise language in a given direction. Really focus on making your argument and thinking processes stand out, rather than trying to shoehorn in specific pieces of knowledge that you feel may be relevant, as this is not the purpose of the exercise.
If you’ve got an essay test coming up, or any other form of admissions test, and aren’t sure where to begin, get in touch with our Oxbridge graduate consultants for up-to-date advice and bespoke guidance.



Everything you should know before taking the HAT test and how to be successful.

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