ESAT Specification Guide: What You Need To Know

The ESAT tests applicants on four major subjects; Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology. Within each of these subjects, there are dozens of topics and modules that you will need to understand to perform well. In this guide, we’ll explore what you need to know and how you can prepare for the test.

Last Updated: 21st May 2024

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The Engineering & Science Admissions Test (ESAT) is an admissions test used by the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London that is designed to support the admissions process of various STEM course.

The ESAT wasn’t created for a specific subject, so the exam is fairly broad in terms of the required knowledge covered in its specification. Although no applicant will be required to prepare for every part of the ESAT, it’s still important to have an understanding of the ESAT specification so that you can make an informed decision on which parts you wish to tackle (if the choice is available to you).

Therefore, in this guide, we will take a look at the ESAT specification to determine what’s covered for each of the five major parts of the test. With this information, you should be able to determine which parts would be best for you to sit and begin your ESAT preparation, so let’s get right into it!

ESAT Specification Overview

Before we dive into the specific topics covered in the ESAT specification, let’s review the basics of the ESAT format and content. The ESAT is a STEM admissions test that is split into 5 parts/subtests:

Applicants sitting the ESAT will only be required to sit three of these subtests in one sitting of the test. All applicants are required to complete Mathematics 1, but most applicants will be able to choose the other two subtests they sit.

The exception to this is Cambridge Engineering applicants, who are required to complete Mathematics 2 and Physics alongside Mathematics 1. Mathematics 2 covers more advanced topics, hence why it’s a different subtest. 

What Is The ESAT Specification?

So we know the basic format of the test, but what do we mean when we talk about the ESAT Specification

A test specification is a document that states all potential topics and required knowledge that questions can pull from in the exam. Essentially, it’s a list of everything you need to know to be able to achieve full marks in the exam. 

Most university admissions tests have a specification of some sort, though STEM exams tend to have longer specifications as these tests are heavily dependent on subject knowledge rather than general skills. The ESAT has a particularly long specification as it covers all five subtests, each of which has a full exams worth of required knowledge. 

The ESAT’s specification is actually heavily based on the specification for the Natural Science Admissions Test (NSAA), the admissions test that preceded the ESAT. The NSAA also covered Mathematics and the three core sciences, but it featured three additional subtests that aren’t seen in the ESAT. 

These three subtests covered advanced knowledge of Physics, Chemistry and Biology, but this has all been removed from the ESAT Specification. Advanced Mathematics was also included in the NSAA despite not having a dedicated subtest – this knowledge is now required for Mathematics 2. 

Because of this, it’s important to ensure you’re using the ESAT Specification when preparing and not the NSAA Specification. This is just one of multiple differences to consider between the ESAT and NSAA, as well as the Engineering Admissions Test (ENGAA). 

Do I Need To Know Everything In The ESAT Specification?

No, you don’t. Students who are studying all three sciences should have a good understanding of what’s covered in the specification, but you won’t need to be fully prepared for questions about everything included. 

As you will only be sitting three of the five subtests, you’ll be able to skip preparation for the other two. You’ll need to prepare for Mathematics 1 as it’s required by all applicants, but the other two are your choice (unless you’re applying for Cambridge Engineering). Everything covered in the specification is taught at A-Levels (or equivalents), so there shouldn’t be anything you haven’t seen before. 

We would recommend you choose the subtests that you are most confident with, as this will reduce the time needed to revise the required knowledge which gives you more time to practice your skills with questions and mock exams. Your choice of subtest won’t impact your application, although most applicants will also be choosing the test most relevant to their course.

Essential Scientific Units & Quantities For The ESAT

Throughout all parts of the ESAT, applicants are expected to know and be able to work with the following SI prefixes in combination with any SI unit, as well as negative indices in units:

nano – 10–9

micro – 10–6

milli – 10–3

centi – 10-2

deci – 10-1

kilo – 103

mega – 106

giga – 109

With the basics covered, let’s go through the specifications to see what you need to be prepared for, starting with Mathematics 1.

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ESAT Mathematics 1

Mathematics 1 is the only subtest that is required by all ESAT test-takers, so you need to make sure you’ve thoroughly looked through this part of the specification. Thankfully, this is arguably the easiest subtest, at least when looking at the required knowledge.

Much of what’s covered here is the fundamentals of mathematics, including concepts that are taught at GCSEs and all the way back to primary school. Topics covered include standard arithmetic, algebra, statistics and probability, but none of these topics are covered at an advanced level (that comes in Mathematics 2).  

Let’s review what you’ll need to know for Mathematics 1 in the ESAT: 

“Units” refers to quantities used for measurement in a variety of contexts. For the ESAT, you must understand and be able to use standard units for:

  • Length
  • Mass
  • Money
  • Time

You must also be able to use compound units (measurements that rely on two separate measures), including: 

  • Density
  • Pressure
  • Rates of pay
  • Speed
  • Unit Pricing

You must also be able to convert between related standard and compound units in numerical and algebraic contexts. 

“Number” refers to the standard rules and functions for basic mathematics, including:

  • Correctly using the four primary operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication and division).
  • Ordering integers, fractions and decimals (and understanding the related symbols).
  • Understanding and using the concepts of factors, multiple, prime numbers, product notation and factorisation theorem, as well as common factors and multiples.
  • Using index laws for multiplication, division and simplification.
  • Understanding and using priority (brackets, power, roots, etc), inverse operations, cancellation and other relationships between operations.
  • Applying systematic listing strategies.
  • Understanding and using terms relating to squares and roots.
  • Calculating with surds and multiples of π.
  • Correctly rounding numbers and measures to a specified degree, as well as using approximation for producing estimates.
  • Calculating upper and lower bounds. 

Ratio and proportion are relationships between two figures in regard to value. For the ESAT, these are some of the concepts you’ll need to understand:

  • Scale factors and diagrams (plus maps).
  • Ratio notation.
  • Expressing quantities as fractions that are less than or greater than 1.
  • Relating ratios to fractions and linear functions.
  • Ratio problems.
  • The definition of “percentage” (Number of parts per hundred).
  • Percentage interpretation, comparisons, expressions and conversions.
  • Direct and inverse proportion, including graphs that depict these and the use of equations featuring these. 
  • Comparing measures  using ratio notation (length, area, volume).
  • Growth and decay problems. 

Algebra is a major aspect of standard mathematics that’s used in most subsets of the subject. You must fully understand standard algebraic notation, including the use of letters to represent values and the placements of figures in equations as shorthand for operations:

    • 2xxx or 2 × x
    • xyx × y
    • y3 y × y × y
    • y/x÷ x
    • x2y = x × x × y

Other important concepts to understand include: 

  • Quadratic expressions.
  • The quadratic formula. 
  • Setting up and solving simple and quadratic equations.
  • Using index laws in algebra.
  • Numerical substitution in formulae and expressions. 
  • Factorisation.
  • Simplification of expressions.
  • Formulae rearrangement (to change the subject).
  • Identities (including the difference between equations).
  • Graphs for linear functions, quadratic functions, simple cubic functions, the reciprocal function, the exponential function and trigonometric functions. 
  • Working with four quadrant coordinates. 
  • Gradients and intercepts of linear functions.
  • Parallel and perpendicular lines in the context of gradients.
  • Find the equation of a line using two points. 
  • Roots, intercepts and turning points. 
  • Linear inequalities. 
  • Quadratic sequences. 

Geometry is the mathematics of shapes, revolving around points, lines, solids and surfaces. Some standard terms that you will need to be familiar with include: 

  • Edges
  • Lines
  • Line segments
  • Parallel lines
  • Perpendicular lines
  • Planes
  • Polygons
  • Right angles
  • Rotational symmetries
  • Subtended angles
  • Vertices

You’ll also need to be aware of the correct notation for these elements within the context of the questions. Additional things to be prepared for include: 

  • Properties of points, lines, angles triangles and quadrilaterals. 
  • Triangle congruence criteria, angle fact and similarity.
  • Vectors, including Two Dimensional Vectors and vector addition/subtraction and multiplication by scalars.
  • Changes in shapes, including enlargement, reflection, rotation and translation.
  • Using Pythagoras’ theorem in both the second and third dimensions.
  •  Circle terms, including arc, centre, chord, circumference, diameter, radius, sector, segment and tangent.
  • Applying standard circle theorems. 
  • Solving two-dimensional geometric problems. 
  • Maps and scale drawings.
  • Using the formulae to calculate area and volume, as well as standard formulae for circles, spheres, pyramids and cones. 
  • Trigonometric ratios. 

Statistics is the mathematics of data, using techniques to interpret information, identify trends and predict future outcomes. Required knowledge for this topic includes: 

  • Understanding tables and charts, including two-way tables, bar charts, pie charts, line charts, frequency tables and pictograms. 
  • Diagrams for grouped discrete data or continuous data, including histograms and cumulative frequency graphs. 
  • Understanding and calculating the key averages for ungrouped data, including mean, mode, median and range.
  • Population.
  • Comparisons within data, including like-for-like summary values. 
  • Quartiles and interquartile ranges.
  • Distributions. 
  • Interpreting scatter graphs, including drawing lines of best estimates.
  • Understanding the risks, drawbacks and limits of statistical analysis in a variety of contexts. 

Probability is the mathematics of identifying chance in a variety of contexts. For this, you will need to know the following: 

  • Analysing the frequency of outcomes. 
  • Using tables and frequency trees. 
  • Understanding and using the concepts of equal likeliness, fairness and randomness. 
  • Relative expected frequencies in relation to theoretical probability. 
  • Systematically enumerating sets and combinations. 
  • Theoretical probability spaces.
  • Addition and Multiplication of probabilities. 

ESAT Biology

Biology is the first of the three core sciences covered in the ESAT. it covers the science of natural life on earth, including both flora and fauna. All the topics covered here are fairly basic, with much of the content below being covered at GCSE level. 

Biology isn’t required for any specific courses that use the ESAT, but it would be recommended to sit this subtest if you’re applying for Veterinary Medicine, Chemical Engineering & Biotechnology or are leaning towards the Biological side of Natural Science at Cambridge. Biology is highly relevant in both of these courses, so you should already be well acquainted with these topics if you’re interested in either of these subjects. 

Cells are the basis of all life. For the ESAT, you must be aware of the main sub-cellular components found within eukaryotic cells:

  • Cell membrane
  • Cytoplasm 
  • Mitochondrion 
  • Nucleus

The following components are exclusive to plants: 

  • Cell wall
  • Choloplast
  • Vacuole

You also need to be aware of the components and structure for prokaryotic cells, as well as the order within organisms: Cells – Tissues – Organs – Organ systems.

For this topic, you will need to understand the following processes:

  • Active Transport 
  • Diffusion
  • Osmosis

These must be demonstrated with examples in both living and non-living systems. 

This module relates to reproduction at a cellular level. Topics to prepare for include:

  • Mitosis and Meiosis in the cell cycle.
  • Definitions of sexual and asexual reproduction.
  • Sex determination (including X and Y chromosomes) and analysing data relating to sex and offspring ratio.

Inheritance relates to genes that are passed down during reproduction. For this topic, you must understand the following terms: 

  • Allele
  • Autosome
  • Chromosome
  • Dominant/Recessive
  • Gene
  • Genotype
  • Inherited conditions
  • Heterozygous
  • Homozygous
  • Phenotype

You will also need to understand monohybrid crosses, including the interpretation of data relating to monohybrid crosses and family trees. 

DNA stands for Deoxyribonucleic acid and is the carrier of genetic information within organisms. You will need to understand what DNA is (a full set of genetic information), where it’s contained (chromosomes) and the structure of DNA, including single and double-stranded DNA.

You will also need to understand the concepts of protein synthesis and gene mutations, including their relations to other aspects of DNA. 

Gene technologies relate to methods of biological development in science. These include: 

  • Genetic engineering
  • Stem cells, including their usage in medicine.
  • Selective breeding (and its relationship with natural breeding). 

Natural variation relates to the changes seen in species due to numerous causes. You will need to be aware of the concepts of natural selection and evolution, including its causes and results. You’ll also need to understand the sources of variation, including genetic/inherited variation and environmental variation. 

Enzymes are biological catalysts that are typically proteins. For the ESAT, you should be aware of the general mechanisms for enzyme action, as well as the the affect of temperature and pH levels to the rate of enzyme action. 

You should also be aware of the following roles within the process of digestion: 

  • Amylases
  • Libases
  • Proteases

Animal physiology refers to the structures of heterotrophs. Topics covered include:

  • Respiration, including processes for cellular, aerobic and anaerobic respiration.
  • Organ systems, including circulatory, digestive, excretory, nervous and respiratory systems. You must understand the general structures, functions and processes within each. 
  • Homeostasis, including concepts of blood glucose level regulation, features of diabetes, water content regulation and negative feedback. 
  • Hormones, including and understanding of endocrine glands, hormone travel, adrenaline and the roles of hormones (such as those in menstruation and contraception).
  • Disease and body defence for both communicable diseases and non-communicable diseases. You should know the causes, transmission routes and treatments of each.  

Ecosystems refers to the spaces in which organisms inhabit and how these systems function and adapt. For this topic, you need to understand:

  • Levels of organisation within individuals, populations and ecosystems, including the effects of abiotic and biotic factors (such as population size changes).
  • Material cycling, including the processes of the carbon cycle (combustion, decomposition, photosynthesis, respiration) and the water cycle. 
  • Biodiversity, including distribution and abundance of organisms, measurement of said factors and the impacts of human society on ecosystems. 

Plants are the other major form of organism on earth, so you must be aware of various aspects within their physiology. These include:

  • Photosynthesis, including the effects of environmental factors on the process.
  • Transport systems, including the processes of transpiration, translocation and the taking of water and mineral ions. 

ESAT Chemistry

Chemistry is the science of chemicals, the compounds and substances that make up matter, including their reactions and properties. 

Chemistry in another subtest that isn’t required by any specific subjects that use the ESAT. However, those applying for Chemical Engineering & Biotechnology at Cambridge would be advised to take it as it’s highly relevant. It’s also a great option if you’re more interested in chemistry for Natural Science. 

This topic relates to the structure of all matter. You must have an understanding of the components of atoms; protons and neutrons forming a central nucleus surrounded by electrons. You’ll also need to be aware of the following: 

  • Atomic numbers and mass numbers (along with standard notation).
  • Calculating protons, neutrons and electrons in an atom.
  • Understanding and using atomic numbers to write electron configurations for the first 20 elements on the periodic table. 
  • Isotopes. 
  • Relative atomic mass.

The Periodic Table is the scientific record of all known elements arranged by their atomic number (lowest to highest). It’s important that you understand that Periods are arranged by rows and Groups by columns. You’ll also need to know the positions of metals and non-metals on the table and understand the relationship between an atom’s position on the table and its electron configuration.

For the ESAT, you’ll need to understand the definition of a chemical reaction as new substances being formed by the rearrangement of atoms and electrons without the destruction or creation of nuclei. 

You need to be aware of the state symbols:

  • Solid (S)
  • Liquid (L) 
  • Gas (G)
  • Aqueous solution (AQ)

You should know the chemical formulae for simple, common ionic and covalent compounds and construct chemical equations, including ionic and half-equations. Also be aware that chemical reactions can be reversible and aren’t often completed. 

Quantitative chemistry is the process of using mathematics within chemical equations to work out substances within. You should be able to use Ar values to calculate a relative molar mass, Mr. You should also be aware of the following: 

  • Avogardro’s number.
  • Converting moles to grams and back. 
  • The Empirical Formula.
  • Calculating masses of reactants and products using balanced equations.
  • Understanding solutions (including saturated solution) and using concentrations of solutions for titration calculations. 
  • Calculating the percentage yield of a reaction.

You must understand the meanings of Oxidation to be the gain of oxygen and Reduction to be the removal of oxygen, both of which are a transfer of electrons. You should be able to use oxidation states of atoms within simple inorganic compounds and identify chemical equations that involve oxidation, reduction, redox or neither. You also need to be aware of the terms disproportionation, oxidising agent and reducing agent. 

You need to have a good understanding of chemical bonds for the ESAT, including the definitions and differences between:

  • Elements
  • Compounds
  • Mixtures

Beyond this, you need to understand the following: 

  • Compound formation
  • Ionic bonding, including the process, relevant chemical formulae and properties of ionic compounds. 
  • Covalent bonding, including the process and properties. 
  • Metalic bonding, including the process and properties. 
  • Intermolecular forces and how to overcome them (melting & boiling).
  • Relating structure and bonding to physical properties, including conductivity and melting point. 

Group chemistry relates to how elements are grouped on The Period Table based on their properties. You need to be aware of the physical and chemical properties of the following groups:

  • Group 1 – Alkali Metals
  • Group 17 – Halogens
  • Group 18 – Noble Gases

You also need to be aware of chemical reactivity trends within alkali metals and halogens. 

Separation techniques are the chemical processes for displacing constituent elements from their compounds and separating mixtures. These processes can be chemical or physical, and you should be aware of the following techniques:

  • Centrifugation 
  • Crystallisation 
  • Dissolving
  • Distillation (simple and fractional)
  • Evaporation 
  • Filtration 
  • Paper chromatography (including establishing purity)
  • Separating funnels 

There are two major areas to be prepared for in this topic:

  • Acids:  Acids can form H+(aq) ions or are H+ donors. You need to have an awareness of its reactions with carbonates, metals, metal hydroxides and metal oxides to form salts.
  • Bases: Bases are defined as substances that can form OH–(aq) ions or are an H+ acceptor. 

Terms important to acids and bases include:

  • Stong
  • Weak
  • Dilute
  • Concentrated

It’s also important to be aware than a reaction between an acid and a base can lead to neutralisation.

The rate of a reaction is essentially the speed of a chemical reaction. For this topic, you need to understand the following:

  • Qualitative effects on the rate of reaction of a catalyst, concentration, particle size, pressure (for gases) and temperature.
  • Methods for measuring rates of reactions. 
  • Interpreting graphic data for rates of reactions. 
  • Collision theory and its use to explain changes in rates of reactions. 
  • Energy requirements for particles to react during collisions. 
  • Catalysts and how they’re affected in reactions. 

In energetics, you must understand the concepts of exothermic and endothermic reactions, where ΔH is negative and positive respectively. You will need to be able to do the following:

  • Interpreting energy level graphs.
  • Calculating energy changes from heat capacities and temperature changes in calorimetry experiments. 
  • Using bond energy data to calculate energy changes. 

When it comes to electrolysis, you need to be aware of the following terms: 

  • Anode (positive electrode)
  • Cathode (negative electrode)
  • Electrode
  • Electrolyte

You also need to revise the following:

  • The usage of direct current (dc) in electrolysis versus not alternating current. (ac).
  • Cation change in electrolysis. 
  • Predicting the products of electrolysis in aqueous solutions and molten binary compounds. 
  • Writing half-equations for the  process at each electrode. 
  • Electroplate objects. 

In carbon and organic chemistry, there are some basic concepts you first need to understand:

  • Crude oil and fractional distillation.
  • Structural isomerism.
  • Carbon chain lengths and the link between trends in hydrocarbon physical properties, including boiling points, flammability and viscosity.
  • Longer-chain alkanes crack into shorter-chain alkanes and alkenes.
  • Molecular formula, full structural formula and condensed structural formula.
  • IUPAC guidelines for carbon compound naming.
  • Homologous series and functional groups.
  • Complete and incomplete combustion.

Beyond these basic concepts, you’ll need to revise the following:

  • Alkanes – a homologous series with a general formula of Cn H2n + 2.
  • Alkenes – a homologous series with double bonds and a general formula of Cn H2n.
  • Alcohols – a homologous series with a general formula of Cn H2n + 1OH.
  • Carboxylic acids: a homologous series with a general formula of Cn H2n + 1COOH.
  • Polymers, including addition polymerisation, polyalkenes, condensation polymerisation, polyesters, polyamides and the terms biodegradable and non-biodegradable in relation to polymers. 

Metals are one of the most well-known forms of substance, but you will need to know the following for the ESAT:

  • The links between the reactivity of metal and its tendency to form positive ions. 
  • Using displacement reactions to order reactivity of metals. 
  • Explaining the links between a metal’s properties and uses. 
  • Metal ores.
  • Common properties of transition metals. 

For this topic, you need to be able to explain how particles are packed and moved when in the three primary states of matter and how the packing and movement change via various methods, including: 

  • Boiling/evaporating
  • Condensing
  • Freezing
  • Melting

You also need to understand that the required energy for these processes is linked to the substances’s bonding and structure. 

Chemical testing takes many forms, but you’ll need to have an understanding of the tests for the following gases: 

  • Carbon dioxide (cloudy limewater when shaken).
  • Chlorine (blue litmus paper turns red and then white).
  • Hydrogen (explosion occurs when a burning splint is held to it in an open test tube). 
  • Oxygen (is able to relight a glowing splint).

You’ll also need to be aware of tests for the following anions:

  • Carbonates (dilute acid).
  • Halides (aqueous solution of silver nitrate with dilute nitric acid).
  • Sulfates (aqueous solution of barium with dilute hydrochloric acid). 

You’ll need to be aware of the test for metal cation using aqueous sodium hydroxide and the test for water presence with anhydrous copper sulfate. 

Finally, for chemistry, you’ll need to know the following about water and air:
  • Using the composition of dry air.
  • The origins of greenhouse gases (CO, CH4) and gaseous pollutants (CO, CO2, SO2, NOx).
  • The purpose of chlorine and fluoride ions in water treatment.

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ESAT Physics

Physics is the last of the three core sciences in the ESAT and is described as science relating to the properties of energy and matter.

Physics is required by all Cambridge Engineering applicants but is also recommended for anyone applying to Imperial College London, as most courses that require the ESAT relate to engineering or physics. it can also be a good choice for Natural Science applicants who are more interested in physical sciences.  

Electricity is a broad science and something that all ESAT test takers should have some understanding of. For the ESAT itself, there are two major topics that you’ll need to prepare for: 

Electric Circuits: You need to be able to read and interpret standard electrical circuit diagrams and recognise the symbols for the following elements:

  • Ammeter
  • Battery
  • Cell
  • Diode
  • Light source
  • Resistor
  • Switch
  • Variable Switch
  • Voltmeter

You’ll also need to know the equations for the following measures:

  • Current
  • Energy Transfer
  • Power
  • Resistance
  • Voltage

Beyond this, there are a few additional things to be aware of:

  • V-I graphs
  • Properties of negative temperature coefficient thermistors, ideal diodes and light-dependant resistors. 
  • Total resistance for resistor combinations and parallel combinations.
  • Using voltmeters and ammeters.  
  • Differences between currents (alternating and direct) and between conductors and insulators. 

Electrostatics: You need to know about charging insulators (electron gain/loss through friction), how charges attract and repel and the dangers of electrostatics. 

Magnetism is another topic that is taught early on in education, but you’ll need to have a more in-depth understanding of the ESAT. 

  • Magnet properties: You need to be aware of the terms attraction, repulsion, north pole and south pole. You also need to be aware of induced magnetism, magnetic field patterns for bar magnets and the difference between soft and hard magnetic materials. 
  • Electrical current magnet fields: You must be aware of how currents are affected by magnetism, how magnetic field strength is affected and patterns around current-carrying wires for straight wires and coils. You’ll also need to understand permanent magnets and electromagnets.
  • The motor effect: You will need to know the general rules of the motor effect, the factors that affect the direction and magnitude of force, the use of dc motors and electromagnets and the use of the equation F = BIL. 
  • Electromagnetic induction: You’ll need to know the process of electromagnetic induction, the factors that affect the direction and magnitude of an induced voltage, the usage of ac generators (as well as understanding graphical representations of the output voltage) and usage of electromagnetic induction.
  • Transformers: You’ll need to understand what is meant by “step-up” and “step-down” transformers, the voltage ratio for coils, the consequence of 100% efficiency and power transmission. 

In mechanics, one of the core areas you will need to understand is kinematics. Things to be prepared for include: 

  • Scalar and vector quantities. 
  • The differences between speed, velocity, distance and displacement. 
  • Using the equations for speed, average speed, acceleration, velocity and motion. 
  • Calculating with gradients and areas under graphs.
  • Interpreting time graphs (displacement, distance, speed, velocity) 

Along with kinematics, you will also need to revise your knowledge of forces, including the types of forces:

  • Air resistance
  • Drag
  • Electrostatic
  • Friction
  • Lift
  • Magnetic
  • Normal contact
  • Tension
  • Thrust
  • Upthrust

You also need to be able to interpret force diagrams, understand resultant force and know the factors that affect the forces listed above.

In relation to extension, you need to be able to interpret force-extension graphs, apply Hooke’s Law, know the equation for energy stored in a stretched spring and understand elastic/inelastic extensions and limits. 

You’ll need to know Newton’s Laws of Motion:

  1. Objects at rest stay at rest and objects in motion stay in motion at constant speed and in a straight line until disrupted by unbalanced force.
  2. Acceleration of an object is based on the object’s mass and the force applied to it.
  3. When an object exerts a force on another object, the other object exerts an equal and opposite force on the first.

You’ll need to understand the following about mass and weight:

  • The differences and the relationship between the two.
  • Gravitation field strength.
  • Free-fall acceleration. 
  • Factors that affect air resistance.
  • Thermal velocity.

In regards to momentum, you will need to know the equations to calculate force momentum, plus the laws of conservation of momentum.

Finally, you’ll need to know the following about energy:

  • The equations for work, power, kinetic energy and gravitational potential energy percentage efficiency. 
  • Using the law of conservation of energy.
  • Useful and wasted energy.

Thermal physics relates to temperatures. You’ll need to be aware of the following concepts:

  • Conduction, including conductors and insulators, as well as the factors that affect the rate of conduction. 
  • Convection, including effects on the density of fluid and fluid flow.
  • Thermal Radiation, including absorption and emission of radiation, and factors that affect the rates of absorption and emission. 
  • Heat capacity, including the equation for specific heat capacity, and affects of energy transfer on temperature. 

Matter relates to all physical substances, so there are a fair amount of topics to cover here:

  • States of matter (solid, liquids, gases), including their particle models and particle properties.
  • Ideal gases, including the behaviour of particles in pressure and temperature, and the effect of pressure on gas volume at constant temperature.
  • State changes, including melting/boiling points, latent heat of fusion/vaporisation and latent heat calculations. 
  • Density, including the equation for density, the densities of states of matter and the experimental determination of densities. 
  • Pressure, including the equation for pressure and hydrostatic pressure. 

Waves come in many forms but are generally defined as the disturbance that carries energy without a net movement of particles. For the ESAT, you will need to understand the properties of waves, including definitions for the following terms: 

  • Transverse waves
  • Longitudinal waves
  • Amplitude
  • Compression
  • Frequency
  • Peak
  • Period
  • Rarefaction
  • Trough
  • Wavelength

You need to know the calculations for frequency and wave speed and recognise examples of waves (such as sound waves and electromagnetic waves).

You need to have a good understanding of wave behaviour, including:

  • Reflection
  • Refraction
  • The Doppler effect

You’ll need to understand optics, including angles of incidence/refraction, the effects of wave direction and ray diagrams for reflection plane mirrors and refraction at a planar boundary. 

You’ll need to be confident with sound waves, including:

  • Sound wave production
  • The need for a medium
  • Loudness, amplitude, pitch and frequency. 
  • Echoes
  • Range of human hearing (20Hz – 20kHz)
  • Ultrasound

Lastly, you’ll need to understand the electromagnetic spectrum, including the nature and properties of electromagnetic waves and the following component parts of the spectrum: 

  • Radio wave
  • Microwaves
  • Infrared (IR)
  • Visible Light
  • Ultra-violet (UV)
  • X-rays
  • Gamma

You’ll also need to know the wavelengths, frequencies and order of these components. 

Radioactivity is the final topic covered in the ESAT Physics. you’ll need to understand the following concepts:

  • Atomic structure: You’ll need to be aware of the components of an atom (proton, neutron and electrons), the nuclear model of atomic structure, relative charge masses, isotopes, nuclides (including notation) and ionisation.
  • Radioactive decay: You’ll need to understand emissions from unstable nuclei (including the random nature of emissions), the different forms of emission (alpha, beta, gamma) and their natures, nuclear equations and decay’s effect on atomic and mass numbers. 
  • Ionising radiation: You need to know about the different forms of radiation (alpha, beta, gamma), their relative ionising and penetrating abilities, deflection of radiation in magnetic and electric fields, background radiation and the uses and dangers of ionising radiation. 
  • Half-life: You’ll need to understand what this term means, how to calculate half-life and how to interpret graphic representations of radioactive decay. 

ESAT Mathematics 2

Mathematics 2 is the only subject with two subtests in the ESAT, but this one is optional for most applicants (excluding Engineering). Mathematics 2 covers more advanced knowledge compared to Mathematics 1, so don’t expect to be able to get through this subtest with just the knowledge from the first maths subtest. 

The advanced knowledge covered here is mostly covered at A-Levels, so you shouldn’t pick this subtest unless you’re taking A-Level Mathematics and are confident in your performance. Let’s review the specification: 

The basics of algebra were covered in Mathematics 1, but this subtest requires a more in-depth understanding of the rules and functions within the topic. This includes: 

  • Laws of indices for rational exponents 
  • Surds, including surd manipulation and simplification. 
  • Quadratic functions and their graphs. These include completing the square, discriminants of quadratic functions and quadratic equation solutions. 
  • Linear and quadratic inequalities. 
  • Algebraic manipulation of polynomials.
  • Definition and properties of common functions.

This topic discusses patterns and arrangement within mathematics. You will need to be prepared for the following:

  • The formula for the nth term.
  • Arithmetic series
  • Geometric series (including convergent geometric series).
  • Binomial expansion, including the relevant notation.

Standard geometry was covered in Mathematics 1, but this module covers more advanced knowledge required for 2D coordinate geometry. Things to prepare for include: 

  • Equations for straight lines, parallel lines and perpendicular lines.
  • Coordinate geometry and equations for the circle.
  • Circle properties.  

Trigonometry is all about triangles and features a variety of unique rules and methods compared to geometry. Areas to revise include:

  • The sine and cosine rules.
  • Radian measure (arc length and sector/segment area).
  • Values of sine, cosine and tangent for various angles.
  • Functions of sine, cosine and tangent.
  • Equations for tanθ and sin2θ.
  • Solving trigonometric equations. 

Exponentials and logarithms are opposites from one another and are not seen in Mathematics 1 at all. For this module, you’ll need to be aware of the following:

  • Laws of logarithms (including special cases).
  • y = ax and its graph.

Differentiation relates to the rates of change in functions. You will need to understand the applications of differentiation to the following contexts:

  • Gradients
  • Normals
  • Strictly increasing/decreasing functions
  • Stationary points
  • Tangents

You’ll also need to know:

  • The derivative of f(x).
  • Differentiation of xn for rational n.

Integration is all about creating a whole out of separate parts. For the ESAT, you’ll need to prepare for the following:

  • Definite integration. 
  • Definite and indefinite integrals.
  • The Fundamental Theorem of Calculus. 
  • Combining integrals with equal and contiguous ranges. 
  • Area approximation with the trapezium rule. 
  • Differential equations.

This is the last topic in the ESAT Specification and has a fairly self-explanatory name – it’s all about functions and their graphs. You will need to know the graphs for various common functions, including:

  • Cubics
  • Exponential functions
  • Lines
  • Logarithmic functions
  • Modulus functions
  • Quadratics
  • Square roots
  • Trigonometric functions

You also need to be aware of simple transformations and how they affect the graph y = f(x), as well as the compositions of these transformations.

You will need to be aware the effects of altering the values in various graphs, including:

  • y = mx + c
  • y = a(x + b)2 + c

You will need to be able to use the following skills:

  • Differentiation for determining graph shapes.
  • Algebraic techniques to determine intersections between graphs of functions and coordinate axes. 
  • Geometric interpretation for algebraic solutions.

That’s the last section of the ESAT Specification. While we’ve offered an overview of the document here, it’s important that you go and read the full specification for yourself as not every detail is included in this guide. Carefully reading the full scope of the specification will ensure that you’re fully prepared and don’t miss anything in your revision. 

If you’re wondering how this specification compares to that of the PAT and MAT at Oxford, we’ve compared them in a dedicated guide here

ESAT Revision Tips

Before we finish this guide, here are a few revision tips to help you get started with your ESAT preparation!

Choosing Your ESAT Parts

One of the most important decisions that most applicants will have to make is choosing the parts/subtests they want to complete. Engineering applicants don’t need to worry about this as they must complete specific subtests, but everyone else needs to consider which parts would be best for them. 

The first piece of advice we have regarding this is that you need to make your decision as soon as possible. You’ll need to spend a lot of time revising and practising with questions, so it’s important to focus your preparation on the subtests you’re taking early on. 

It’s good to look at all four optional subtests when you first start preparing as you can get a sense of the required knowledge, question styles and overall difficulty. However, spreading your preparation time across all five subtests for more than a week or two is going to make the whole process much less effective and will negatively impact your score.  

For some, the decision will be easy (though you should still take a look at the other subtests before finalising your choice). However, you may not know which is the best fit for you, so how do you make that decision? At first, you may ask the following two questions: 

Which ESAT Part Is Hardest?

Most applicants will want to avoid the hardest subtest in the ESAT, but which one is it? Generally, the ESAT is well-balanced across all of its subtests, so difficulty will come down to your own strengths and weaknesses. However, there are two things to consider: 

Technically speaking, Mathematics 2 is the hardest subtest in the ESAT, as it features the highest level of required knowledge, but this doesn’t mean that every applicant would find it harder than the other modules. 

As we said, the difficulty of a subtest comes down to your own skill set and where you excel or struggle. If your mathematics abilities are stronger than any of the sciences, then Mathematics 2 may end up being one of the easier subtests, so there’s no definitive answer. 

Which ESAT Part Is Easiest?

On the opposite side of the spectrum, most applicants will want to find the easiest part of the ESAT so they can gain easier marks. However, an argument could be made that the easiest subtest is the one that everyone has to complete – Mathematics 1. 

The required knowledge for Mathematics 1 is based on lower-level maths, primarily taught at GCSE level. When we look at the specification for Mathematics 1, we can see some very basic concepts being outlined, including the four operations, simple mathematic notation and an understanding of the concept of units (such as money, time and length). 

All of the modules within the specification cover fairly simple concepts that anyone sitting the ESAT should be aware of. Even when it goes a bit deeper into certain topics, the overall scope of the subtest is fairly shallow especially when compared to Mathematics 2. 

So in some ways, this is good news, as it means you’ll have the chance to get some easier marks when sitting the ESAT. However, this does mean that you’ll still be choosing two subtests that are more difficult, so the decision once again comes down to your own strengths and weaknesses.

It’s unfortunately an underwhelming answer, but the ESAT isn’t designed to make applicants favour specific subtests. The idea is to choose the subtests that are most relevant or most interesting to you, as these should line up with both your skill set and the course you’re applying to. 

Creating An ESAT Preparation Plan

This should ideally be the first thing you do for your ESAT preparation (even before choosing your subtests!). Spending the time to revise and practice for the test is valuable, but you can better utilise each revision session when you’re following a detailed plan. 

Your preparation plan can cover as much time as you need, although it should run right up until the day of the test. We would recommend starting at least two months before your test date, as the ESAT requires both revision and practice. 

There’s no definitive template for the plan, but most people find timetables to be the easiest format to work with. On your timetable, you can set certain tasks to complete on each day you’re working and you can set milestones that need to be reached at certain dates. 

We would suggest starting off slow in your plan (provided you’ve given yourself plenty of time to prepare). Spend a week exploring the ESAT, learning about the test platform, question formats and required knowledge for each subtest. By the end of this week, your goal should be to choose your subtests and complete one mock exam (you don’t need to aim for a good score here, just get a feel for the test and create a baseline for your skills). 

You’ll likely want to start with a standard revision to refresh your knowledge, but as time goes on, you’ll need to focus more and more on practice questions so that you can develop your exam skills.

There are a few things that are important to include within your plan to help with motivation and time management: 

Although you should aim to stick to your plan as closely as possible, understand that it’s ok for things to be flexible when needed. Some things are going to take priority and they may not all be expected, so changing the plan to fit your circumstances isn’t a negative if you’re able to adapt. 

Finding Your Strengths & Weaknesses

The final tip of this guide is potentially the most important; you need to determine your strengths and weaknesses early on in your preparation. 

While you’ll need to prepare for everything included in your chosen subtests, you can’t spend an equal amount of time on everything. Everyone has topics that they’re stronger and weaker at, so the key is to determine these early on so you can prioritise your work. 

You may have a grasp of what topics you’re comfortable with, but a good way to find other areas of strength or weakness is just by working through practice questions. This won’t be about speed or getting high marks – you’re just seeing which questions you can and can’t complete. 

If you work through a question quickly and correctly, this topic will be a strength and won’t require as much work. If it takes you longer to get to your answer or if you make some mistakes along the way, this topic will need some work to become more confident. If you’ve got no idea how to approach the question, you’ll need to flag this topic as a weakness that needs a lot of attention. 

Once you’ve determined which areas need the most attention, you can begin to adapt your plan to ensure you’ve dedicated enough time to building your skills. By the time of your testing date, you may not be an expert but you should hopefully be able to pick up a few extra marks that you would have otherwise missed. 

That concludes our guide to the ESAT Specification. Remember to read the full document yourself and have a copy saved so you can access it at a moment’s notice. The ESAT is an incredibly broad exam, so understanding as much of the required knowledge as possible will set you on the right track to success. 

Doing all this by yourself can sometimes be overwhelming, so be aware that support options are always available. Online guides are available to help you revise most of the topics featured in the specification and question banks can be found that will offer a large quantity of practice resources. 

Another option is UniAdmissions’ selection of Premium Programmes. These feature all of the above, plus one-to-one tuition time with an ESAT expert, a wide selection of live sessions and a personalised Portal to house everything in one convenient place. Those looking for dedicated ESAT support can discover our ESAT Programme, while those who are looking for support for their full application can discover our Oxbridge Programmes, including Natural Science and Engineering

However you decide to prepare, we wish you the very best of luck with your ESAT and your application overall!

Strengthen your ESAT skills with support from UniAdmissions

The ESAT requires a lot of preparation, but UniAdmissions streamlines this process and gives you the skills to not only succeed in the test but excel at Cambridge as a student! Through comprehensive resources and dedicated time with a Cambridge student, you’ll have everything you need to gain your offer!

Discover our ESAT Programme below and find out how you can enrol and triple your chances of success.

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