If you’re applying to study Natural Sciences at Cambridge, you’ll soon be sitting the NSAA, or Natural Sciences Admissions Assessment – but what is a good NSAA score?
As one of the most competitive courses at Cambridge, with only 24.9% of applicants receiving an offer in 2019, you’ll want to make sure that you get a score that gives you a serious chance of receiving an offer. The test has also changed slightly from 2019, towards a more strictly multiple choice model, so make sure you take this into account as well when reading through these data.
While the format of the test itself may have changed, the skills and aptitudes that it is testing for, and the qualities that admissions tutors are looking for in Natural Sciences students at Cambridge, haven’t. This data can still be really valuable as you plan your preparation, but do remember that the test we’re discussing isn’t quite the same as the one you’ll soon be sitting.
So, what is a good score on the NSAA?
The NSAA is the most complicated admissions tests at either Oxford or Cambridge, with lots of options as to which questions you tackle. You can read about your options, and how best to approach the exam in our series of NSAA articles. We recommend reading through these before looking at the analysis to follow so that you have a good understanding of the exam format before you try to interpret these results from 2019.
In 2019, all the questions in Section 1 were multiple-choice, with a mix of 8, 7, 6, and 5 possible answers for each question. The number of each varied depending on which parts you attempted, as laid out below. All applicants had to take Part A, and then could choose which 2 from the remaining parts to attempt.
|Part||5 Option MCQs||6 Option MCQs||7 Option MCQs||8 Option MCQs|
|A: Mathematics (Mandatory for All)||3||5||6||4|
|E: Advanced Maths and Physics||5||9||3||1|
Section 2 of the 2019 NSAA was based on long questions with marks for each stage of the working, so we’ve not analysed those in detail here.
If you’d like to work through these yourself, you can find our Past Paper resources for the NSAA here.
How did last year’s applicants do on the NSAA?
The average score for Section 1 Part A, the mandatory Maths section, among all applicants in 2019 was 4.3. You can see the distribution of these scores below.
Applicants then had a choice of which parts B through E to take. Part B, Physics, was chosen by 1,753 applicants; Part C, Chemistry by 2,301; Part D, Biology, by 1,370; and Part E, Advanced Maths and Physics by just 683.
|Physics||Biology||Chemistry||Advanced Physics & Maths|
|Advanced Physics & Maths||590||15||75||-|
As the table above shows, there are also clear patterns in what pairs applicants choose. Biology and Chemistry is the most popular pairing, with 1,213 applicant opting for it, with Physics and Chemistry second at 1,002, before a big drop off to Physics and Advanced Maths & Physics at 590, Physics and Biology at 139, Chemistry and Advanced Maths at 75, and only 15 applicants choosing Biology with Advanced Maths & Physics.
Do these combinations matter?
Again, we’re going deep into the realm of correlation rather than causation here, but here are the average combined scores for each pairing in Section 1.
|Pairing||Combined Scaled Score|
|Biology and Chemistry||11.8|
|Physics and Chemistry||13.6|
|Physics and Advanced Maths & Physics||13.1|
|Physics and Biology||10.4|
|Chemistry and Advanced Maths & Physics||13.5|
|Biology and Advanced Maths & Physics||10.9|
Which combination students pick seems to have some small impact, with student who chose Biology and Physics scoring the lowest. However, since only 139 students chose this option, it’s hard to know if they would have performed better if they had chosen Biology and Advanced Maths & Physics, which had a higher average score among the fifteen students that chose it.
As shown below, which combinations are chosen has only a very small impact on the overall application, with no combination yielding a noticeably better chance once the range of other factors are taken into account.
|Pairing||Number of Applicants||Offers/Applicants|
|Biology and Chemistry||1,213||30.40%|
|Physics and Chemistry||1,002||24.80%|
|Physics and Advanced Maths & Physics||590||26.20%|
|Physics and Biology||139||23.60%|
|Chemistry and Advanced Maths & Physics||75||22.60%|
|Biology and Advanced Maths & Physics||15||20%|
What was a good score on Section 1 of the NSAA in 2019?
As discussed, after taking the mandatory Maths portion of Section 1 of the NSAA, applicants choose two of the remaining four options to attempt. Here are the scaled score distributions for each of these.
What was a good score on Section 2 of the NSAA in 2019?
Section 2 of the NSAA is much the same, with applicants choosing two of the six multipart questions to answer, with two each of Biology, Chemistry and Physics to choose from.
This means that unlike Section 1, you don’t need to answer across subject areas, as you can just pick to answer both questions from one subject area if you want.
As shown below, most applicants take this approach, focusing on just one of Biology, Chemistry and Physics in Section 2, with a smaller number of applicants choosing to approach what they see as the easiest questions across subjects, rather than sticking to one area.
Below are the same distributional graphs for the Section 2 options as for Section 1.
Because these were marked on the basis of working, not multiple answer options, we’ve not gone into as much detail with them. You’ll also notice that small numbers of half marks appear in these scores, as they haven’t been scaled, which means a much broader range of scores are represented, although the shape of the distribution remains largely unaffected.
What was a good score on Section 2 of the NSAA in 2019?
All of the data above should have given you a sense of what the range of scores in the NSAA is like among applicants to Cambridge. But what about applicants who get offers? How different are their scores from the average?
Because of the complexity of the NSAA, we’ve broken down the average scores among all applicants, no offer, and offer holders for each of the sections of the exam below. You can combine these with data earlier in this article to get a rough sense of which combinations give which scores, but we’ve not gone into that much detail here for the sake of brevity.
|Section 1, Part A||4||4.3||5.3|
|Section 1, Physics||3.8||4.4||6.1|
|Section 1, Biology||3.4||3.8||4.9|
|Section 1, Chemistry||3.9||4.4||5.7|
|Section 1, Advanced Maths & Physics||2.8||3.4||5.1|
|Section 2, B1||10.3||11.1||13.3|
|Section 2, B2||10.1||10.7||12.5|
|Section 2, C1||12.9||13.8||16|
|Section 2, C2||9.9||10.9||13.5|
|Section 2, P1||14.2||14.8||16.7|
|Section 2, P2||9||10.3||14.1|
As mentioned above, these numbers are based on scaled scores for Section 1, as Cambridge only released aggregated raw scores for Section 2.
How much does the NSAA matter to my application?
We don’t know for certain how the different parts of the test are weighted by admissions tutors when making their decisions, or how big a part your test performance plays in whether or not you receive an offer.
Also bear in mind that everything we’ve written about above can be accused of confusing correlation with causation. There’s nothing you can do in the test that you can’t undo in the interview, and vice versa.
Our goal is to give applicants the best and most complete information possible to help guide their decision making.
Where does our data come from?
Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act 2000, it’s possible to look at fairly detailed data on Cambridge admissions assessments, which is what we’ve used here. If you’d like to see the data for yourself, you can access it here.
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