• Bella Rawson

How To Prepare for the NSAA

So, for most people applying to vet school, the NSAA is fairly irrelevant. Unless you're planning on applying to Cambridge, you don't need to sit any entrance exams, and the first thing you'll do in relation to your application is fill out a work experience form.


Cambridge, like always, has to be different.


They like you to sit the Natural Sciences Admissions Assessment, a two part exam consisting purely of multiple choice questions of increasing difficulty. Fortunately, it's free, and relatively simple to register for, and most people applying to Cambridge already know of its existence. So what's the problem then?


Well, it's a weird exam - when have you ever sat a wholly multiple choice question exam before? Consequently, most applicants have no idea how to prepare for it. The good news, is that if you're here, you're heading along the right lines of figuring out how to revise for it. So, sit back, grab a cuppa, and let me tell you what I wish I'd known three years ago....

 

What is the NSAA?

Before we get started, it's worth making sure you know what I'm talking about. If this is the first time you're hearing about needing to sit the NSAA, you need to get a move on! You have to register well in advance of the test deadline, and they very rarely consider late applications. Usually, your school will be able to do this, but if you're home educated or there are special circumstances surrounding your application, you may need to contact a registered test centre separately.


The most important thing is that all of this is YOUR RESPONSIBILITY. Your teachers may have never done this before, and therefore have no clue what they're doing. You need to be proactive in understanding what you need to do, because after all, this is your application, and nobody will do it for you once you're at university. If you want to learn more about the NSAA and registering, this website is really useful.


The important thing to remember is that the NSAA is designed to be accessible to applicants studying A-Levels in the sciences and mathematics. It covers content you will already have studied at GCSE and A-Level, although the questions are often worded trickily, and may try to throw you off with red-herring options.


How does Cambridge Use the NSAA?

A common misconception is that this exam is what will decide whether you get an interview or not. This is 100% untrue. Cambridge assess each application holistically, meaning if you have a bad day when you sit the exam, but your personal statement and interview go great, you won't be at a disadvantage for not having done really well in the NSAA.


This is true for all admissions asssessments, but it's especially important to point out that you are not represented by a number, and to that end no one will ever voluntarily tell you your score. I don't know what mine was, and I took it three years ago. Of course, you can request this information, but my advice is to just forget about it. No one cares, and you'll likely only cause youtself further anxiety.


1) Start Early....but not too early!

I can already tell that you're rolling your eyes at this one. But bear with me, I have a point!


Like anything, practice makes perfect, and the more work you do for the NSAA, the better chance you'll have at getting a good mark. This all seems fairly simple, but you usually sit the exam in the autumn of Year 13 (in England, this will be different in Scotland) and there's a lot of time preceeding that (i.e. the summer holidays) where you could haul yourself into your parents' office and not leave until the day of the exam.


Don't do that. Please. I'm begging you.


That year 12 summer is one of the best you'll ever have. Do not waste it sitting in your room revising. For one thing, you'll miss out on the fun all your non-Cambridge applicant friends are having, and for another, you'll very quickly run out of things to revise. There aren't many past paper questions for the NSAA out there, and if you start in June of that year, you'll run out of things to study and practice within about a month.


My advice, is to start two months out. That probably means starting around the end of August, just before you go back to Year 13. Why? Well, it gives you enough time to BRIEFLY revise the content on the specification for a couple of weeks, and then enough time to get used to the questions and style of the paper.


The only way to revise for the NSAA is to ensure you have a good knowledge of the content they're going to examine you on from a basic level of understanding (i.e. reread your GCSE notes and Google/ask your teacher about anything you've forgotten) and then put that knowledge into practice by using past papers.


Note that Section 1 typically contains easier, GCSE style of questions, whereas Section 2 is aimed at advance knowledge, such as what you'll be introduced to when you study an A-Level in that subject.


2) Practice Practice Practice

The best way to revise for the exam is to do past papers. There isn't a substitute for this, because the exam is so different to what you will have encountered before, and you need to get used to the style and expose yourself to the strict time limit of the questions.


Don't do them timed at first, do one or two papers at your own pace, and then eventually build up to timing yourself. It's important to familiarise yourself with the question style FIRST, rather than trying to do a new style of question under pressure.


You can find all the past paper examples here on the university website. Remember that the style of the exam changed after 2019, so don't be surprised if you encounter questions from before this period that ask you to write an essay. The most recent exams focus on pure knowledge rather than analysis, and ask MCQs only.


If you run out of practice questions, I have a bank of revision resources including practice questions. Please get in touch with me using the contact form at the bottom of the page to request access.


3) Stay AWAY from The Student Room...and any other online forum for that matter!

I was 100% guilty of checking TSR daily when I was applying, but what I learned from that anxiety-filled experience is that it just isn't worth it. You see applicants discussing how well they thought they did, with phrases like 'you found that difficult? I loved it!' so common it makes me want to vomit. I promise you, if someone is writing that, it's probably because they want to feel better about themselves after the exam made them feel like shit.


It brings no material benefit to you by checking those boards other than causing anxiety and worry, and in 99% of cases the people giving 'advice' and 'information' are just plain wrong. The only time the boards can be useful is for the checklists the verified accounts provide to help you make sure you're making the best application possible. But even then, you don't have to go further than the initial thread, just click download and skidaddle.


If you have genuine questions about the admissions process, reach out to the admissions staff at the university that you've applied to. Their job is to provide accurate information to all applicants, and reassure them in a stressful time. They won't be able to respond to specific questions, but general questions like 'How does Cambridge use the NSAA?' they'll be more than happy to respond to.


4) Use Quizlet

I discovered Quizlet after starting at university, but I wish I'd known about it sooner. People have already prepared revision questions for you, you just need to go and look for them!


The caveat to this, is that not all questions are reliable examples of the style you'll answer in the exam, but if you're applying to a vet degree you're probably smart enough to work out which Quizlets have been designed by people who know what they're talking about. Just check to see if their cards are broadly in line with the past papers from the university website.


Quizlet is less useful for practicing questions under time pressure owing to the style and technology used by the company. If you want to be able to time yourself, another good option is Anki, which is essentially Quizlet but with a lot more flexibility. If you have a vague idea of how to code (or even if you don't!) you can manipulate Anki to time you as you practice.


5) Don't Dwell On It When It's Over

Finally, a warning. There's a high chance you'll walk out of the exam feeling like you've failed it. I did, and look where I am now. The best advice I can give you is that if you feel that way, you've probably done much better than you think you have. And if you felt like it went really well, then you've probably done fine too!


It's easy to keep thinking over questions and realising you made a mistake and kicking yourself for it, but in the long run, what does that achieve? It just makes you an anxiety filled mess who believe they've fallen at the first hurdle. Trust me, put it out of your mind as best you can: go get icecream, make your parents take you to Maccies - just do anything that will get you out of your own head. Remember Cambridge interview approximately 75% of applicants - unless you've answered zero questions on that paper, the chances are you've done better than you think.

 

I hope this was helpful and informative, and as always if you have further questions you can email me or book a Zoom call with me where I'll answer any questions you may have, for less than the price of a cup of coffee


If you have any information you think would be useful to include in this guide, or you notice anything missing, please drop me a message using the contact form at the bottom of this page.


And finally, want five FREE secrets to making an AWESOME vet school application? Click here to get the guide!




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