How does the ESAT Differ from the NSAA & ENGAA?

5 min read
An ESAT student in a protective suit writing notes while holding a blue solution.
The ESAT, NSAA, and ENGAA tests each demand a meticulous approach.

The ESAT is the new game-changer for UK university admissions. If you’re aiming for Cambridge University or Imperial College London, you need to know how it stacks up against the old NSAA and ENGAA tests

The ESAT replaces these exams, bringing changes in format, presentation, and usage. Why the shift? And what does it mean for your prep strategy? Let’s break down the key differences and see how this impacts your journey to a top engineering or science programme.

What’s the ESAT?

The Engineering and Science Admissions Test (ESAT) is a new standardised exam designed for students applying to science and engineering courses at top universities in the UK. It was introduced to replace the Natural Sciences Admissions Assessment (NSAA) and the Engineering Admissions Assessment (ENGAA).

This computer-based test evaluates a candidate’s aptitude in mathematics and sciences. It consists of five parts:

Candidates must complete Mathematics 1 and choose two additional parts from the remaining four. Each part contains 27 multiple-choice questions to be completed in 40 minutes. The test aims to assess core scientific knowledge and problem-solving skills.


Here’s a table summarising the four main differences between the ESAT, NSAA, and ENGAA:

UsageUsed by multiple universities beyond Cambridge, including Imperial College LondonExclusively used by CambridgeExclusively used by Cambridge
FormatFully computer-based test with modern interface and navigationPrimarily paper-based with manual navigationPrimarily paper-based with manual navigation
SpecificationEmphasises core scientific knowledge and advanced mathematics, removes advanced science sectionsIncludes sections for advanced sciences, mathematics, and specific engineering conceptsFocuses on mathematics and physics, with specific sections for each
PresentationDigital platform with selectable checkboxes, timers, and progress trackingTraditional paper-based format with answer sheetsTraditional paper-based format with answer sheets

Now let’s take a deeper look at each of these differences:

1. Differences in Usage

Expanded University Adoption

The ESAT is used by more universities than just Cambridge, including Imperial College London, marking a significant shift from the NSAA and ENGAA, which were exclusively used by Cambridge.

Applicable Courses

The ESAT is required for a broader range of courses. While the NSAA was used for Natural Sciences, Chemical Engineering & Biotechnology, and Veterinary Medicine, and the ENGAA for Engineering, the ESAT now covers all these Cambridge courses. 

At Imperial College London, the ESAT is used for admissions in the Departments of Physics, Aeronautics, Chemical Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Electrical and Electronic Engineering, Design Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering.

Uniform Testing

The ESAT standardised the admissions process by requiring all applicants, regardless of their specific course, to take the same test. This contrasts with the NSAA and ENGAA, which were course-specific exams.

2. Differences in Format

Structure of the Test

The ESAT is divided into five distinct parts: Mathematics 1, Mathematics 2, Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. In contrast, the NSAA was divided into two sections, each with multiple parts covering different science subjects and mathematics, while the ENGAA had two sections focusing on mathematics and physics. 

The ESAT requires candidates to complete Mathematics 1 and choose two additional parts, whereas the NSAA and ENGAA had a more rigid structure with specific parts required for different courses.

Number of Questions

Each part of the ESAT contains 27 multiple-choice questions, whereas the NSAA and ENGAA had 20 questions per part. This increase in the number of questions aims to provide a more comprehensive assessment of a candidate’s knowledge and problem-solving abilities.

Time Allocation

Hourglasses with colourful sand illustrating the passage of time.
Understanding time allocation is crucial when comparing the ESAT, NSAA, and ENGAA tests.

The ESAT allocates 40 minutes per part, giving candidates a fixed amount of time for each of the three parts they must complete. The NSAA provided 60 minutes per section, with candidates needing to manage their time across multiple parts within each section. The ENGAA also had a similar 60-minute per section format. The ESAT’s time allocation is more structured, with no carry-over of time between parts.

3. Differences in Presentation

User Interface and Navigation

The ESAT uses a digital platform developed by Pearson VUE, featuring a user-friendly interface with selectable checkboxes for answers, a timer, and navigation options. Test-takers can easily move between questions, flag items for review, and change answers with a click. This is a departure from the traditional paper format where candidates had to mark answers on an answer sheet and navigate manually.

Timer and Progress Tracking

The ESAT includes an on-screen timer that accurately counts down the time remaining for each part, helping candidates manage their time effectively. Additionally, the platform provides a review screen that displays progress and flagged questions, ensuring test-takers can easily track and manage their responses. 

This contrasts with the paper format of the NSAA and ENGAA, where candidates had to rely on their own timekeeping and memory for managing questions.

Accessibility Features

The digital format of the ESAT includes several accessibility features such as adjustable font sizes, colour schemes, and the ability to use assistive technologies. These features aim to create a more inclusive testing environment compared to the static nature of paper-based tests.

Environmental and Practical Considerations

The computer-based format of the ESAT eliminates the need for physical test papers and answer sheets, reducing paper usage and logistical complexity.

4. Differences in Specification

Content Coverage

The ESAT specification closely aligns with the content covered in the NSAA and ENGAA. However, notable differences include the removal of the advanced science sections found in the NSAA, such as Advanced Physics, Chemistry, and Biology. Instead, the ESAT includes an advanced mathematics section, Mathematics 2.

Advanced Mathematics Emphasis

A blackboard with an opened book holder beside it, suggesting focus on advanced mathematics.
Dive into the complexities of advanced mathematics with the ESAT, NSAA, and ENGAA examinations.

Mathematics 2 in the ESAT specification focuses on advanced mathematical concepts, reflecting the increasing importance of mathematical proficiency in science and engineering disciplines. This section covers topics such as graphs of functions, including the notation f(g(x)), which was not explicitly specified in the NSAA or ENGAA specifications.

Streamlined Content

The ESAT specification eliminates the need for preparation in advanced sciences, streamlining the focus to core scientific knowledge and problem-solving skills. This adjustment ensures that the test remains relevant and accessible to all candidates, regardless of their academic background.

Continuity in Content Structure

While there are specific changes in content emphasis, the overall structure of the ESAT specification remains consistent with its predecessors. This continuity allows candidates to leverage existing preparation materials and resources while adapting to the updated content requirements of the ESAT.

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Last Words

So, the transition from the NSAA and ENGAA to the ESAT signifies a significant evolution in science and engineering admissions testing. With expanded university adoption, standardised testing, modern presentation, and updated specifications, the ESAT offers a more inclusive and streamlined approach to assessing candidates’ abilities. 

As students prepare for this new era of admissions testing, leveraging available resources and familiarising themselves with the test format will be crucial. Ultimately, the ESAT represents a promising step forward in ensuring fairness, accessibility, and relevance in the evaluation of aspiring scientists and engineers.


Are calculators allowed during the ESAT?

No, calculators or any other supporting materials are not permitted during the ESAT. Similar to the NSAA and ENGAA, the ESAT aims to assess candidates’ problem-solving skills and mathematical proficiency without the aid of calculators. It’s essential to familiarise yourself with the types of calculations and mathematical concepts covered in the test and practice solving problems manually to ensure readiness for the ESAT.

How should I prepare for the ESAT?

Preparing for the ESAT requires a structured approach that includes familiarising yourself with the test format, content specifications, and practising with sample questions and full-length practice tests. Start by reviewing the ESAT specification and understanding the topics covered in each section. 

Then, utilise ESAT-specific study materials, including textbooks, online resources, and official practice tests, to reinforce your understanding and improve your problem-solving skills. Additionally, consider seeking guidance from tutors or joining study groups to enhance your preparation efforts.

Can I retake the ESAT if I’m not satisfied with my score?

Candidates can only take the ESAT once during each admissions period. If you are unhappy with your score, you will need to reapply to the university for the following year. Remember that there is no pass mark for the ESAT, meaning that students with strong aspects of their application but a lower ESAT score may still be invited to interview.

How is the ESAT scored, and what is considered a competitive score?

The ESAT is scored based on the number of correct answers, with each question typically worth one mark. These raw scores are then converted into a scaled score on a scale from 1.0 to 9.0. A competitive score varies depending on the university and specific programme to which you are applying, as well as the overall performance of other applicants. It’s advisable to research the average ESAT scores of admitted students at your target universities and aim to achieve a score that aligns with or exceeds these benchmarks to increase your chances of admission.

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