How to Prepare for ESAT Biology

5 min read
Microscope on a wooden table
Studying with a microscope can be helpful when preparing for the ESAT Biology exam.

The Engineering and Science Admissions Test (ESAT) is a new admissions test introduced for the 2024 university application cycle. It has replaced the ENGAA and NSAA and is used for applications to the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London. This guide focuses on how to prepare for the Biology section of the ESAT.

The ESAT Structure

The ESAT (Engineering and Science Admissions Test) is a critical component of the admissions process for certain science and engineering courses at the University of Cambridge and Imperial College London. This test is designed to assess a candidate’s aptitude and understanding in various scientific disciplines, ensuring they meet the rigorous academic standards required by these prestigious institutions.

Test Format

The ESAT is a computer-based assessment, which candidates will take at designated Pearson VUE test centres. This format allows for a standardised testing environment and efficient processing of results. 

Each assessment within the ESAT is structured as a multiple-choice test, which helps evaluate a range of skills including knowledge recall, problem-solving, and analytical thinking.

Test Components

Candidates will be required to take a total of three assessments during their test session:

  1. Mathematics 1: This section is compulsory for all candidates, reflecting the fundamental importance of mathematical skills across all scientific and engineering disciplines.
  1. Additional Assessments: In addition to Mathematics 1, candidates must choose two more assessments from the following subjects:
  • Biology: This section tests a candidate’s understanding of biological concepts, ranging from cellular processes to ecosystems.
  • Chemistry: This section covers key chemical principles, including reactions, stoichiometry, and organic chemistry.
  • Physics: This section examines knowledge of physical principles, including mechanics, electricity, and thermodynamics.
  1. Mathematics 2: For those with a stronger mathematical background, this section delves deeper into more advanced mathematical concepts.

Each of these individual assessments lasts 40 minutes, and they are taken consecutively on the same day, making the total test duration approximately 120 minutes (2 hours).

Importance of the Structure

The structure of the ESAT is designed to comprehensively evaluate a candidate’s readiness for university-level study in science and engineering. By requiring a combination of core mathematical skills and specific subject knowledge, the test ensures that candidates possess a well-rounded foundation. 

The multiple-choice format also allows for a broad assessment of various topics within a limited timeframe, providing admissions tutors with a clear indication of a candidate’s strengths and areas for development.

How to Prepare for ESAT Biology

Student using microscope for ESAT Biology prep.
Gearing up for the ESAT Biology exam, a student studying with a microscope.

The Engineering and Science Admissions Test (ESAT) is a crucial part of the admissions process for several science and engineering courses at top UK universities like Cambridge and Imperial College London. Preparing effectively for the ESAT Biology section can significantly enhance your chances of success. Here’s a comprehensive guide to help you prepare thoroughly.

1. Understand the Syllabus

A clear understanding of the syllabus is the foundation of effective preparation. While specific past papers for the ESAT might not be available, the fundamental criteria remain similar to previous tests like the NSAA. Focus on core topics in biology that are typically covered in these assessments:

Cell Biology: 

Study cell structure, function, and essential processes such as mitosis, meiosis, and cellular respiration. Understand the roles of different cell organelles and the biochemical pathways involved in cellular functions.


Delve into Mendelian genetics, including concepts of dominant and recessive traits, Punnett squares, and probability in genetics. Study the structure and replication of DNA, gene expression, and the basics of genetic engineering and biotechnology.

Ecology and Evolution: 

Learn about ecosystems, energy flow, and nutrient cycles. Study population dynamics, symbiotic relationships, and the principles of natural selection and speciation. Understand the impact of environmental changes on biodiversity and evolutionary processes.

Human Biology: 

Focus on human anatomy and physiology, including the functions of major organ systems (circulatory, respiratory, nervous, and digestive systems). Study homeostasis, hormonal regulation, and the basics of human health and diseases.

Plant Biology: 

Understand the process of photosynthesis, plant anatomy (roots, stems, leaves), plant reproduction, and growth. Study the various physiological processes in plants and their adaptations to different environments.

2. Review Old-Style Past Papers

Desk with book, pen, and plant  for ESAT Biology studying
A well-organised study space with a book, pen, to focus on ESAT Biology prep.

Utilising NSAA past papers can provide valuable insights into the type of questions that may be asked. While the format may have changed, the content and style of questions are likely to be similar. Here are some steps to make the most out of past papers:

Identify Key Themes: 

Look for recurring themes and topics in past papers. This can give you an idea of the areas that are frequently tested.

Practice Regularly: 

Incorporate past paper questions into your daily study routine. This will help you get accustomed to the question format and improve your time management skills.

Review Your Answers: 

After completing past papers, thoroughly review your answers. Identify any mistakes and understand the correct solutions. This will help you avoid similar errors in the future.

3. Focus on Multiple-Choice Question Strategies

The ESAT Biology section consists of multiple-choice questions (MCQs), which require specific strategies:

Eliminate Clearly Wrong Answers: 

When faced with a difficult question, eliminate options that are clearly incorrect. This increases your chances of selecting the correct answer from the remaining choices.

Time Management: 

Practise pacing yourself to ensure you can answer all questions within the time limit. Allocate time-based on the complexity of each question, and avoid spending too much time on any single question.

Guess Wisely: 

If you’re unsure of an answer, make an educated guess rather than leaving it blank. Use your knowledge to narrow down the options and choose the most likely answer.

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Personalised 1-1 tutoring for your Oxford or Cambridge admissions test with expert tutors

4. Utilise Online Resources

Several online platforms offer practice materials and mock tests for biology. These resources can provide additional practice and help reinforce your understanding of key concepts:

Khan Academy

Offers comprehensive biology courses with video tutorials and practise exercises covering a wide range of topics.

YouTube Channels: 

Channels like CrashCourse and Amoeba Sisters offer engaging and informative biology content.

Oxbridge Mind Prep Course:

Consider enrolling in a dedicated ESAT Biology prep course offered by organisations like Oxbridge Mind for personalised guidance and targeted practise under the watchful eye of experienced instructors.

5. Study Groups and Tutors

Joining a study group or working with a tutor can provide additional support and resources:

Study Groups: 

Collaborating with peers allows for the exchange of ideas and clarification of complex topics. Group discussions can provide different perspectives and enhance your understanding.


Personalised guidance from a tutor can address your specific weaknesses and help you develop a targeted study plan. Tutors can provide valuable insights, practice questions, and feedback on your progress.

6. Practise and Review Regularly

Consistent practise and regular review are key to effective preparation:

Daily Practise: 

Incorporate biology practice questions into your daily study routine. Regular practise helps reinforce knowledge and improve recall.

Weekly Reviews: 

Set aside time each week to review what you’ve learned. Summarise key concepts and revisit areas where you faced difficulties.

Mock Tests: 

Take full-length mock tests under timed conditions to simulate the actual exam experience. This helps build stamina and improve time management skills.

Bottom Line

With diligent preparation and the right resources, you can increase your chances of success in gaining admission to top universities like Cambridge and Imperial College London.

Remember, thorough preparation and consistent practise are the keys to success. Good luck!


What is the passing score for the ESAT Biology section?

The ESAT does not have a fixed passing score. Your performance is assessed in relation to other candidates, and universities set their own admissions thresholds. A good performance in the ESAT Biology section indicates a strong foundation in biological concepts, which is viewed favourably by admissions tutors.

How is the ESAT Biology section scored?

The ESAT Biology section is scored based on the number of correct answers. There is no negative marking for incorrect answers, so it’s advisable to attempt all questions. Your raw score is then converted into a scaled score, which takes into account the difficulty of the questions and the overall performance of candidates.

Can I use a calculator during the ESAT Biology exam?

No, calculators are not permitted during the ESAT. The questions are designed to assess your understanding of biological concepts and problem-solving skills, and do not require complex calculations.

How long should I spend preparing for the ESAT Biology section?

The ideal preparation time varies depending on your existing knowledge and familiarity with the syllabus. However, consistent study over several weeks or months is generally recommended. Create a study schedule, review the syllabus, practice regularly, and take mock tests to gauge your progress.

Are there any specific revision guides or textbooks recommended for ESAT Biology preparation?

While there are no official ESAT Biology revision guides, you can use A-Level Biology textbooks or online resources to cover the relevant topics. Focus on understanding the core concepts and practising application through past paper questions and mock tests.

How can I manage exam anxiety during the ESAT Biology section?

Exam anxiety is common, but there are strategies to manage it. Practice relaxation techniques like deep breathing or meditation. During the exam, read questions carefully, manage your time effectively, and avoid dwelling on difficult questions. Remember that thorough preparation and a calm approach can significantly improve your performance.

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