NSAA Section 1

3 min read

So, you’re revising for the Cambridge Natural Sciences Admissions Assessment (NSAA) with the aim of achieving an offer from Cambridge? Well, you’ve come to the right place! In this article, I’m going to be breaking down Section 1 of the NSAA to give you all the information you need to take on this exam. If you want more of an overview of the NSAA first, you can check out the article on ‘What is the NSAA?’, or you can catch top tips for the whole exam here NSAA Top Tips.

Without further ado, let’s get into it! As you (hopefully) already know, the NSAA has two sections, which they have helpfully named ‘Section 1’ and ‘Section 2’! Here we are just going to be talking about Section 1, though (if you need help with NSAA Section 2, check out my article).

Firstly, let’s talk about the format of Section 1. 

There are four parts, of which you are required to answer two, one of which must be mathematics. The four parts are mathematics (part A), physics (part B), chemistry (part C) and biology (part D), so you will answer questions on maths plus one science subject. Each part consists of 20 multiple choice questions, therefore you will answer a total of 40 questions in Section 1. You are NOT allowed to use a calculator in any part of the exam (I know, it was a shock to me too…!)


One of the things candidates struggle with the most in any exam, but especially a multiple-choice exam, is TIMING. I’m sorry to say that the NSAA is no exception, especially Section 1. You will have 60 minutes to complete this section, so that means 60 minutes for 40 questions. That works out to be (opportunity for mental arithmetic practice here!) 1 minute and 30 seconds (!!) per question. This is NOT a lot of time!

Now, I’m not telling you this to stress you out (that’s the last thing we want) but just so that you are prepared. The best way to deal with this is simply to practice the NSAA past paper questions under timed conditions, as these will not be of a similar format to questions you have done before, say in your GCSEs or Year 12 exams.

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How the Section is marked?

Now, I’m only going to say this once: you should not expect to get full marks on this exam (or even to answer all the questions in the allocated time – I certainly didn’t!). As mentioned in ‘What is the NSAA Test?’, there is no Section 1 required mark on this exam in order to progress to the next stage of your application, the interview. You should just be trying to answer as many questions correctly as you can. 

Each correct answer gains you one mark, but crucially, there is no negative marking. What I mean by that is, if you get an answer wrong you get zero for that question, not minus one. This means that if you’re not 100% sure about an answer but you don’t know what else you would do to answer the question, or you don’t have time to try another method, put the answer down anyway as you have nothing to lose!

What you need to know 

As I have mentioned in my other articles about the NSAA exam, Cambridge very helpfully provides a specification which tells you everything you need to know and understand for the exam, broken down by section. All of the mathematical knowledge from part A (mathematics) is assumed for parts B, C and D, but this doesn’t really make a difference since every student is required to answer part A questions as well. 

You should also make sure you are familiar and comfortable with the use of SI units (standard units for scientific quantities), as well as how different SI units are linked and inter converted. Candidates should also be happy with the use of SI prefixes, such as milli- or kilo-, and what these mean, in addition to the use of negative indices, like ms-1 instead of m/s. There is a list of the SI prefixes expected contained in the specification, but it is from giga- down to nano-.

You can find the specification on the Cambridge website, or via this link, as well as some more example NSAA Section 1 questions.

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    My most important NSAA Section 1 tips:

    1. Practice the NSAA past paper questions under timed conditions

    Remember that you have one minute and 30 seconds per question in this section, so my advice would be to think about and work at a question for a minute, and if you have absolutely no idea how to approach it, move on, but if you’re halfway through solving it or think you know what to do, carry on with that question. You can find the NSAA past paper questions on the Oxbridge Mind website or on the Cambridge website here.

    I would also like to say, take this with a pinch of salt. You aren’t restricted to one minute and 30 seconds, and some questions will take you a bit longer to answer, or a little bit less time, so you should average out okay as long as you aren’t taking longer for every question. What I’m trying to say is, don’t be completely rigid with timing, as you should be focussing on answering questions during the exam not on sticking to one minute 30 seconds per question!

    2. Practice Mental Maths

    As I mentioned above, you are not allowed a calculator for this exam, which means all calculations need to be done in your head or with a pencil and paper. If this is something you think you might struggle with, I would recommend practicing your mental maths separately to answering NSAA past paper questions. There are lots of websites available which help you to practice quick-fire mental maths questions so have a go!

    3. Decide which subject you will answer questions on before you get to the exam

    By all means, if you like (and are equally good at) both chemistry and biology, for example, practice the NSAA past paper questions for both subjects, in fact I would recommend it! However, given the limited time on the day, I would recommend deciding in advance which of the two (or three if you’re multi-talented!) you will answer the questions on in the real thing. You will not have time to look through the questions trying to pick which ones you like best on the day, nor can you answer a mix of the two subjects, so be prepared to go in knowing which subject you are answering.

    I hope you now feel more prepared to tackle the NSAA Section 1! If you want more information about the NSAA in general, including my top tips, check out the articles below:

    What is the NSAA?

    NSAA Top Tips

    And if you feel ready to start tackling Section 2, you can find more information in the article NSAA Section 2.

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