What is the PBSAA?
PBSAA stands for the Psychological and Behavioural Sciences Admissions Assessment.It is a Cambridge College registered assessment that was introduced by Cambridge University in recent years, in order to help them test some of the core skills necessary to thrive there. It is designed to be challenging, so that it can help them determine who should be invited to interview. Therefore it is an integral part of the application process.
Which courses require you to take the PBSAA?
The PBSAA is only for students applying to study the Psychological and Behavioural Sciences (PBS) undergraduate course at Cambridge University. It is only taken by students applying to certain Cambridge colleges.
Colleges that require applicants to take the PBSAA assessment:
- Gonville & Caius
- Hughes Hall
- Murray Edwards
Colleges that do not require applicants to take the PBSAA assessment:
- Corpus Christi
- Lucy Cavendish
- Peterhouse (which does not offer PBS as a subject)
- St. Catharine’s
- St. Edmund’s
- St. John’s
- Sidney Sussex
- Trinity Hall
The PBSAA is often confused with the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA), which is taken by students applying to the following courses:
Oxford: Experimental Psychology, Geography, Human Sciences, Philosophy and Linguistics, PPE, Psychology and Linguistics, and Psychology and Philosophy
Cambridge: Land Economy
What is the PBSAA format?
The format of the PBSAA differs depending on the college. Each college will send out information about the assessment before the interview, and some list more information on their website. Assessments usually last around one hour, split into different sections or tasks.
The PBSAA often includes short answer questions and/or an essay question based on a prompt.
The shorter questions often ask students to critically engage with an experiment or data set, or a description of a specific topic from the field of psychology. This is usually the shorter section when accompanied by an essay section.
Essay questions often make up the longer section of the assessment, when present. Students are given some sort of prompt, such as a quotation or premise, and asked to write an essay discussing the main idea of the prompt.
What are colleges looking for?
Much like with interviews, colleges are looking for students who can think clearly about complex problems, with the ability to weigh up different possible explanations and account for possible counter-arguments. They should be able to formulate a coherent argument based on their critical interpretations of what they read and hear, and communicate their ideas effectively. Ultimately colleges use the PBSAA to determine which students are most interested and engaged with the subject, and who would be the best fit for the rigour and focus of the PBS course.
How difficult is the PBSAA?
The PBSAA is designed to require no specific previous knowledge. Therefore it tests implicit reasoning skills that any student would have been able to develop during school and through their own independent learning. In that sense, anyone has a chance of doing well at the PBSAA.
However, that does not mean that this is an easy assessment, or that it is easy to get an offer. In 2022, there were 939 applicants to study PBS at Cambridge, of which 102 were offered a place to study. This means that just over 10% of applicants were given an offer last year.
That said, there are definitely ways of improving your chances of being offered a place to study PBS. These will be covered in the section below.
What is the best way to prepare for the PBSAA?
For short answer questions, there are a number of ways students can prepare. Firstly, students should read as many scientific articles as possible, in order to familiarise themselves with their style, format, and terminology. This will also help students improve their knowledge of specific areas of the course, even though this is not explicitly required. Students that have not studied psychology before might find this a daunting task at first. However, they can start by descriptions of articles written by creditable sources such as the British Psychological Society, who publish a regular research digest on their website.
When reading articles, students should pay particular attention to the design of the experiment, the chosen methodology, and the data gathered. It is important to engage critically with the experimental design, and ask questions about the choices made by the researchers.
For example: why did the researchers choose this design? Is this the most appropriate choice given the subject of the experiment? Are there any better alternatives? Are there any flaws in this experiment? How could these be improved if the experiment was to be run again? Is there any potential for bias? Are the variables well-defined? Can you identify the independent and dependent variables? Are there any confounding variables? Are the findings significant?
Answering these questions will improve a candidate’s critical and analytical skills, which are the basis of a strong performance in this assessment. Often, there is no right or wrong answer, and the candidate is being assessed on how well they build a cohesive argument.
For essay questions, students can use practice questions from section 2 of the Thinking Skills Assessment, because the questions are very similar. They can also get additional practice by writing timed essays on randomly-chosen, quotations from literature or history, although they should in some way be relevant to content covered in the PBS course.
Where can I find practice tests and past papers for the PBSAA?
Practice papers for the previous format of exam are available here. Please note that the current PBSAA assessments might differ significantly from the previous papers, but these might help candidates to brush up on certain skills relevant to the course.
TSA past papers, which can be used for additional practice, are available here.