What is the Philosophy Test?
The Philosophy Test is unique to Oxford and sat solely by applicants for the joint course of Philosophy and Theology; those applying for Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) or Philosophy, Psychology and Linguistics (PPL) instead sit the Thinking Skills Assessment (TSA). A 60-minute written paper, it is designed to test prospective students’ skills of analysis, inference, and argumentation. No prior study or specific knowledge of Philosophy is assumed, with the assessment instead best seen as the opportunity to showcase your abilities and write in a concise, rigorous, and coherent manner; however, a familiarity with the logical structure of philosophical arguments will be beneficial.
The Philosophy Test format
The paper is divided into two parts, A and B, with 30 minutes recommended for each section:
Part A: This comprises a short passage taken from a work of Philosophy or Theology, followed by two questions to test your comprehension. The first usually invites an explanation of a key aspect of the passage, written in your own words, whereas the second is more analytical, with a focus on evaluating the core argument advanced or answering an open-ended question around a theme relevant to the passage. In each case, your focus should be on writing clearly and concisely in response to the precise question posed, paying specific attention to the wording of both the passage and the question itself. This requires a diligent and measured approach, with a real emphasis on quality of answer as opposed to sheer quantity; waffle and obfuscation should be avoided at all costs! Typically, your answer to the second question will be slightly longer than that of the first, so this should be taken into account when allocating time to each.
Part B: The second section provides three questions to choose from, of which you must answer one. One of these will be centred around an aspect of philosophical logic, such as the structure of a valid argument, although once again no prior knowledge is assumed; an explanation for the relevant feature will be included in the question. You will then be invited to discuss how each of the statements in the question relate to this feature; for instance, are the arguments provided logically valid, and if not why not? The other two options will be more general essay titles across a range of topics: politics, philosophy, theology, sociology, and psychology have all featured. These questions are designed to invite a focused discussion and for you to advance your own answer, whilst anticipating and engaging with potential counter-arguments. This is a pivotal skill in studying Philosophy and Theology at Oxford, both in your own academic work and in-tutorial discussions with professors and fellow students. As 30 minutes is such a short span of time, conciseness and clarity are once again crucial to satisfactorily addressing the question posed.
How difficult is the Philosophy Test?
The Philosophy Test is designed to be challenging for applicants, so don’t be too concerned when looking over past papers if you struggle to think how you’d answer the questions at first glance. With that being said, the key skills tutors are on the look-out for are those which you’ll have practised across a number of subjects in your studies to date, such as critical analysis, inference, argumentation, evaluation, and conciseness. These, alongside ensuring the question is directly addressed and your points fully explained, will be the key to performing well in the Philosophy Test - and can be practised!
How important is the Philosophy Test?
The paper is just one part of your wider application, and so will be assessed in conjunction with your academic record, personal statement, predicted grades, submitted written work, and interview performance. However, given the high standard of applications and uniformly excellent predicted grades of prospective students, the test provides an excellent opportunity to show your capabilities in philosophical reasoning whilst grappling with unique and interesting questions. The structure of the paper and the skills targeted under timed conditions also give a small insight into the nature of studying Philosophy and Theology at Oxford.
Where can I find past papers for the Philosophy Test?
These can be found directly on the Oxford University website, with papers from 2014 to 2021. The website also features written guidance on the different question styles, written by an Oxford tutor, under ‘Preparation Advice’.
Tips for the Philosophy Test
Here are some useful tips for tackling the Philosophy Test:
Explain your points fully
When developing an answer in both parts A and B of the Philosophy Test, it’s crucial to clearly and comprehensively guide the reader through your line of reasoning. Asserting points without corresponding justification and explanation will leave your answer sounding undercooked, or worse, unable to be supported. This is definitely a scenario in which quality of point trumps quantity, especially in the tight time conditions of the test; you want to show the examiner how you can construct an intelligent argument, not merely rattle off some thoughts.
Philosophy and Theology are disciplines which centre on the skill of evaluation. Each point must be assessed through its strengths and weaknesses, with a clear sense of where you stand; this is no time for ambivalence. If you think a point made - in a passage, for instance - is feeble and open to a strong challenge, don’t be afraid to say so! Tutors will welcome a clear judgement of the topics at hand, as long as your views are adequately supported and developed in turn.
When developing or evaluating an argument, examples are incredibly helpful for illustrating your point. This is particularly true when writing about ethics, politics or sociology, and a well-chosen example can quite often perfectly capture the essence of what you’re trying to get across to the reader. These can be used in your analysis of different viewpoints, with a focused counter-example highlighting a notable problem, for instance.
Answer the question!
Whilst this may seem obvious, it is common for students to unintentionally stray from the core question and make points that are tangential at best or irrelevant at worst. Pay close attention to the question, particularly its phrasing and connotations, to ensure that your answer is tightly focused at all times. It’s also crucial to actually provide an answer - the examiner is looking for your viewpoint, so make sure you give a firm conclusion to the question at hand.
Overly lengthy sentences and filler phrases are often used to disguise a lack of understanding and clarity in arguments, and tutors are well-versed in spotting this. Stating your points clearly and concisely is hugely important, and the thrust of your argument should be quickly apparent to the reader. This also saves you time when writing, allowing for further valuable points to be made and developed.
Don’t sit on the fence
Like waffle, an inability to provide your own reasoned viewpoint betrays a lack of confidence in your argument. Phrases such as ‘maybe x’ or ‘it could be said that y’ are flimsy and vague, and so should be avoided in your writing. If you aren’t confident in your view, explain the nuances of the issue and why they limit the scope of your conclusion instead of hiding behind equivocation. It should also be noted that the questions you’ll be tackling are inherently tricky; that’s exactly why they’re so interesting, and what makes Philosophy and Theology such fascinating disciplines!
Don’t assert without argument
Phrases like ‘it is obvious that x’ or ‘clearly y’ are dangerous and smack of an underdeveloped viewpoint. They immediately invite the reader to challenge your unspoken assumptions. If you believe a certain point is overwhelmingly strong, explain why with a clear justification. By all means be confident in your conclusions, but be sure that your argument merits such confidence; don’t rely on the reader merely taking your word for it!
Don’t rely on jargon
Philosophy is abound with Latinate terminology and occasionally obtuse phrasing, but that’s no invitation to litter your writing with overly complex terms for the sake of it. Tutors are looking for clarity of expression and strength of argument, not evidence that you’ve memorised an Encyclopaedia of Philosophy; remember, no prior study of Philosophy is assumed. If you think a particular term is useful and it fits cleanly into your argument, then go ahead and use it, but technical vocabulary is never a substitute for clear analysis and robust evaluation.
Preparation for the Philosophy Test
There are a number of ways you can prepare to sit the Philosophy Test - a few helpful tips are:
Philosophy Test Past Papers
Naturally, looking back over historical examples of the test will be incredibly helpful. To maximise their utility, ensure you attempt the questions under timed conditions; this will provide practice in generating points with the clock ticking, as well as build confidence in expressing your views in a concise manner. You can also challenge yourself by attempting the questions you would have avoided in the actual assessment, rather than going for the more comfortable choices!
TSA Section 2 Past Papers
The Thinking Skills Assessment incorporates some essay titles that closely resemble those of Part B in the Philosophy Test, and so can be used as a further source for timed essay practice.
Introductory Philosophy Reading
Whilst no prior knowledge of Philosophy is assumed or required by the Philosophy Test, it’s certainly beneficial to dip into the subject through reading. I’d recommend Think by Simon Blackburn for an accessible introduction to the key themes and arguments, and The Pig That Wants to be Eaten by Julian Baggini which outlines 100 crucial ideas in the subject through short, engaging thought experiments, each accompanied by a few pages of discussion.
Stay up-to-date with current affairs
A slightly more unusual tip, but an important one; pay close, critical attention to developments in the world across science, politics, sociology, and religion. Ensure you are intellectually engaged with the pressing issues we face, considering your own viewpoints on these matters as well as those of others, and continually challenge yourself to evaluate their respective strengths and weaknesses. As the famous saying goes, “the unexamined life is not worth living”; adopting an inquisitive mindset is key to honing the skills of analysis and argumentation so pivotal to Philosophy.
Tutors for the Philosophy Test
Keystone has a range of specialist tutors who can assist students approaching university aptitude tests for Oxford and Cambridge University including the Philosophy Test. Our Philosophy Test tutors have extensive experience with the Philosophy Test, both through having successfully sat the test and then gone on to tutor it. Contact us to find out more.