The university application process; full of unanswered questions, sometimes confusing terminology, and often, some fairly vague definitions. This article doesn’t aim to tackle all the queries you may have about the process but should hopefully provide an insight into a particular type of offer you may see from a university: a contextual offer.
Although not all universities provide contextual offers, they are typically when a university lowers their grade requirements for a particular applicant based on outside influences* that may have negatively affected the applicant’s academic progress thus far. For example, a university may lower their grade requirement of AAA to ABB, when using A-Levels as an example. Some (not all) considerations that a university might make are listed below** (more are discussed throughout the article):
- The school or college an applicant attended
- The postcode or region when an applicant lives
- Whether the applicant is a carer
- Whether the applicant’s parents went to university
- The applicant’s financial situation
- Many other factors to be discussed within this article
(*) All considerations that a university make for an applicant are kept strictly confidential. A contextual offer is just as “legitimate” as any other offer.
(**) This short list has been paraphrased from Binda Patel’s fantastic summary on the topic over on the UCAS website, which you can find here.
Are you eligible for a contextual university offer?
Whether you are eligible for a contextual offer is, as you may guessed, entirely depended on which university you apply to. Although UCAS often supply the university with any contextual information regarding a particular application, they aren’t the one making the offer. This means it is entirely down to each specific university to assess negative influences and divvy out contextual offers based on their own assessment of a candidate.
As each university has their own unique set of considerations that they take into account when making contextualised offers, there is simply no single answer that can be given to this question. That said, I’ve listed some typical “contextual requirements” that are generally checked by universities. Alongside each one, I’ve linked to a university page that explains the requirements in more detail.
|Consideration||Explanation||Example of an Associated University*|
|You attend an aspiring** state school or college.||If you attend a poorly performing school, a university may take this into account as your academic progress may have been stunted by environmental factors outside of your control.
More on the term “aspiring school” below (see **).
|University of Bristol|
|A low proportion of people in your home postcode transition into higher education.||Your home postcode (as listed on your UCAS form) is defined as a neighbourhood where a low proportion of students transition into higher education.
This is typically determined by POLAR4 data (usually quintiles 1 and 2 on the map you can view here) and in the case of Newcastle University, you can check your specific postcode for eligibility here.
|You have been in care for an extended period of time.||If you have listed on your UCAS form that you have been in care for three months or more, the University of Southampton will take this into account.||University of Southampton|
|You are currently eligible for free school meals or have been in the past few years.||Many universities will take into account whether you are currently eligible for free school meals.
The University of Cambridge is no exception to this and takes into consideration whether you are currently eligible for free school meals or you have been in the past 6 years.
|University of Cambridge|
|You are the first generation in your family to go to university.||If your parents or guardians have not attended university (as declared on your UCAS form), this may be considered by universities when deciding on whether to give you a contextual offer.||Aberystwyth University|
|You are seeking asylum or have been granted refugee status.||If you are currently seeking asylum or have been granted refugee status with indefinite leave to remain, the University of Warwick deem you to be eligible for a contextual offer without having to meet any other contextual requirements.
You can check out more of the University of Warwick’s contextual offers on the link to the right.
|University of Warwick|
|You are eligible for an access program.||Some universities have specific access programs to try to encourage disadvantaged or specific types of students to apply to their university.
Each access program usually has different requirements and often has its’ own application process separate from UCAS.
|University of Leeds|
(*) which takes into account the particular consideration.
(**) The term “aspiring school” is simply a kind way of saying poorly performing school. An aspiring school, as the University of Bristol define it at the time of writing, is a school who has ranked in the bottom 40% in performance-related metrics for the current year, such as progression to higher education or average attainment.
It is important to note that the list above is not comprehensive and there are many more considerations universities make. It is important to check each of your applied university websites for more information regarding contextualised offers.
How do you apply for a contextual offer?
You don’t necessarily have to worry about the question of whether you are eligible and how to apply. The reason I say this is because contextualised offers are typically made to applicants automatically and without any form of application process.
If you’re in any doubt of this, take it from Doug Jennings over at the University of Bristol who said to UCAS the following (check out UCAS’s article on the topic here): “Applicants who are eligible for a contextual offer are flagged in our student records management system automatically, using information taken from their UCAS form (school code, postcode, and time spent in care), or flagged on our system by a member of the widening participation team, if they have taken part in an outreach programme. If they are made an offer, it is automatically at the contextual level and a bespoke set of communications are triggered.”.
Yes, that’s right, you often don’t have to apply for contextual offers. They are simply granted to you if you are eligible. Remember that UCAS supply the universities with all the information required to check contextual information – therefore it is essential to fill in your UCAS form as accurately and as truthfully as possible. All contextual information is kept confidential between your university and UCAS.
If you’ve applied to a university via a method which isn’t UCAS, you may be required to provide information yourself and, in this instance, it is always best to check your prospective university for information regarding the process. Additionally, if you’re applying through a special access program, such as Access to Leeds, your application is unlikely to be automatic and action is usually required on your part. Again, always check your universities page for up to date and accurate information.