Contextual offers are when universities take into account applicants’ personal circumstances when considering each candidate. For example, a university’s normal entry requirements might be ABB at A-Level, but if you’ve attended a school with low progression rates to higher education or you’ve spent time in local authority care, they will lower the requirements to BCC. Over the last few years contextual offers have become common in UK universities.
The idea behind contextual offers is to make access to Higher Education more equitable for disadvantaged students. In deciding whether or not to make a contextual offer, a university will look at the wider circumstances surrounding your achievements so far. They’ll consider things such as where you grew up, whether you have a disability, or whether you’re entitled to free school meals.
If you meet their criteria, you’ll then be accepted onto the course with lower entry requirements than those usually needed, or sometimes the academic entry requirements will remain the same, but your application will be given special consideration. At the University of Oxford, for example, the admissions tutors look at your application and ‘raise flags as appropriate’; in some instances, ‘students with such flags will be strongly recommended for interview.’
How will my application be assessed?
Each application will be considered by the university on a case-by-case basis. By looking at your personal situation, admissions tutors will assess your potential to succeed on an undergraduate course.
Typical criteria for contextual offers
Not all UK universities make contextual offers. For those that do, each one sets its own criteria, but they usually include a few of the following:
You have a disability.
You’re a young carer. A carer is anyone who cares, unpaid, for a friend or family member who cannot cope without support due to illness, disability, a mental health problem or an addiction.
You’ve had your educational studies hindered by circumstances in your personal, social or domestic life.
You’ve been separated from your family.
You’re applying from an eligible school, college or sixth form. For example, if the performance of your school, college or sixth form is lower than the national average, your academic performance so far might be given special consideration.
You’ve spent time in local authority care. Very often, you’ll need to declare that you’re a care leaver on the UCAS form and have it confirmed by your referee.
You’re a refugee.
You’re a first generation Higher Education attendee (you’re the first in your family to attend higher education).
You’re entitled to discretionary payments or free school meals at school/college.
Some universities run an access, widening participation or outreach programme, and completion of this might make you eligible (contact the university to find out how to be considered for this on your application).
You live in an area with less advantaged socio-economic characteristics. This will usually be assessed using the POLAR or ACORN postcode search.
POLAR (Participation of Local Areas)
POLAR is a classification tool that groups areas across the UK based on the proportion of young people who participate in higher education. The most recent version of this classification tool is POLAR4, which is based on the findings of a 2017 report carried out by the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The report looks at how likely young people are to participate in higher education across the UK and shows how this varies by area.
POLAR classifies local areas into five groups - or ‘quintiles’ - based on the proportion of 18 and 19-year-olds from that area who enter higher education. Quintile one shows the lowest rate of participation. Quintile five shows the highest rate of participation.
A university that offers contextual offers based on a POLAR postcode search might, for example, give special consideration to applicants from the lowest two quintiles.
You can access a POLAR postcode look-up tool here.
ACORN is a classification tool that associates specific geodemographic profiles to individual UK postcodes. It was created by CACI – a market analysis and location strategy consultancy – to help people understand consumers’ lifestyle, behavior and attitudes, together with the needs of communities. It’s
widely recognised and used by both the public and private sectors to help with the effective targeting of policies, services and communications. Your postcode might fall into a particular ACORN group, such as group four (‘financially stretched)’ or five (‘urban adversity’), in which case you might qualify for a contextual offer.
Worth knowing: Sometimes a contextual offer will only apply if you accept the university in question as your firm choice.
How to search for contextual offers
There are plenty of contextual offers out there. The great news is that searching for them couldn’t be easier! Simply:
Log on to Unifrog and scroll down to Special Opportunities (you’ll find it under ‘Searching for opportunities’).
After clicking through, you’ll be asked if you’re interested in a particular subject. Most contextual offers aren’t limited to particular subjects, so you can select ‘No specific subject’ here if you like.
You’ll be asked if there are any opportunities that you want to exclude (e.g. those for students who have been in care). You can choose any you want to exclude or leave this section blank.
You’ll then be taken to your Longlist, where you’ll be able to view a range of contextual offers available to you. You can then filter your Longlist by particular circumstances that apply to you or rank your results:
Choose the contextual offers that you’re interested in, click ‘Next’ and you’ll be taken to your Shortlist, where you can view the details of each contextual offer and the university that’s offering them.
How to apply
For many contextual offers, such as those offered by Aston University and Newcastle University, your UCAS application will be assessed by the admissions tutors when you apply to the university and there is no need to do anything extra.
However, for others, such as the University of York Access Scheme, you will need to complete a separate application form and submit this to the University before, or at the same time as, applying through UCAS.
The details of how to apply for a contextual offer will be listed on your Shortlist; however, it’s always worth contacting the university in question to get more information, particularly if a separate application is required.