It can seem like barely a week goes by without a story in the news which refers to a new “contextual admissions” policy which is being introduced at a well-known university. But what exactly are contextual admissions policies, and what do you and your students need to know about them?
Perhaps the best way to understand contextual admissions policies is to contrast them against a more traditional admissions process. In the past, there were only a small number of factors which universities would typically consider when making a judgement about an applicant. Obviously school attainment was a key factor, but universities would also consider the quality of the personal statement, UCAS reference and in some cases performance in an interview too. However as time goes by universities increasingly acknowledge that they need to understand more about the context in which an applicant’s achievements take place. This means that a wider range of different factors are now often being taken in to consideration in the admissions process.
When it comes to the pieces of contextual information that universities are most interested in, we can divide these in to two broad categories: individual level factors and school level factors.
At the individual applicant level, universities might consider the neighbourhood in which the applicant resides. They might be interested in average levels of university participation among young people in that area and also the average socioeconomic character of the area. Universities could also be interested in the level of education of an applicant’s parents and whether the applicant has been in the care system at any point during their childhood. They will also be interested to hear whether a student has taken part in one or more university outreach programmes, such as summer schools or mentoring programmes.
At the school level, universities could show an interest in the average level of attainment at the school or perhaps the socioeconomic character of the community which the school serves.
If an applicant is flagged by a university as part of their contextual admissions policy, how they are treated will vary from institution to institution, but in some cases they made be made an A level grade offer which is lower than that which would usually be made.
You can make sure that you support your students appropriately by making sure that all relevant contextual information is communicated to universities. Anything which can’t be included in the UCAS application itself can be raised in both the personal statement and reference. For an overview of the contextual admissions process at some of the UK’s leading universities, check out our contextual admissions guide on the Advancing Access website.
Paul is the Project Manager of Advancing Access, a teacher CPD initiative supported by the 24 Russell Group universities. He is also a postgraduate doctoral student at the University of Warwick where his research is focusing on Widening Participation in Higher Education.
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