Why you need to know about contextual offers before you apply to university

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Entry requirements are not always set in stone. Find out how contextual admissions could affect your university application

When you’re choosing courses for your university application, you’re sure to have entry requirements front of mind.

These requirements spell out the grades you need to have (or be predicted) to have a chance of getting an offer. 

But entry requirements can sometimes be adjusted. Apply to a university that has contextual admissions and you might get a contextual offer. It’s something that could open the door to courses you thought were out of reach.

So what exactly are contextual offers? How do they work and, most importantly, how do you know if you might be eligible for one? We spoke to the experts at the University of East Anglia (UEA) to find out.

What is a contextual offer?

Contextual offers are intended to make university education more accessible to students who may historically have been less likely to go. 

With the standard admissions process, universities will focus on certain key elements of your application such as your predicted grades and personal statement. 

Contextual admissions add in a range of other factors. Elements such as the area in which you grew up and where you went to school could determine whether you’re eligible for a contextual offer. 

“Higher education should be for all,” says UEA’s post-16 outreach officer Rachel Hawksworth. “Many universities have contextual admissions as a way of making sure everyone has a fair chance of getting onto the course they wish to study.

“At UEA, we want students to be able to realise their full potential and reach their goals, and providing contextual offers allows us to help students achieve this.” 

How can I tell if I’m eligible for a contextual offer?

When it comes to eligibility, there’s no single set of criteria that’s used by all universities.

“Contextual offers are largely made to students from underrepresented groups,” says Gemma Standen, widening participation officer for mature students at UEA. 

“For instance, areas with lower progression to higher education or schools and colleges where fewer students move into higher-paid jobs or employment.” 

The best way to work out if you might be eligible for a contextual offer is to check the websites of the universities that interest you. If a university runs contextual admissions, you should find a page that explains eligibility - like this one on the UEA website.

How do I apply for a contextual offer?

You won’t need to do anything differently in order to put yourself forward for a contextual offer. Universities will have all the data they need from your application; if they choose to make you an offer, it will automatically be a contextual one. 

“UEA is one of many universities offering contextual admissions to applicants,” says Gemma. 

“If you are eligible, you don’t have to do anything further as this will automatically be applied if an offer is made. At UEA, we will also let students know that the offer they are receiving is a contextual offer.” 

How do contextual offers work?

Typically, a contextual offer will ask for lower results – usually up to two grades lower than the standard requirements. 

Sometimes, however, the grade requirements may stay the same but you’ll receive some other consideration. 

“Universities are aware that students will come from a wide range of backgrounds, facing a range of barriers that may make it more difficult for students to meet the entry requirements,” says Rachel. 

“Universities consider these barriers that students face and if eligible, can make applicants an offer to reflect a student’s circumstances.

“This could be a reduced offer with lower grade boundaries or even a guaranteed interview for a particular subject.” 

How do contextual offers help underrepresented students?

The aim of contextual admissions is to support students whose backgrounds might limit their chances of going to university. 

“Universities understand that education is inequitable for some, with some students facing more barriers to learning than others,” says Gemma. “Contextual admissions recognises an applicant’s potential to succeed in the context of these barriers.”

For one student who received a contextual offer after taking part in UEA’s ‘Preparing for Medicine’ programme, this was the confidence boost they needed. 

“As someone who came from a very untraditional background, I was scared that I wouldn’t stand out,” they say.

“But knowing that UEA believed that I was good enough for an interview and had what it took to become a medical student gave me lots of confidence.”

Additionally, contextual admissions can benefit the entire student body through increased diversity.

“Students who enter higher education should reflect the full makeup of society, with universities reflecting an inclusive and diverse range of individuals,” says Gemma. 

Do all universities make contextual offers?

Some universities don’t run contextual admissions. Others may only make contextual offers for a selection of their courses. 

Gemma suggests looking at each university’s website, to see if this is something they will offer. “Gather information on what contextual offers might be available to you in relation to your interests,” she says. 

“Check out entry requirements for the courses you’re interested in to see if there is information relating to contextual admissions.”

If you still can’t find what you’re looking for, you can always just ask.

“Don’t be afraid to call or email the university admissions team if you have any further questions,” says Rachel. 

About our sponsor

UEA is a UK Top 25 (Complete University Guide 2024) and UK Top 30 (The Times/Sunday Times 2024) university. 

We offer over 200 degree programmes and provide quality academic, social and cultural facilities to over 17,000 students. 

Between the Sportspark and high-tech labs, much-loved music venues and the quieter corners of our (award-winning!) parkland, UEA is a beautiful, vibrant place to live and call home. 
We celebrate diverse voices and backgrounds, and we stand for equal opportunity in higher education. Visit our website to find out more about our contextual admissions programmes.