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Use of contextual data in the Cambridge admissions process

The information on this page was last updated in October 2023 and focuses on our use of contextual data for students applying in Autumn 2023 for entry in October 2024 (or later). Our Access and Participation Plan with the Office for Students for 2020/21 to 2024/25 pertains to these students. We frequently review our use of contextual data, so we encourage interested parties to check this page regularly.

The University of Cambridge is committed to ensuring that we offer admission to students of the highest academic potential, irrespective of social, racial, religious and financial considerations. To achieve this, every applicant is considered individually in an holistic assessment using all the information available to us. As part of this process, the University considers additional information that provides a more complete picture of the educational and social circumstances that underpin students’ applications, academic performance, and performance in our assessments. 

We believe it’s important to be transparent about the kind of information we use for this purpose and how it affects the selection process, and so this page sets out what contextual data we use in the admissions process, where they come from and how they’re appended to an application.

It should be noted that we don’t use contextual data to systematically make conditional offers at lower grades, or to make allowances for a poor academic record. This information is simply intended to provide academic assessors with the fullest possible picture of an applicant, and the context in which their achievements occurred.

We use up to three types of contextual data (where available) as a way of obtaining a more in-depth profile of an applicant: 

  • data on individual circumstances – whether an applicant has spent time in the care of a local authority (declared in the UCAS application), whether they have been eligible for free school meals (declared in My Cambridge Application or verified by UCAS), and any information provided in the Extenuating Circumstances Form (where submitted)
  • geodemographic data – the socio-economic characteristics of an applicant’s local area, and rates of progression to higher education in an applicant’s local area
  • school/college data – the GCSE performance, A Level performance, and recent history of offers to Cambridge or Oxford, of an applicant’s school/college

All the data we use are derived either from publicly available sources, the DfE, UCAS or from information provided by applicants in their application. These three types of contextual data are presented to our academic assessors in the form of several ‘flags’. This system enables us to assess applicants holistically, and may result in ‘flagged’ applications receiving particularly careful attention during the initial application stage.  These ‘flags’ are also used during the winter and summer ‘pooling’ stages of our admissions process, where applicant files are examined by other Colleges to ensure that the best applicants receive an offer of a place regardless of the College to which they applied or were allocated. Furthermore, some of these ‘flags’ have been used as part of our eligibility criteria for August Reconsideration Pool.

We believe that using contextual data in this way helps us to continue to encourage and support applications from well-qualified students, regardless of background. However, academic achievement remains central to all admissions decisions - ‘flagged’ applicants won’t necessarily be invited to attend an interview, be made an offer or be made a conditional offer at lower grades. 

Individual circumstances

Data about an individual’s personal circumstances are included in their applicant profile in the following situations:

  • when an applicant declares on their UCAS application that they have spent time in local authority care
  • when an applicant declares in My Cambridge Application or we are notified via UCAS that they are currently eligible for Free School Meals, or have been eligible in the last six years
  • when an application is accompanied by an Extenuating Circumstances Form

Where an applicant has informed us that they have spent time in local authority care or have been eligible for Free School Meals (or UCAS has notified us of the latter), a flag is added to their application. This is because research has demonstrated that students from these backgrounds are likely to have experienced educational disadvantage.

The Extenuating Circumstances Form is usually completed by an applicant's school/college if an applicant has suffered particular personal or educational disruption. If the school/college is unaware of the circumstances, the applicant’s doctor or social worker can complete and submit the form. See the information about the Extenuating Circumstances Form for further details and eligibility. A flag is appended to the application in order to inform assessors that there’s extra information for them to consider on the Extenuating Circumstances Form.

All applicants will be asked about the disruption caused to their education by the COVID-19 pandemic, so this does not need to be explained via the Extenuating Circumstances Form; personal disruption (such as resulting caring responsibilities or bereavement), should be, however.

Geodemographic data from postcodes

Geodemographic data provide information to assessors on the socio-economic characteristics prevalent in the area in which an applicant lives. We use three kinds of geodemographic data:

  • Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) – measures produced by regional governments within the UK that identify relative deprivation. Areas within each region are assessed according to a series of indicators – such as income, crime, and healthcare – and then ranked against each other and placed into deciles. Students are given a flag if their home postcode indicates they live in an area that is ranked in the bottom 40% of their region by these measures.
  • Output Area Classification (OAC2011) – a classification of areas produced by the Office of National Statistics using data from the 2011 census. Since 2014, the Cambridge Admissions Office has conducted research into how these classifications interact with underrepresentation at Cambridge and other indicators of socio-economic and educational disadvantage including household income and parental occupation. This research allows us to flag applicants whose home postcodes indicate they are resident in areas with less advantaged socio-economic characteristics and/or low progression to the University of Cambridge.
  • Participation Of Local Areas (POLAR4) – a measure originally developed by HEFCE which ranks areas based on the rate at which young people have historically progressed to higher education. These ranks are then used to divide areas into quintiles from 1 (least represented) to 5 (most represented); the quintile of a student’s home postcode is indicated against their application. 

Our use of these geodemographic data in our contextual flagging system has been developed in light of research conducted by the Cambridge Admissions Office over several years. However, the University recognises that communities are not uniform, and that the geodemographic classifications associated with an applicant’s postcode may not accurately reflect their individual circumstances. Therefore, we take great care in the way in which we use this information, and don’t consider it in isolation from the rest of the application.

For further information about the IMD measures used in each region as well as OAC2011 and the POLAR4 classification, and resources where you can find out the POLAR4, OAC2011 and IMD2019 classifications of most UK (or English) postcodes, please see the 'Related links' on this page.

Information on schools/colleges

We use three types of information about an applicant’s school/college to supplement their application, of which two are used to produce flags:

  • the typical GCSE performance of pupils at their GCSE school/college
  • the typical A Level performance of pupils at their A Level school/college
  • the regularity with which their post-16 education school/college sends successful applicants to the University of Cambridge or the University of Oxford

These data provide an indication of the context in which qualifications have been achieved, and the amount of experience teachers and advisers in a school/college may have of the University’s application process.

Information on school/college performance at GCSE is produced by researchers within the Cambridge Admissions Office using data from the Department for Education’s (DfE) National Pupil Database, which includes data about educational providers in England only. This information is used in several ways by our admissions assessors to contextualise an applicant's academic record in relation to the typical performance of students at the institution in which they were prepared for GCSE examinations.

The first type of GCSE performance information produced for each school/college is a mean ‘sum of best 8 GCSE score’ (out of maximum possible 64). With exceptions for some schools/colleges*, these school/college data are used in two ways:

  • Firstly, if the GCSE performance of an applicant’s GCSE school/college is relatively low (i.e. below the median), a ‘lower-performing GCSE school’ flag is appended to their application to indicate this.
  • Secondly, this information is taken into account in an 'adjusted GCSE score', which we produce for each applicant – this is most often a simple count of their A*/8/9 grades at GCSE, but for pupils from schools where the mean ‘sum of best 8 GCSE score’ is below 40, 7/A grades are also taken into account (on a sliding scale depending on how low the school’s mean ‘sum of best 8 GCSE score’ is).

The second type of GCSE performance information produced for each school/college is GCSE performance quintiles. The measure of GCSE performance for each pupil in this case is their 'mean GCSE score', from which the school quintiles are derived. These data are produced for all types of school/college, although not for those with fewer than 30 GCSE-taking pupils. Where possible, these GCSE performance quintiles for each GCSE school/college are used to contextualise an applicant’s GCSE performance relative to the typical GCSE performance at their school. This might, for example, indicate that an applicant’s GCSE performance is in the top fifth (top 1-20%) of GCSE performances at their school, or that it is in the second lowest fifth (top 61-80%).

Information on school/college performance at A Level is provided by the DfE. This can give academic assessors greater insight into an applicant’s KS5 study, but it is not used to create a flag or other metrics in the same way as GCSE data.

The experience a school/college has of the application process at Oxford and Cambridge can also make a difference to the guidance it is able to give to applicants. Therefore, we flag applicants from post-16 schools/colleges where fewer than five students have been made an offer by these Universities over the past five years. This isn’t a measure of the quality of the school/college or the relative performance of an applicant. Instead it makes our assessors aware that the applicant's school/college may be less able to advise them on applying to Cambridge and to prepare them for the interview process.

In contrast to the geodemographic contextual data we use, which are available for all countries in the UK, we note that the GCSE and A Level performance school/college data we use are only available for schools/colleges in England (from the DfE). Our Admissions Tutors are all aware of this fact, and that as a consequence our ‘lower-performing GCSE school’ contextual data flag cannot be appended to applications from applicants from all parts of the UK. (This is one of the reasons why this flag is not part of our criteria for the August Reconsideration Pool, whereas our flag for applicants from schools/colleges where fewer than five students have been made an offer by Oxford or Cambridge in recent years is, as this data is available regardless of country.) Although this means we are not able to contextualise the GCSE attainment of our applicants from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the same way as we can that of most English applicants, applicants from these countries (unlike English applicants) usually benefit from being able to provide detailed information about their more recent attainment in AS levels or Scottish Highers.

(*The exceptions for which these data are not used are where the GCSE school/college is: i) one with fewer than 30 GCSE-taking pupils, ii) in the Independent sector and with a low mean ‘sum of best 8 GCSE score’ below 40 out of a possible 64, or iii) an FE or Sixth Form College. These are excluded due to issues with data reliability and/or interpretation.)

New Widening Participation Questions via UCAS

UCAS will be asking a range of additional widening participation questions from this admissions cycle onwards. Our Admissions Tutors will review this data during the first year of provision and consider further how it may be used in future admissions cycles.