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Undergraduate Study


Use of contextual data

In order to ensure that all applicants are assessed fairly and holistically, the University considers additional information that provides a more complete picture of the educational and social circumstances that underpin students’ applications and performance in our assessments. 

We believe it’s important to be transparent about the kind of information we use and how it affects the selection process, and so this page sets out what contextual data we use, 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 six types of contextual data (where available) as a way of obtaining a more in-depth profile of an applicant: 

  • 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 and recent history of entry to Cambridge or Oxford, of an applicant’s school/college
  • data on individual circumstances – whether an applicant has spent time in care at some point (declared in the UCAS application), and any information provided in the Extenuating Circumstances Form (where submitted)

All the data we use is derived either from publicly available sources, or from information provided by applicants in their application. These six types of contextual data are presented to our academic assessors in the form of six ‘flags’. If an applicant is eligible for a ‘flag’, the appropriate field is populated, and if not, it’s left blank. This system enables us to assess applicants holistically, and may result in applications being ‘flagged’ to receive particularly careful attention. There’s no disadvantage to unflagged applications; indeed, the majority of applications won’t receive any flags.

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 lower offer.

Geodemographic data from postcodes

Geodemographic data provide information to assessors on the socio-economic characteristics prevalent in the area in which an applicant lives. A flag is appended to the application if an applicant’s postcode indicates that they are resident in an area with less advantaged socio-economic characteristics or relatively low participation in higher education. We use two kinds of geodemographic data to identify applicants that live in such areas:

  • Output Area Classification (OAC) – a classification of small areas produced by the Office of National Statistics using census data
  • Participation Of Local Areas (POLAR3) – a measure created by HEFCE which identifies electoral wards with relatively low levels of progression to higher education among young people 

For further information about the POLAR3 and OAC classifications, please see the links provided below.

While OAC and POLAR3 can successfully identify segments of the population that are currently under-represented in applications to Cambridge, we recognise that geodemographic data don’t provide a perfect indication of the socio-economic status or likelihood of participation in higher education for a neighbourhood, and we realise too that the circumstances of an individual aren’t necessarily the same as those of the area in which they live. 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.

Information on schools/colleges

We use two pieces of information about an applicant’s school/college to supplement their application:

  • the performance of the school/college at GCSE level
  • the regularity with which the 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 application process.

Information on school/college performance at GCSE is prepared for us by the Admissions Testing Service, for English schools only. It allows assessors to see whether an applicant's academic record was representative of the educational cohort in the institution in which they were prepared for GCSE examinations. Therefore, we look at the average capped GCSE points score per pupil in the school/college, and, if it falls below 40 points (out of a maximum of 64), a flag is appended to an application.

Research undertaken by the Cambridge Admissions Office indicates that an applicant with excellent grades at GCSE from a below average school is likely to perform well in Tripos examinations.

The experience a school/college has of the application process at Oxford and Cambridge also makes a difference to the guidance it’s able to give to applicants. Therefore, we flag schools/colleges attended by fewer than five students admitted to 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.

Individual circumstances

We append flags to applications in two sets of individual circumstances:

  • when an applicant declares on their UCAS application that they have spent time in local authority care
  • when an application is accompanied by an Extenuating Circumstances Form

We flag applications when time has been spent in local authority care because of research that has demonstrated that looked-after children may experience educational disadvantage.5

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.

1. This is the average point score per pupil, capped at the eight best GCSE grades attained. On the scale we use, A* grades gain eight points and G grades gain one point.