A-level results day has come and gone, and with it the dreams of thousands of young hopefuls have been realised - or rudely shattered. So what happens now? Lucy Hodges weighs up the possibilities
A-level results are out. You have had a day or two to digest them and your offspring should have some idea of the route they want to take. If the results are worse than expected, you'll have to support an unhappy teenager through a period of crisis as well as contending with your own feelings of acute disappointment. The vital thing is to stay cool and persuade your youngster not to panic.

Talk to your son or daughter about their options and help them think things through calmly. There is no point in recriminations. This is a time to be positive, however bleak the world may seem. Your job is to stop them getting in too much of a state, and to give them enough confidence to get on the phone to their school for help, or to the university or college of their choice, to see if that elusive place is still theirs. Failing that, you may need to hold their hand as they throw their hat into the ring of Clearing to look for a vacancy elsewhere.

If your son or daughter does not have a plan B prepared in the event of poor results, it may be worth taking time to think carefully - even maybe to the extent of giving them a whole year out - rather than rush into a decision you could all regret later. Often it's tempting to feel something has to be done - that everyone else is going to university, so they must - but it's the students who make rushed choices who drop out.

Remember your child isn't the only one who has not made it: other students are in the same boat. But if they are determined on university this autumn and they have missed the place they were hoping for due to poor grades, then speed is of the essence and they need to enter Clearing quickly, prepared to be decisive.

In the event that he or she has done much better than expected, they have a couple of choices. They can try seeing if their first choice university is willing to release them from the contract. One or two of the gentlemanly ones will do so. Your offspring are then free to trawl upwards to a university course with higher entry standards. Otherwise they're bound hand-and-foot to the offer accepted. The only alternative is to withdraw from the applications process this year, and try again in a year's time.

GETTING ON THE PHONE

If their grades are lower than expected - even if they are downright awful - he or she must pick up the phone immediately and call the university whose offer was firmly accepted. "Some people say if you missed by more than two grades, don't bother," says Zoe Keeling, co-principal of Abbey College Birmingham. "But I think it's always best to bother. You can't lose. It's only the price of a phone call."

Some students are so shell-shocked they escape to the loo to cry. But it's vital they keep their emotions in check, says Claire Davies, director of studies at Davies Laing and Dick tutorial college (DLD) in London. "It's really important to get straight on the phone. Don't cry - and don't run and hide." Applicants shouldn't be put off if they can't get through. They may have to be very persistent, but it's worth trying.

Students should make the call themselves. A lot make the mistake of allowing a teacher or family member to make the call. That is particularly tempting for those who're very upset and prone to burst into tears, but the universities want to hear that the student is able to take some initiative. Phoning themselves shows maturity and commitment.

If a student can't get into the first choice, but has made the grades for the insurance offer, they don't need to do anything - they'll automatically receive an offer. Make sure when they do the phoning that they have pen and paper to hand, their UCAS number, the code of the course they've applied for and, ideally, their Clearing form.

CHANGING COURSES

When your offspring find their grades are not as good as they were hoping for and they ring their first choice, they may find they're offered a slightly different course that's less popular - for example, biological sciences instead of medicine.

If they're interested in this course, it's probably worth accepting it on the spot. If they dilly-dally they may find the offer has gone the following day. Martin Lloyd, principal of Mander Portman Woodward in Birmingham, advises students to target one of the top 20 universities on the grounds that the average employer would rather they'd studied law at one of the top universities rather than one of those further down the pecking order. They should not accept a place they don't really want: that way lies disaster, as students end up doing degrees they don't enjoy. They must think carefully about what they really want to do.

CLEARING

Clearing is the matching process that puts universities and colleges that still have vacancies in touch with would-be students who are still trying to find a place. They don't have to wait for the UCAS Clearing entry form to arrive before ringing around universities to see what they've got.

The UCAS Handbook will come in handy as it lists all institutions and courses. Otherwise check out vacancy lists running until mid-September in The Independent or look at the UCAS website (www.ucas. ac.uk). Don't forget, The Independent is the only newspaper carrying the official and comprehensive UCAS vacancy list.

When students are on the phone to universities, they should make a point of sounding enthusiastic, motivated and interested. And don't think they can only ring up about courses advertised in Clearing. If they're keen on a particular institution, there's no harm in saying: "Look, I see you have this course on offer, is there any chance you have a space as well in rocket science?" (or whatever). They shouldn't be afraid to be assertive. And they should call as many places as possible.

If they are made an offer on the telephone, it's safer to say yes. Some people say yes to a number of offers, but universities frown on the practice because it inconveniences them. Until the Clearing form has been sent in there's nothing binding anyone to any particular place. It's good to make decisions quickly if offered a place on the phone, otherwise the place may be given to someone else instead.

RETAKING

Retaking A-levels should not be undertaken lightly as it's tough, particularly if your offspring are opting for a short, 16-week retake. If they're way off their grades and know they could've done better, then re-sitting A- levels is probably a good idea. They can do so by going back to school or by enrolling at a further education college or a crammer, a private college that specialises in retakes, revision courses and A-levels .

But they should be aware that some subjects are much more difficult to improve upon than others. Essay or exam techniques can be worked on, so it should be possible to improve grades quite easily in arts and humanities - so long as they are prepared to work. Sciences are harder as they have to be sure to acquire a corpus of knowledge and they have to understand the concepts.

Crammers are expensive. It will cost pounds 1,000-pounds 2,000 for a short resit, say, September to January, or January to June, in one subject. It's worth the money if they know the course they want to get on and if they know they made a straightforward mistake, or if they simply have to re-sit a few modules.

It's much more difficult for medics, dentists and vets to go the retake route. That's because those fields are so competitive. These specialist schools tend only to take students if there were exceptional personal situations first time round, such as illness.

If your son or daughter is thinking of retaking, they should ring the university they're interested in and ask if they'd be considered if they redid their A-levels. That will give them an idea as to whether it's worth it.

GAP YEAR

Increasingly, universities like students to have taken a year out in which to do other things, and to grow up. They think that such students are a bit more mature and perhaps value their education a little more than those who go straight to university. "You only get a sense of what education is about when you stand back from it," says Claire Davies of DLD.

So, if your child has messed up their A-levels, a gap year makes sense, particularly if combined with retaking exams. It's always a good idea to do something that is related to their desired degree course. Admissions tutors are impressed by students who do voluntary or paid work at home or overseas. Students can see what's on offer by contacting organisations offering anything from paid work on farms or in hotels in Australia or Canada, to volunteering to teach in developing countries. There should still be vacancies at this stage.

Information on gap years can be found in 'The Gap Year Guidebook' (pounds 9.95), available from bookshops or direct from Peridot Press (tel 0171-221 7404). Youth for Britain (01963 220036) can also help.

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