if you think you might not have made the grade, it pays to have a back-up plan. Then you can crack the code of clearing
After A-level results come out on Thursday 19 August approximately 279,000 higher education hopefuls (going on last year's figures) will be relieved to hear that they have been accepted at the university or college of their choice. A further 120,000 or so, however, will be taking a deep breath and trying to decide what to do next. Many will opt for what is known as "Clearing".

What is Clearing?

Quite simply, the Clearing process matches unplaced applicants to available places. Whilst the acute disappointment of not getting one's grades after two years of slaving away (or not!) is very real, Clearing is not the mad panic that it is sometimes made out to be. The fact is that last year over 50,000 students found places through Clearing.

Who goes into Clearing?

There are three different types of aspiring students who are eligible for Clearing: those who did not get any offers through UCAS first time around, those who didn't get the grades required to get into the college of their choice, and late applicants - those who are pleasantly surprised by their results and decide to have a go after all.

So, what must I do?

You may already have a gut feeling as to whether you have passed your exams well or not. Don't bury your head in the sand if you think you have cause for concern. It does no harm to have a few back-up choices up your sleeve. It's a good idea to have done some research on where you might like to go and what you'd like to study if you do suddenly have to start making quick decisions.

Firstly, however, do not abandon all hope that the university or college of your choice won't take you. If you have dropped just one or two grades, it may be that they will accept you all the same. Try pleading your case. Universities want students who are committed and they are more likely to take those who have put them as first choice than those who are approaching them for the first time. If you do ring, do have all your reasons prepared - why you didn't do as well as expected, and why the course is just right for you.

Also be prepared for them to offer you a place on a slightly different course - environmental science instead of geography, for example - or a combined course with your subject. You are certainly not obliged to accept an offer on a course that is different from that for which you applied, but if you really like the institution, and the course does not sound that different, it may be worth serious consideration.

If you do go into Clearing you will need a Clearing Entry Form (CEF). This will automatically be sent out to you by UCAS if you do not get a confirmed place. The form will have a special Clearing Entry number which you will have to quote when you talk to institutions. If they are prepared to give you a place, you will then need to send them the original form - faxes and photocopies will not do. Colleges will offer you a PROVISIONAL place subject to receiving your form.

Extra information

Scottish Highers or CSYS results are published on 6 August. Vacancy Information (for Scottish vacancies only) will be available from 6 August.

A-level/AS results are published on 19 August and the vacancy information for all courses will be available from that day.

Applicants who meet the conditions of their firm (F) choice will be placed there. You cannot change your mind at this stage unless there are exceptional circumstances.

Official Vacancy Services will list institutions that have vacancies. In some cases minimum point scores will be given. If no scores are shown you will have to refer to the standard offer grades shown in the UCAS Big Guide or on the StudyLink CD-ROM or contact the institution and ask. Even if you have one or two grades lower it is still worth phoning.

If you have changed your address DO let UCAS know!