A student with an offer and the required grades, but who decides not to accept it, should tell the admissions office at once. Those with grades better than expected can accept or reject offers already made of them. However, they cannot try for a place at what they think is a "better" university in the current year; they will have to wait until next year, and will still have no guarantee of acceptance. On the other hand, if they want to change courses, they should tell the university immediately.
Those with better results than expected, but no offer, should ring the admissions tutors at any institutions which rejected them and ask them to reconsider.
Those with disappointing results need not panic. There are plenty of vacancies and most students will find a place on their desired course or one at another university or on an alternative course. However, they need to act quickly and may have a lot of telephoning to do.
Those who just missed the grades needed for an offer should at once phone the admissions tutor (quoting their Ucas number) to see if they can still be accepted. Most admissions tutors prefer students they have previously accepted rather than wait for the Ucas clearing.
However, bear in mind that admissions tutors have to "over-offer", knowing that some students will not get the grades needed. If enough people to fill the course get the required grades, admissions staff cannot accept lower grades. Those with two or more offers should contact the institutions in order of preferences. Students must be turned down by their first choice before they contact the next.
Those who get no offers need not despair. There is still the Ucas "clearing" process which matches unsuccessful applicants with unfilled course places. Last year this admirable system helped 52,248 people obtain places on degree courses and 8,288 on HND courses. Clearing starts on Thursday to coincide with the release of A-level results. Admissions offices send details of all their unfilled places to Ucas and the official lists of these vacancies are published, with contact phone numbers, in The Independent, on the BCTIS database (available in most schools or careers offices) and on Ceefax. However, the position changes daily.
Students must apply personally to institutions by telephone. That is most important. Stan Farrow, assistant director of admissions at St Andrews University, says: "We want to deal with the youngster, not the parent."
To make sure students are genuinely unplaced, and not just trying to change universities, they are normally asked for their personal "Clearing Entry Form" or CEF number. These are sent out automatically to all unplaced students. The CEF is valuable and should be looked after.
Having Highers results a week before clearing gives students in Scotland valuable time to assess their situation. They should be ready to start making applications as soon as clearing starts (and while A-level students are still coming to terms with their results).
Admissions tutors want to know a student's grades and may conduct a brief telephone interview. Pat McLean, admissions officer at Heriot-Watt University, says: "We look for evidence of students having done some research and that they have some knowledge of the university." James Brown, head of the admissions office at Glasgow University, says: "We look for a commitment to the subject area. We want to know why they are applying to us, if they have read our prospectus, and what differentiates us from other universities." He also asks students "why they didn't get the grades they expected."
If offered a place, students are likely to be asked for a quick acceptance. Students must be confident that they have chosen the right course. Once offered a place, they must send their CEFs (not photocopies) to the admissions office. This is to prevent multiple applications.
Some institutions ask students to telephone with their grades and discuss their interests. The institution will then send a list of the courses which appear to suit the student's interests, which will accept the grades earned by the student, and on which it currently has vacancies. This will be accompanied by leaflets and other material on the courses to permit an informed decision to be made quickly.
There are two useful sources of advice and information for students still uncertain of what to do. Staff in schools are often available during the few days immediately after publication of exam results and local careers services should be able to help.
Careers services, once run by local authorities, were contracted out under the last government and may be found under 'Careers advice' in Yellow Pages or by contacting the local education authority. Students whose results are not good enough for a degree course, and who are interested in a vocational subject should consider a Higher National Diploma. There is a huge range of subjects and an HND is well respected by employers.
Some students, discouraged by their results and now thoroughly put off further full-time study for the time being, enter employment. But this need not be the end to their aspirations to study for a degree in a few years' time.
Many employers are keen to recruit school-leavers with Highers and put them on to their management training schemes. These include many parts of the financial services industry such as banking, insurance and accountancy; national retail chains, the hotels and leisure industry; and the Merchant Navy and Armed Services.
Although few of these employers will sponsor employees through a degree course, many will guarantee a job for those who later on take leave of absence to take a degree as a mature student.