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Time to be decisive

UNIVERSITY AND COLLEGE COURSES Grades disappointing? Don't panic. Karen Gold explains how to size up your options
"I think people are going to have to be quick off the blocks. They should be on the phone the day A-level results come out. While people shouldn't panic and take the first thing they're offered, it might not be wise to gather a sheaf of offers for 10 days before deciding which one to take."

So says Steven Kendall, head of admissions at Luton University. For anyone who had disappointing A-level results on Thursday this can seem a conundrum. Do rush - but do not rush into anything!

The solution is to have clear priorities. Priority No 1: Will your first choice or backup choice of course still take you? Ring and find out. They may say "yes". More likely you will be asked to wait a few days. Do not hang around: start making your back-up plan, even though you may never have to use it.

Priority No 2: Decide what other courses you would enjoy instead. That might take you minutes, if you already had a back-up plan. But it might take several days of seeking advice. Take that time: the way you spend the next three years depends on it.

Priority No 3: Decide where you would like to go. A campus? A city? Near home? Far away? Don't make a snap decision.

Priority No 4: Swing into action. Official Ucas course vacancies are not published until Wednesday. (See below for details of vacancy information and helplines.) But if you expect or know your first and insurance choices have rejected you, and you have done your planning, you do not need to wait.

"We are expecting to fill some courses in the first three or four days," said Michael Brown of De Montfort University in Leicester. "If it looks clear that people aren't going to get into their first choice and they really want to come to us, then we will pencil them in. We can't commit to it formally, but we will keep a place open temporarily until they know for certain."

Having covered the first three priorities, what action should you take, and how quickly? It depends on where you want to go, and what you want to study. "Basically, the more popular the course, the more prestigious the institution, the more scarce the places are going to be," Mr Kendall said.

Therefore anyone with less than perfect grades needs a range of options. Start with the course you originally wanted, and the university or college where you wanted to do it. Will you change course, or location?

If you still want your original subject, use the Ucas handbook, prospectuses and guidance services to find other universities that might take you with lower grades. If you still want your original university, look through its prospectus to find other courses you would enjoy. Here you are a strong candidate: admissions tutors can look up your details and you can press your case.

Neither of these approaches may work. In that case, if you are determined to be a student next month, you need to be flexible. Which universities are similar to your chosen one? Did anyone make you a conditional offer that you refused? Can you go back to this option?

What courses resemble the ones you first chose? A quite minor change in title and content can make the difference between vacant and full. Biomedical science with business at De Montfort is full, for example, but biomedical science with chemistry has places. Architecture is full, architecture and urban studies has vacancies. Combined studies and modular degrees almost anywhere will have places, if you are prepared to study a mix of subjects as well as your preferred one.

Around 44,000 people found places through clearing last year: one in six of all new students. In mid-September last year, some tutors, admittedly mostly in science and engineering, were even ringing up schools asking if they had any sixth-formers wanting places!

Plan your approach, be persistent on the phone, take time to decide, but do not sit around.

Lucia's second choice: theatre studies in Ulster

Lucia Favarin, 21, Hampshire.

A-levels: Chemistry (U), English (E), Theatre Studies (D).

Initial plan: Drama school.

Now: Ulster University, BA Theatre Studies.

"I got accepted by drama school twice, but Hampshire turned me down for a grant both times, so I couldn't go. The second time it happened I thought I'd better try something else, so I applied for English and theatre arts courses through clearing.

"I could have gone to Sheffield, but I wanted to go somewhere different, somewhere I had never been before. I'd never been to Ireland, and at the time I applied it was before the peace, and people were saying: "You must be out of your mind." But I'd worked for six months in Israel on a kibbutz, so I wasn't that worried about it.

"The scariest thing was finding accommodation. There weren't any places left on campus, so I had to phone around and some people did seem a bit hostile. I don't know if it was the accent. But I found a house with six others on different courses, and it's worked really well.

"I can't say the peace has really made a big difference that I would notice, though when it happened I was very pleased. I was warned before I came over not to get into political or religious discussions, and when I arrived I really felt I stood out. But most people will talk to you, they're very friendly.

"Going through clearing was quite difficult. My A-levels were disappointing, but I'd say I got what I deserved, because I didn't work that hard. I was ringing round for about two or three weeks. You are at your wits' end trying to get them to answer the phone. You get through to different people and they haven't got the right answers and they want you to speak to someone who isn't there. But I thought something must come up.

"One of the tutors warned me that the course was going to be very academic compared with drama school. I think that was so I knew what I was in for, and because he was looking at my A-levels. But it's a lot more practical and easier than I imagined. I still want to act, but I'm glad I went to university now, because I'm really enjoying it."