University Prospects: Take your stand by the telephone: Karen Gold offers some advice for those who are in the race to get to college but have not been offered a cast-iron place

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OFFICIALLY, clearing does not start until vacancies are published in the Independent on Wednesday. Unofficially, the starting pistol has already been fired. Supportive schools and parents will be urging students with disappointing A-level results to try for alternative universities. Telephone lines will already be burning.

The first thing for anyone unsure of whether their chosen course will take them is to find out the facts. If you have missed your offer from your firm insurance university by more than six A-level points (two points each time you drop a grade), then you are unlikely to be lucky. Your university should have made up its mind or else be very close. Phone to find out so you can start making new plans.

If you are down by one or two grades, you may have to wait longer. Universities are under pressure to recruit exactly the right number of students this year. They may want to hold on to you for a few days before deciding. You have to decide whether to put them under pressure, or wait for what could be a disappointing answer. Keep ringing until you know where you stand.

The next few days are crucial for anyone without a cast-iron place. You need to be a mixture of researcher and entrepreneur. As researcher, you should be looking through the UCAS handbook and university and college prospectuses, picking out interesting-sounding courses requiring A-level grades similar to the ones you have actually attained. Then you will be ready for Wednesday, when vacancies are published in the Independent and also on the database ECCTIS 2000.

As entrepreneur, you should be chasing up possible places even before vacancies come out. Many colleges keep an official 'waiting list' of students they would have liked to have taken but had to reject. Keen applicants can try ringing them, particularly if your grades are close to the asking requirement.

Some courses advertise vacancies: do any appeal to you? Have you thought of a modular or combined studies course, or courses with an

element of science which often find it harder to attract students?

It may even be worth trying quite prestigious universities: the distribution of applicants is so patchy this year that colleges everyone assumes are full may actually be looking for students.

Help should be available in your school or college. If not, go to your local careers officer. The BBC is broadcasting advice on Radio 4 (11.15pm - 12am today and Wednesday) and on BBC 2 at 6.40pm today. A BBC helpline is also running until Friday: 0500 505050.

You cannot be officially accepted on to a course until you receive your clearing 'passport' or Clearing Entry Form (CEF) from UCAS. But many CEFs will not arrive until next week and admissions tutors will accept that the CEF may still be in the post. This is the point where anyone who has met their offers but wants to 'trade up' to a different university stands a chance of persuading an admissions tutor to take them. But it is a high-risk move.

UCAS issues strict advice to universities, saying not only are they banned from poaching students, but they should refuse to release students who might be trying to leapfrog to a more prestigious institution.

But where UCAS can punish, even ban, universities, it has no sanctions against individual students.

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