Course Guidance / Vacancies: Clearing up a few things: It pays to develop a strategy from the outset of the race, says Karen Gold

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THE WAITING is over: official clearing begins today. It feels like a real race, with thousands of tense candidates unable to start until the moment course vacancies are out. In this race there are two overriding imperatives: to avoid accidents and to have a plan for taking the quickest route to your objective.

To avoid accidents you need to know the clearing procedure. Both clearing systems operate an entry gate: you cannot enter clearing unless you have an Ucca or Pcas entry number, and you cannot get either of those numbers unless you have already applied through Ucca or Pcas, and been rejected for a place.

If you are holding a place in Pcas you can enter Ucca clearing, or vice versa. But if you are holding a place in Ucca, you cannot try your luck in Ucca clearing too. The same applies to Pcas. If you want to enter clearing and you have got a firm place, you must ask the university or college concerned to release you from it.

If you are eligible for the clearing race, then there are slight differences between Ucca and Pcas. Ucca sends out its clearing entry forms as soon as rejection is certain, so a lot of applicants have already received their Ucca clearing entry number. Pcas sends out as many clearing entry forms as possible to arrive this morning.

Some will not arrive for several days, held up in the post or because universities have until Friday finally to reject people. You cannot have a clearing entry number until you are definitely rejected. But you can speed up the process by ringing Pcas to ask for your clearing number the moment you are eligible (tel: 0242 227788).

The next hurdle is the vacancy lists. They are published in the Independent, and on electronic databases such as Campus 2000, Prestel, and Ecctis 2000, which can be found in public libraries and careers offices. Scan them to see where there are subjects that interest you, at colleges and universities that attract you, where you have the grades required. (In other years it would be worth trying a call if you were just below the minimum grades; this year it may be worth it for science and engineering courses, but pointless for would-be arts and social science students.)

Then contact the university, to see if tutors will consider you. You must quote your clearing entry number when you ring. If they want you they will tell you what to do with clearing entry forms and 'Q' requests and other bureaucratic paraphernalia. They know that procedure; you don't need to. What you do need, to maximise your chance of getting to that point - almost certainly the finishing line - is a strategy.

Strategies need to be developed before you start, not on the hoof. So even though time is short, take a little to decide on yours. First, carefully select the vacancies you want to pursue. Look as widely as you can: statistically, more students get clearing places on combined subject degree courses than on single subject honours courses, and more find them at colleges than universities. But do not snatch at courses you do not really want.

Secondly, be sure of what you are pursuing. 'People need to check the course codes against the prospectus to see exactly what the course is,' urges Margaret Kilyon, admissions officer for London Guildhall University. 'It's a real shame if people have a lot of trouble getting through to us on the phone, and then they find the course isn't what they thought.'

Thirdly, decide how to follow up your inquiry. When you ring, if you like the sound of a course, and you have the right grades, some universities ask for your entry form, others for you to send them more details. A visit at this point will not only speed up the process but enable you to spy out where you may spend the next three years.

'If students are prepared to come in, they can complete an admissions form in the office and if an admissions tutor is there they may be able to see them,' says Margaret Kilyon.

John White, deputy vicechancellor of Wolverhampton University, presses the point more strongly: 'Go if you can. You need to talk to people there, to get a feel for the course.' On Friday the Independent will offer some ideas on the surprising variety of courses that may be available when you get there.

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