Education: Your Choice: Clearing your way to the best possible place: If you don't make the grades come August, there's still hope through the UCAS admissions system. But be careful how you use it

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The Independent Online
Will higher education clearing mean a frantic scramble for last-minute places this summer, or will it be a well organised operation? With careful preparation, clear information and sound advice you have every reason to expect good service from the system that you may not even need.

This is the first year of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) single clearing system for all institutions, but the process is well tried. During August and September 1993, over 13,000 applicants were accepted in the former university clearing system, and a further 30,000 applicants admitted through the former polytechnic clearing system. The UCAS chief executive for applications, Philip Oakley, is optimistic about this year's operation.

'There would appear to be considerable concern about the outcome of confirmation and clearing in 1994. I believe if applicants have been well advised, and made their 'firm' and 'insurance' choices sensibly, there will be no problems. The system is well prepared.'

The process is straightforward. Confirmation of offers starts as soon as university and college admissions tutors receive examination results. Applicants with at least the required grades will have their firm choices confirmed, but what happens if the grades don't match?

Grades that are close to the offer may still lead to a confirmed place on some courses. Or you may be offered a place on a different course, or a place for the following year. You are not required to accept this alternative offer, but you should consider it carefully. An alternative offer may mean a place on a very similar course, and at the university or college of your original choice.

Despite the supply of examination results to universities and colleges many days before you see them, the confirmation process can take a long time to complete and it may seem like waiting for exam results all over again. You become eligible for clearing only if you are unsuccessful at both your firm and insurance choice institutions. That's when UCAS will send a Clearing Entry Form, with detailed instructions. Then it's over to you to contact the institutions of your choice.

The Independent will publish the vacancy lists during clearing: the first list this year will appear on Wednesday 24 August.

It will be very reassuring to see so many vacancies, but you should use the lists with care before lifting the telephone. Check the codes and course details in the UCAS handbook, and in the prospectus if you have it. Find out exactly which course you are about to apply for, and which institution. Three years is a long time.

The ECCTIS 2000 computerised courses information service provides one of the easiest ways of finding that course information. You may have used the system earlier to choose your original courses, but many schools, colleges and careers offices now provide the additional ECCTIS Vacancy Information Service during August and September. Search the database by subject or location, list the degree and HND vacancies for that day, check the grades you require and see full details of each course that interests you.

There is no shortage of advice available. UCAS will supply full details of the clearing system. There will be regular broadcasts on local and national radio and television, freephone helplines and phone-in programmes. Tutors and careers advisers will be available at schools, colleges and careers offices. Many higher education institutions will have their own advisory services.

All this can turn into a full-time occupation for many days. Holidays booked for late August and early September could prove a problem: are well meaning parents or other relatives really the best people to deal with your place?

The one certainty of clearing is that there will be places available this summer, particularly in certain subjects. Universities and colleges want to ensure full courses, but they want to fill them with potentially successful students: clearing is still a selection process. Admissions tutors may become more flexible about grade requirements, but they still look for committed students with an interest in their subject, and some knowledge of the course they are applying for.

Understand the process, collect the information you need and seek advice to turn clearing into a route to higher education success.

1994 publication dates of vacancy information in the Independent and the Independent on Sunday:

Wednesday 24 August

Friday 26 August

Sunday 28 August

Tuesday 30 August

Thursday 1 September

Sunday 4 September

Tuesday 6 September

Thursday 8 September

Sunday 11 September

Tuesday 13 September

Thursday 15 September

Sunday 18 September

Tuesday 20 September

Thursday 22 September