So you didn't get what you needed

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The Independent Online

When the envelopes arrive in mid-August bearing the long-awaited A-level results, many students have to cope with the disappointment of not getting the grades they needed to take up university offers. They also have new and serious decisions to make about what they should do next.

When the envelopes arrive in mid-August bearing the long-awaited A-level results, many students have to cope with the disappointment of not getting the grades they needed to take up university offers. They also have new and serious decisions to make about what they should do next.

The first thing for the student to consider is how they feel about their performance: do they still want to find a route into higher education, and what do they think were the main reasons for their disappointing grades?

In some cases, ill-health, family trauma or other exceptional circumstances at the time of the exams may be to blame, in which case a student needs to discuss the situation with a careers adviser and university admissions officer, and possibly think about retaking.

But for others the problem may have been lack of motivation, combined with a lack of interest in their A-level subjects. Choosing unsuitable A-level subjects is, unfortunately, an all too easy mistake to make.

The clearing service, operated by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS), is an obvious first port of call for many students who have not made the grade; in 1999 more than 60,000 people found university or college places in this way.

If you are eligible for clearing, you do not need to ask UCAS for details, but will automatically be sent a Clearing Entry Form by the end of August. Then you need to scour the official course vacancy listings, talk to your school careers adviser and start contacting the universities and colleges about the courses that interest you.

But clearing needs to be approached with a certain amount of caution. Jenny Wright, head of careers at City and Islington Sixth Form Centre, says: "There is an enormous amount of excitement and hyperbole around exam results and the ensuing days and weeks. Some students might feel they are being left behind if they don't find a course straightaway, and might be persuaded into a rash decision. Students need to look at what's around, talk to admission tutors and then pause, before they decide what to do."

She does not, as a rule, recommend that students retake A-levels because "our experience is that it very rarely makes a significant impact on improving grades".

Students with poor A-level results who lack focus and strong interests are probably better off postponing a decision on higher education. Three or four years is a long time to commit yourself to a subject you are not sure of; the number of undergraduates who drop out of unsuitable courses in the first year is growing all the time, which can have serious financial repercussions.

"For some students it might be better to leave it for a year to get some relevant work experience. Then they can refocus and reapply, putting the work experience on their UCAS form," says Jenny Wright. "That way, they are trying to take control back, rather than diving in and grabbing something and coming adrift later."

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