University Entrance: How to survive a tough clearing season: Anxious applicants for university places could find this year's admissions round hard going. Karen Gold on ways to track down the right course

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The Independent Online
'THIS SUMMER is going to be appalling for many young people. UCCA will close earlier than usual and students will come cascading into PCAS (the clearing house for the former polytechnics). They'll snatch at offers because they're afraid everything will be gone in the next phone call. It's going to be like the stock exchange on a bad day.'

So says Frank Griffiths, deputy principal of Leeds Metropolitan University. His is not the only voice of doom. As the annual tornado of desperate would-be students hovers above the university clearing-house bases in Cheltenham, Tony Higgins, chief executive of PCAS, is hardly more sanguine.

'People with Cs and Ds will get somewhere, provided they are flexible about where they go and what they do,' he says. 'But people with Es who want to do arts and social sciences are going to struggle to get a place.'

If A-level students have been waiting in trepidation for their results, university admissions tutors have been just as scared. In their hands lies the bankruptcy of their college. If they overshoot recruitment targets set to meet new government funding limits and admit any students over the limit, there will be no money to pay for them.

Nevertheless, the reassurance for those who have successfully met their A-level offers is that, short of closing down courses, admissions officers cannot simply say a course is full. 'If you've met your offer and a university tries to say it has too many students and no room for you, then you immediately consult your solicitor and sue it,' says Mr Higgins.

But the good news ends there. Normally a dropped grade or two, even in top-flight universities, meets with a sympathetic response. Not this year. If an offer says minimum two Cs and a B for French, then a candidate with two As but a C for French will almost certainly be rejected.

That candidate with two As and a C is still relatively well qualified, and is probably holding an insurance offer for a less prestigious university or college of higher education. These 'insurance' offers are often not taken up. This year they will be. So the second-choice universities in turn will fill up - leaving no room for the least qualified youngsters who normally go into clearing.

Until the first clearing vacancies are published next Wednesday (25 August) no one knows what the outcome will be. The most pessimistic scenario is that all courses except science and engineering - which can never recruit enough students and where the Government has not restricted growth - will be full.

News that some former polytechnics have announced that they expect to have no arts and social sciences places in clearing this year has boosted that scenario. But it still seems unlikely.

Clearing is not just icing on the student recruitment cake. Last year 11,700 students found places through UCCA clearing and almost 30,000 students were placed through PCAS - enough to fill five universities. Almost a quarter of all first-year students on courses at the former polytechnics last year got their places through clearing. Unless the system is to slash recruitment by 25 per cent, then some of those vacancies must be repeated.

But there will undoubtedly be fewer openings than usual, and aspiring students must be be quick and canny to find them. Sixth-form careers advisers should be in schools today and tomorrow: before launching into the unofficial clearing ring-round, youngsters should be sure of consulting them.

'When the students come in and collect their results, I've already worked out who's missed their grades and whom I need to see,' says Tony Wells, head of the sixth form at Ingatestone Anglo-European school in Essex. 'We get them to write a simple, straightforward letter explaining why they haven't got what they should have done and saying they are really determined to undertake the course. That letter is there, in the university, by Monday morning. We find most of our students still get places in the end.'

The temptation for anxious applicants is to get on the phone to anywhere and everywhere at once. The urge should be resisted, says Margaret Kilyon, admissions officer of London Guildhall University: 'We get a lot of people ringing who, to be honest, don't seem to care what they apply for. They say: 'What have you got vacancies in?' It's such an important decision they're taking, they really don't want to go into a course that isn't what they expected it to be.'

In any case, universities may be unable to reply for several days. Applicants with the right grades for first-choice or insurance places have a week to decide which to take; tutors then have until next Friday (27 August) to calculate their vacancies. So while everyone should ring their first-choice and insurance universities, the next calls should wait until after research and advice.

Anyone with maths, science or engineering aspirations - including holders of arts A-levels who want to convert to science or engineering - can take their time here: even with a D and an E you will find admissions officers pleading for you.

But would-be arts and social science students will have to use their ingenuity. They need to look at combined studies courses and modular courses, particularly if they can manage a bit of science - ecology, astronomy and health sciences, for example.

They need to hunt down new courses that are not in the UCCA and PCAS handbooks but may be listed in supplements in careers libraries. They should consider HND courses as well as degree courses.

In past years the BEd teaching qualification has taken applicants with low grades, but BEds will be among the tightest courses this year, and that safety net no longer exists.

Having checked out courses that may interest them, would-be students will be better placed to begin ringing around. They should telephone if they have had a hint they may be on a reserve list. It is also worth ringing courses that are advertising vacancies in the press.

But there is no point in telephoning before clearing starts. It is far better to be well prepared for the published vacancies in the Independent and the Independent on Sunday, and on the electronic databases Campus 2000 and ECCTIS, which should be in schools and libraries.

BBC Radio 5 will be running an on- air advice service on 19, 20 and 23 August from 1.10 to 2pm and on 24-27 August from 1.10 to 2.30pm. The freephone helpline is open from 10am to 6pm from today until 31 August, on 0500 505050. At 9.55am tomorrow the ITV network will present an hour-long programme, Which Way?, backed up by a freephone helpline between 9.30am and 7.30pm, and 10am to 2pm on Saturday, on 0800 789100.

Remember that - particularly this year - admissions tutors will err on the side of caution before announcing vacancies. So there is a good chance that more courses will come into clearing in the more hopeful second week than seemed available in the disappointing first.

TEN TIPS FOR SUCCESS IN CLEARING

DO check your offer carefully

DO get advice from someone who knows you and the system

DO research and think before you ring

DO visit before accepting a place

DO keep on trying

DON'T take any old course

DON'T assume science is boring

DON'T be influenced by snobbery about diplomas or colleges

DON'T lie about your results or intentions

DON'T think you will never get a degree if you don't start at 18

ESSENTIAL DATES IN THE CLEARING TIMETABLE

Thursday 19 August: A-level results out

Friday 20-Tuesday 24 August: unofficial clearing time for obtaining advice, reading prospectuses, ringing universities

Wednesday 25 August: clearing opens - first vacancies published

Friday 27 August: deadline for universities to accept or reject candidates not meeting offer grades

Tuesdays, Thursdays, Sundays to 26 September: updated vacancy lists in the Independent and Independent on Sunday, and on electronic databases

Friday 1 October: clearing closes

(Photograph omitted)

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