Don't take over on their big day

Waiting for A-level results puts a huge strain on child and parent alike. But, as Amy McLellan finds out, there are ways to reduce the stress
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The Independent Online

"It's not just the waiting for the results that's hard," says Eve Coker, whose daughter Nadia is hoping to study clinical psychology at Surrey University. "It's also the last two years of having this miserable, bad-tempered teenager around the house."

Like anxious parents up and down the country, this working mum-of-two is counting down the days until Thursday.

"I'm trying hard to pretend I'm not paying attention to it, so as not to put pressure on her," says Eve. "I've tried to help her get it into perspective but she feels that the rest of her life hangs on these results. It's going to be such a relief when the results are in and it's all over."

Nadia admits her mother is coping better with the wait. "Mum's got a positive outlook and thinks it will be fine," she says. "I've just pushed it to the back of my mind and am trying not to think about it."

This is a common reaction. The modern education system is a treadmill of tests, coursework and exams. The last push, of 12 or more revision-intensive A2 papers, often leaves young people overwrought, says Linda Samways of Lewisham College in south-east London.

"It can be quite difficult for parents to keep close contact with how their offspring are feeling at this time," says Samways. "It doesn't help if parents are constantly worrying about the worst case scenario. Equally, it's unrealistic to say to a young person, 'What will be, will be', because they've been working for this for two years and it feels like everything hangs on the results."

As a parent, it's your job to be a calming, reassuring background presence. Note the italics. Be around to listen if your teenager wants to talk about the exams but don't interrogate them for a question-by-question commentary on their performance. Be prepared to run through "what if" scenarios if there are hints the exams didn't go as planned but don't come up with a detailed worst-case survival plan.

There are plenty of practical things you can do. Get to grips with the basics of the Clearing system, which matches students with vacancies. Check the UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admission System, www.ucas.com) website for details of how Clearing works or read the step-by-step Clearing guide in Tuesday's Independent.

Many universities already have an idea of which courses are likely to have vacancies during Clearing and have loaded these details on their websites. If your teenager is genuinely worried about their results, encourage them to do a quick trawl of some university websites. Just knowing there are plenty of interesting and exciting fall-back options can reduce the agony of waiting.

It also doesn't hurt to dig out the original UCAS application form - just in case. If your teenager does have to hit the phones during Clearing, the information on the original form can provide a basis for discussions with admissions tutors. And keep the UCAS application number and password (sent out with the acknowledgement letter from UCAS) handy to access the online Track system (on the UCAS website), which keeps students updated on the status of their application. (If the apple of your eye has lost these details, get them to check the UCAS website for instructions.)

If, come Thursday, the results aren't on target, take time for the news to sink in. Expect shock, anger, tears. This is a scary time but don't let your teenager rush into a decision they will later, at leisure and great expense, regret.

Assess the actual results. If your teenager is out by just one grade, they should log onto the Track system or call their first choice university. The university may still accept them on their first choice course or offer them a slightly different course.

If the results are way off the mark, then a more fundamental rethink may be required. Retakes may be one option, but remember retakes normally improve the result by just one grade. It may be time to consider less competitive universities or take a year out and re-apply for the 2006 intake.

Ana Kingston, head of admissions at Sheffield University, says students and parents shouldn't write off a 2006 application because of the incoming fees change.

"The financial arrangements are different in 2006 but they are not necessarily worse," says Kingston. "Many students will be better off with the new arrangements." Check the UCAS or Aimhigher (www.aimhigher.ac.uk) websites for more information on 2006 entry.

If your teenager does decide to enter Clearing, make sure they have access to a computer with internet access (to do some basic research) and a phone line (to talk to admissions tutors). Parents should encourage their offspring to jot down bullet points about why they are interested in a particular course and to ask questions (they're interviewing an institution just as much as they are being interviewed). Do not, however, attempt to make these calls on behalf of timid or absent children.

"Every year we get parents phoning up," says James Seymour at Aston University. "But admissions tutors have to speak to the student in person."

It's worth going to visit universities before committing to a place. Most institutions welcome parents on campus visits but remember you are not going to study here for three or more years: let your offspring ask the questions.

One last point: do everything in your power to make sure your teenager is around on results day. This is not the time for a hedonistic blow-out in Ibiza.

Lynsey Butler, now studying business at Bradford University, was convinced her exams had gone badly and so went on holiday over the results period.

"After the exams I wasn't expecting to go to university," says Lynsey. "I picked the results up late and they weren't as bad as I'd feared. So then I went into Clearing and eventually entered university two weeks late, which was quite scary."

This was a stressful time for the Butler family. But mum Brenda says it was important to focus on getting the best result from the situation rather than panicking. "You have to realise it's their life and not yours," says Brenda. "You can coax them but you can't push them. It's their decision."

Hopefully, of course, results day will bring good news. Your teenager has worked hard for those grades so make time for a celebration. After all, it's your success as well.

Dos and Don'ts for results week

Do

* A little quiet research into how Clearing works and arm yourself with some useful contact numbers

* Encourage your teenager to go into school or college to pick up his or her results.

* Focus on making the best of the situation. It's likely your teenager will be feeling awful and probably very scared about the future.

* Put things into perspective.

* Make time to listen, look up useful phone numbers and help arrange campus visits.

* Organise a family celebration when the time is right.

Don't

* Fixate on the worst-case scenario. Your anxiety will only pile pressure on an already stressed teenager.

* Wait for the results to arrive in the post.

* Get cross or hurl recriminations if the results don't meet expectations.

* Panic. This is a well-worn path: more than 35,000 students find places through Clearing every year.

* Take over. You can't convince admissions tutors to accept your child - and you can't convince your child to accept a place. This is not your life.

* Be offended if results night is spent celebrating, or commiserating, with friends.

'I had the best three years of my life'

Edward Sault, 21, took his A-levels at De La Salle College, on Jersey, receiving a C for English literature and English language, a D for French, and a B for his media studies AS.

I was all set to study journalism at Nottingham Trent, but I was a grade short in my A-levels. I was naïve. I thought I had got in, so I rang to say I hadn't got the grade, still expecting them to say yes. I was rejected. That was demoralising. I felt I had climbed the mountain and been kicked off the top.

My next-door neighbour came in and helped me. He had just finished his first year in Lancaster. I went onto the Clearing website. I didn't want to go to the south coast because it is so close to Jersey and there are so many flights. I would be far too dependent on home. But I wanted somewhere not too far north. I am a Southern boy and I would get cold.

I read the information about Lincoln University. I had started working for the BBC in Jersey when I was 17 on work experience while I was doing my A-levels. The day of my results, I went into the BBC and they were all huddled around the computer. We had a look at the websites. My bosses said, "You are not going unless we say so." One of them spoke to someone at Lincolnshire Radio who said journalism was a good course.

Because I went through Clearing, all the halls of residence were gone so I lived in an annex run by a private company. Then we moved into a student house. The day I moved to university there was a fire alarm at Jersey Airport. At London Victoria there was a bomb scare. It was a very stressful day. We had so many suitcases.

Between my colleagues here at Jersey and my tutors at Lincoln I was very well supported, the School of Journalism is really good. We learned from people in the industry. For example, Deborah Wilson, who was in charge of our radio course, works at BBC Radio Lincoln. I had the best three years of my life.

After my degree, I wanted to go back to Jersey. While I was working for my finals my boss at Radio Jersey phoned and said there was going to be a job available. "I recommend you go for it, but I can't guarantee you'll get it." My flight was booked for the Saturday, and my interview was on the Monday. I had my dissertation to finish, and halfway through my printer had decided to stop. I was completely panicking at this stage. One housemate printed it off. Another took me to Nottingham Airport. The job interview was very nerve-wracking. I thought I had really done badly. On Tuesday, I woke with a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. Then the mobile started to ring. It was my boss, who offered me the job.

Revision went out of the window that day, but I still wanted to work for my degree. Eventually I got a 2:1. It was emotional leaving but I will see my friends in September for graduation.

Interview by Anne McHardy

'I was guided through the process'

Dan Grierson, 24, is in his second year at Roehampton University, studying psychology and counselling.

I was born in Leeds. We moved to South Cumbria and then to Northern Ireland, and I went to school in both places. I made my first university application from Northern Ireland, and spent two years at Manchester Metropolitan University doing landscape architecture. After two years it got to the point where I realised it wasn't for me. I wasn't quite ready for university at that stage. The pace was a bit too hectic. I became a bit stressed with the whole thing. I sought help from the university counselling service, which was what got me thinking about counselling.

So I did a gap year. I worked for PGL, which is a children's outdoor organisation based in Guildford, in Surrey. I was trained to work with children and manage groups.

I decided to try university again, so I had a look through the UCAS handbook and saw this course. I read up on the degree and the course structure. I went around the universities of Chester, Glasgow, York and Roehampton. Basically, I decided that Roehampton was the best of the campuses and the best of the courses and they offered British Psychological Society undergraduate membership and were accredited by the BPS.

I put Roehampton down as my first choice towards the end of the summer, and went to visit the university. I talked to some of the tutors and within half-an-hour of chatting they said they would like to offer me a place. They were quite hungry for some male students and I think that's why I was snapped up, to be honest.

I had lived in halls in my first year in Manchester so I wanted to live out. I went in into private lodging in Roehampton, sharing with someone who had just graduated.

The whole process, from the first enquiry until Freshers' week, was incredibly customer-friendly. It felt mothering. I was guided through every stage of the process. They had very good correspondence. It was quite impressive.

The course in Manchester was very art-based. The course I'm doing now is a lot more people-centred. There is more interaction, understanding how people work and how to work with people.

I am a student ambassador. It means that I represent the university and go to fairs and colleges. I'm paid to give talks about what it is like being a student at the uni and give vocational guidance on coming to uni and on taking gap years. I am passing on my experience but also working within the uni.

I originally volunteered to show students around on Open Day and then was asked if I would be an ambassador. The summer staff had noticed that I was very good with people. I don't in any way regret my choice.

Interview by Anne McHardy

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