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How to win at the Clearing game

If your A-levels results didn't match your expectations, a flexible approach will help you gain a college place, says Karen Gold
"I think people are going to have to be quick off the blocks. They should be on the phone the day A-level results come out. While people shouldn't panic and take the first thing they're offered, it might not be wise to gather a sheaf of offers for 10 days before deciding which one to take."

So says Steven Kendall, head of admissions at Luton University. For anyone who had disappointing A-level results today this can seem a conundrum. Do rush - but don't rush into anything!

The solution is to have clear priorities.

Priority number one: will your first choice or insurance choice of course still take you? Ring and find out. They may say "yes" straight away. More likely, they will ask you to wait a few days. Don't hang around: start making your back-up plan, even though you may never have to use it.

Priority number two: decide what other courses you would enjoy instead. That might take you minutes, if you already had a back-up plan. But it might take several days of getting advice from your school or careers office staff, looking through prospectuses. Take that time: the way you spend the next three years depends on it.

Priority number three: decide where you would like to go. A campus? A city? Near home? Far away? A small college? A big university? Remember - you will spend three years there, so don't make a snap decision.

Priority number four: swing into action. Official UCAS course vacancies are not published until next Wednesday. (See below for details of vacancy information and helplines). But if you expect or know that your first and insurance choices have rejected you, and you have done your planning, you don't need to wait.

"We are expecting to fill some courses in the first three or four days," says Professor Michael Brown of De Montfort University in Leicester. "If it looks clear that people aren't going to get into their first choice and they really want to come to us then we will pencil them in. We can't commit to it formally, but we will keep a place open temporarily until they know for certain."

So having covered the first three priorities, what action should you take, and how quickly? It depends on where you want to go, and what you want to study. "Basically, the more popular the course, the more prestigious the institution, the more scarce the places are going to be," says Steven Kendall.

Therefore anyone with less than perfect grades needs a range of options. Start with the course you originally wanted, and the university or college where you wanted to do it. Will you change course or location?

If you still want your original subject, use the UCAS handbook, prospectuses and guidance services to find other universities that might take you with lower grades. If you still want your original university, look through its prospectus to find other courses you would enjoy. Here you are a strong candidate: admissions tutors can look up your details straightaway, and you can press your real commitment to their college.

Neither of these may work. In that case, if you are determined to be a student in September - and you could retake, take a year off, or look for a job - you need to be flexible. Which universities are similar to your chosen one? Did anyone make you a conditional offer that you refused? Can you go back to them?

What courses resemble the ones you first chose? A quite minor change in title and content can make the difference between vacant and full. Biomedical science with business at De Montfort is full, for example; but biomedical science with chemistry has places. Architecture is full; architecture and urban studies has vacancies. Combined studies and modular degrees almost anywhere will have places, if you are prepared to study a mix of subjects as well as your preferred one.

Forty-four thousand people found places through Clearing last year: that is one in six of all new students. By mid-September some tutors, admittedly mostly in science and engineering, were even ringing up schools asking if they had any left-over sixth-formers wanting a place! Plan your approach, be persistent on the phone, take time to decide but don't sit around - and it could be you.

case study: Lucia Favarin

Lucia Favarin, 21, Hampshire

A-levels: Chemistry (U), English (E), Theatre Studies (D)

Initial plan: Drama school

Now: Ulster University, BA Theatre Studies

"I got accepted by drama school twice, but Hampshire turned me down for a grant both times, so I couldn't go. The second time it happened, I thought I'd better try something else, so I applied for English and Theatre Arts courses through clearing.

I could have gone to Sheffield, but I wanted to go somewhere different, somewhere I had never been before. I'd never been to Ireland, and at the time I applied, it was before the peace. People were saying: "You must be out of your mind." But I'd worked for six months in Israel on a kibbutz, so I wasn't that worried about it.

The scariest thing was finding accommodation over the phone. There weren't any places left on campus so I had to phone around and some people did seem a bit hostile. I don't know if it was the accent. But I found a house with six other people all on different courses, and it's worked really well.

I can't say the peace has made a big difference that I would notice, though I was very pleased when it happened. I was told before I came over about avoiding political or religious discussions. When I arrived, I felt I stood out. But most people will talk to you; they're very friendly. You shouldn't let newspapers put you off.

Going through clearing was quite difficult. My A-levels were disappointing, but I'd say I got what I deserved because I didn't work that hard. I was ringing round for about two or three weeks. You are at your wits' end trying to get them to answer the phone. You get through to different people and they haven't got the right answers and they want you to speak to someone who isn't there. But I thought something must come up in the end.

One of the tutors warned me that the course was going to be very academic compared with drama school, which is all practical. I think that was so I knew what I was in for, and because he was looking at my A-levels and thinking, is she prepared to work for a degree? But it's a lot more practical and easier than I imagined. I still want to act, but I'm glad I went to university now because I'm really enjoying it."

What to have to hand

Have these details ready when you ring for a clearing place:

Your UCAS number and Clearing Entry number.

Exact name and number of the UCAS course you want.

Your exam results.

Name and phone number of an academic referee at school/college.

Where to get advice

Many colleges and universities have open days and hotlines for their own courses. National advice on finding a course from:

ECCTIS 2000 - database in schools, colleges, careers offices and libraries, running 23 August to 29 September

BBC TV: "Student Choice," BBC2 6.50-7.40pm, Sun 20 August

BBC Radio 1: 0800 100900 free helpline 9am-6pm Thurs-Sat 17-19 August; 10am-9pm Sun 20 August; 10am-6pm Mon-Fri 21-25 August

UCAS helpline (queries only): 01242 227788, Mon-Fri 8am-6pm 14 August- 22 September; 9am to 5pm Sats 19 August-18 September and 9 am-5pm Suns 20 and 27 August

How to find the vacancies

The official list of UCAS vacancies is published exclusively in the Independent on Wednesday 23 August and Friday 25 August, and in the Independent on Sunday on 27 August.

Vacancies will continue to be published on every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday until 21 September.