How to get the right result if your A-levels miss the mark

WORKSHOP: Remember that universities want you almost as much as you want them
Red-letter day has dawned. You know your results and are punching the air in glee or wondering whether you will make it to the course and university of your choice, or to any degree course at all. If you fall into one of the latter two categories, sit tight and take some deep breaths. Don't panic, and don't rush into decisions you may regret.

It may feel a terrible humiliation to have missed your first conditional choice by two or three grades. But there are many others in the same boat. And you still have choices. You may be able to accept your second, or insurance, offer. If not, you can opt to find another course or another university through the Clearing system. Or you can take a year out to resit.

Universities want you almost as much as you want them. So, when you get on the telephone to admissions tutors, be polite but take the attitude that they are lucky to have you.

If you are in the fortunate position of having done better than you expected, the official advice is to count your blessings. The line from Ucas is that students who have excelled should stay put and not shop around for a better offer. You have entered into a contract with the university that you have firmly accepted, and that's that. However, a handful do manage to wriggle out of their agreements and switch to courses at more sought- after institutions. Students who have done worse than expected should talk to their teachers. "They need to give themselves a breathing space," says Chris Vesey, head of curriculum development at Barnet College, north London. "They need to think about what they want and discuss that with their parents and teachers...There is something for everyone. They may not get on to the degree course of their choice, but they could start on the first year of an HND and then move on to a degree course after that."

It may be that they need to consider retaking A-levels or switching to advanced GNVQ courses which are widely accepted as an entry credential, particularly by the new universities.

Those whose results are only slightly lower than required in the conditional offer - for instance, three grades below the firm offer and one grade below the insurance offer - should hit the phones. Universities receive results before students do and some make decisions quickly about which students to take and which to reject. If you are rejected at this stage, ring your insurance offer university and tell them that you are really keen on a place. You may find that they don't yet know you have been rejected by your firm offer, and they may be only too happy to give you a place.

If your firm offer university is reviewing your case, pester them. Alert your school. Find the name and fax number of the admissions tutor and arrange to send them an updated school reference. If you are talking to your insurance offer, get a reference sent off to them. Universities are more responsive these days to faxes than to telephone calls from headteachers.

Be prepared for Clearing, which matches would-be students with university vacancies. Clearing occurs round about the time students have been rejected by their first and second choices. Ask yourself whether you would be prepared to switch from, say, medicine to pharmacy, medical laboratory technology or biological sciences, or from business studies to business information systems.

Make a list of the universities and courses which appeal to you if things go wrong. Comb the official vacancy lists in The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. Consider changing from a single honours to a combined honours or a modular course. Such a switch will require some exploration and research.

You need to avoid the feeling that time is running out, that you have got to grab at something. But many students will want to rush to get into university this year, before they have to start paying pounds 1,000 a year in tuition fees. If you do feel that, make sure you do as much spadework as possible

Lucy Hodges