What now?

If your A-levels didn't make the grade, resits, other courses, getting a job, or even a year overseas are all options. By Diana Hinds
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The Independent Online
So you haven't got the A-level grades you wanted. Perhaps you had a sneaking feeling all along that you hadn't done enough work, or - worse, perhaps - the bad results have come as a bolt from the blue. But be positive. Many other students are in the same position, and there are a number of options.

First, get as much advice as you can, as soon as you can, from your subject teachers or school careers adviser. If you have only dropped a point or two on your university offers, phone the university departments to check the position: enthusiasm and drive can count for as much as a missed grade.

Is it worth going through Clearing?

If both your firm and insurance offers are out of reach, but you have at least two Es, you should think about finding another place - possibly in another subject, at a different institution - through the clearing system. Ucas will automatically send you your entry form, once they receive confirmation of your rejection from the institutions that made the offers.

Clearing has more to offer than just the scrapings from the barrel. Some popular and prestigious courses may come up in the clearing system; you may feel you have done badly yourself, but you don't know how badly other schools have fared. Ring round, and don't jump at the first course you are offered.

Should I think about retaking?

If, despite not making the grades this time, you are set on your chosen course and want to reapply, retaking one or two A-levels may seem the most obvious route. But approach any retakes with caution. Unless you have exceptional reasons - such as illness - for disappointing grades, repeating your A-level year is not in itself going to turn a mediocre student into a successful, hard-working one. So don't contemplate retaking unless you are confident that your motivation and self-discipline are going to be dramatically improved. Bear in mind, too, that universities are likely to ask for higher grades if you reapply.

Some examination boards still offer examination resits in November, but most are held in June. Retaking exams at your present school would mean rejoining the upper sixth and working with students who were in the year below you, so you might do better to have a fresh start at a college of further education. (Full-time students who are under 19 on 3l August receive free tuition for courses starting in September.)

Private tutorial colleges, "crammers", offer intensive courses for those who are resitting exams, specialising in small group tuition with regular tests and exam technique practice. These colleges are expensive - pounds l,000 to pounds 2,000 per subject per term - and should be chosen with care. Talk to staff, ask to see last year's results and speak to previous students if you can.

Gabbitas Educational Consultants: free advice on private colleges offering retakes, and, for a fee, personal consultations on options. 0171 734 0161.

Will I have a better chance if I change to a different course?

Your disappointing grades may already be making you question whether you chose the right university course. Maybe you don't do yourself justice in pressurised, end-of-year exams, and would be better suited to a modular course, usually with exams every term. Or you may be contemplating something less academic, with a greater vocational leaning.

Second time around, try to choose a subject because it interests you, rather than because you think it might result in a good job. If you're interested in something, you are more likely to succeed.

When changing courses, bear in mind combined courses as well as those with less obvious course titles, which may well have been overlooked at the beginning of the application season.

If you found A-levels a real struggle, and have only ended up with, say, a pass in one subject, you might be better off embarking on a Higher National Diploma (HND).

This is a two-year full-time course (or three years, with a period of practical work experience) offered by many of the new universities, as well as by large colleges of further and higher education, in vocational subjects ranging from business studies and applied sciences to building and beauty therapy. The advantage of the HND is that if you do well, you can then go on to a degree course afterwards, usually with a further two years' study.

New universities also offer one-year foundation courses as a preliminary to degree courses, in subjects such as science and engineering. These may be conversion courses for arts students with little science background, or for science students needing to improve.

What about a year off?

Organised students who always knew they wanted to take a year out before university will have been making plans for the last year or so. Whether they will keep to their plans now that university tuition fees are to be introduced in September 1998 has yet to be seen.

But for those cast down by their A-level results, the prospect of getting away from it all can seem attractive.For these students, it is not too late. Of the large range of "gap year" organisations which offer paid and voluntary work schemes overseas, some will still have places left for the coming year, although choice will be limited. Options range from paid work on farms or in hotels in Australia or Canada to voluntary teaching in developing countries. Many courses run from three to six months.

First, find out what arrangements you need to make for a university place, if you are re-applying or deferring entry. If you are retaking, you may be able to do this in November. Don't expect to start travelling immediately; you'll probably need to earn some money first, and there may be a short training course before you leave.

Some gap year students are reluctant to return from experiences abroad: in one case, a woman returned with a half-Aborigine child. There can be accidents: one student was recently killed by a crocodile. But for most, the time abroad is an invaluable opportunity to broaden horizons, to take responsibility and to experience life outside the classroom.

Gap Year Guidebook 1998/9. Price pounds 8.95, plus pounds 1 p&p. From Peridot Press, 2 Blenheim Crescent, Lonon W11 1NN, tel. 0171-221 7404. Community Service Volunteers: 0800 374791.

Maybe I should try to find a job

If you are contemplating leaving school with no A-levels and looking for a job, don't expect to find anything very rewarding in career terms. But an unskilled, routine job may be a salutary reminder that there are far more dreary options in life than studying for A-levels, and may be an incentive to try again.

Alternatively, a year out before embarking on higher education could usefully be spent in a job providing relevant experience for the next year's course - for instance, work in a commercial office for those going on to business studies, or in a residential home for those taking a social care course.

You may even gain a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ), which will be useful when applying for work after your degreen

From classics to engineering: `I surprised myself by how well I did'

Clare Davis, 22, who went to a grammar school in Buckinghamshire, hoped to do classical studies at Liverpool University. Instead of three Cs, she got Ds in geography and economics, and an N in German. She opted for a foundation year in engineering at Oxford Brookes University, went on to a degree in technology, and has just graduated with a 2:1.

Liverpool had said to me, if you don't quite make the grades, don't worry. So I was quite relaxed about A-levels. When I got the results I was gutted - especially the N in German, which was my best subject. I didn't know what I was going to do. There didn't seem any point in retaking.

I didn't want to go through Clearing. With two Ds, I thought I wouldn't have got anywhere. I didn't want to end up in a bad university doing a bad degree. Then my mum saw an advertisement in the paper for an engineering foundation year at Oxford Brookes, with the option of going on to a degree in things like technology management or computing.

I only had two Ds in GCSE science, so I thought they would say no. But they were really enthusiastic and said the course was designed for people like me.

I got a pounds 500 grant from the European Commission for being a woman in engineering, so that helped.

We did maths and physics A-level in a year. But I surprised myself by how well I did. It was very different from school. The lecturers were so enthusiastic, and it was a modular course, with exams every termn

The resitter: `I know about dealing with stress now'

Samantha Jackson, 19, took her A-levels last summer at a comprehensive school in Oxford. She needed an A, B and C to read history at York University. Instead, she got an F in history, a B in Art and a C in English. She decided to retake history and English at a private tutorial college.

I knew I wasn't going to get the grades I wanted. I had bad history teaching, with three or four different teachers who left you on your own a lot and didn't give much guidance in terms of essay style. We didn't even cover the syllabus. I need quite a lot of guidance to bring me on to the right track. I tend to go off and do things in too much detail, which meant I didn't cover enough. And I didn't learn to write quickly. When it got to the exam, it wasn't that I hadn't done any work, but I hadn't done the right kind of work.

When I got the results, I felt awful. I felt I couldn't have coped with university, so I didn't want to go through Clearing, although my mum kept trying to sort out places for me. I thought there's no point going to university yet, because I haven't got the right skills. I wanted some help before going off completely on my own.

I decided on D'Overbroeck's tutorial college in Oxford. My parents came round to the idea, even though the fees were a strain. I did a three- month course in history and English, starting in January, with exams in June. It was fresh material, and in history I swapped to a different board, which used more documents and suited me better.

At last I had proper teaching and support. I learnt not to go into immense detail, but did the basic requirements relatively quickly and got high grades. I know more about the way my mind works now, about my work patterns and dealing with stress.

I decided not to go for York again, which is a traditional course with exams at the end, and applied for a modular course in English studies at East Anglia. They want three Bs. The exams didn't go as well as I'd hoped, but whatever the grades, what I've learnt is more important. If I don't get the place, I might consider Clearing this time, because I'm ready nown

The HND student: `I found what I really wanted to do'

Claire Humphries, who lives in Horwich, near Bolton, has just completed her HND in business studies at the University of Central Lancashire. Next term she joins the same university's degree course in marketing and management. Claire originally wanted to study law, but her A-level grades, Ds in German and English, were not good enough. She took the HND option warily, she says, because it was not what she really wanted, but was impressed with what she got. She has given up the idea of becoming a lawyer.

It was a modular course. The teaching was quite different from A-levels, with all that essay-writing. It was interactive, with lots of group work, discussions, role-play. You really enjoyed what you were doing. The teachers were always there when you needed them. Assessment was 60 per cent coursework and only 40 per cent by examination.

The modular structure gave us lots of choice. We took two compulsory modules and the rest were elective, which is how I came to do marketing and decided this was what really interests me. When I go back to take my degree I've chosen to specialise in PR and advertising. That's where I would like to make a careern

A gap year: `Having seen those kids, I realise I've been spoilt'

Gervase Milbourn, 19, from an independent boarding school in Yorkshire, had offers to read politics at Exeter with an A and two Bs, or at Reading with a B and two Cs. He got a C and two Ds. He decided to reapply and take a year out. He spent five months teaching in Tanzania.

I was disappointed with my results, but I did no work, basically. I don't think I realised the urgency and the importance of the exams.

When I got the results, I wanted to start afresh. I wasn't sure any longer that I wanted to do politics. I thought it might be easier to get on to a vocational course, like business studies - which is what my school had originally advised. I had a good personal statement from my school, so I decided to reapply, and I got an offer to do business studies at the University of the West of England.

I hadn't planned a year off, but I felt I didn't want to go to university straight away. I didn't want to go through Clearing: why pick from what's left when you can start again? I saw an article about gap years, and got details. I chose to go to Tanzania, with World Challenge, to teach in a secondary school. I had to pay pounds l,300 for the flight and training, and I got bed and board there. I went in January, and it was wonderful. They were great kids, happy and nice to be with.

I hope I've got a better attitude to work now. Having seen those kids so desperate for knowledge, I know I've been spoilt. I want to make the best of a new opportunityn