Course guidance: How to tackle the Clearing system - Karen Gold reports on how to avoid random application panic

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The Independent Online
EVERY year scores of normally cautious 18-year-olds undergo a personality transformation. Having meticulously researched and discussed their original choice of course and university, the day the Clearing vacancies are published they become panic-driven random application machines.

The result is that every year, one in every five students abandons their degree course. Don't let it happen to you.

To go into Clearing officially you must have a Clearing entry form. UCCA and PCAS automatically send out these forms to all applicants whose original choices reject them. But that decision may not be made for another few days, - so you may not receive your form until early next week.

If you are pretty sure you will be rejected then, don't wait for that form before ringing round. You cannot make an official application anywhere, but you can find out if a tutor is interested in you and still has vacancies.

Clearing instructions on using the vacancy lists should accompany your form. The main thing to remember is that vacancies are not published by course title, but under key words. Check the PCAS and UCCA guides to find the name of the courses you spot in the vacancy lists. But don't stop there.

If possible, look in college prospectuses to find out more than the course name, before you decide to go for it.

Think about where you want to go as well as what you want to study. There is no point in narrowing down your options too far. But if you only want to be 20 miles from home, or you'd rather be 200, if you hate the idea of London or you can't stand the countryside, then rule out colleges now, rather than regretting your mistake later.

Having made those decisions, list your possible choices and start getting in touch. 'It's more time- consuming for people to travel, but they may get a slightly better chance if they turn up on the doorstep,' says Janet Graham, admissions officer at Leicester University. 'People who turn up with their parents seem to do well; they're always seen, if only for five minutes, and there's always the chance that if someone can't take them for English they can send them down the corridor to the tutor in charge of combined arts.'

The fax is the latest asset for applicants, she adds. Last year students faxed their Clearing forms and exam results adorned with drawings to entertain admissions officers. Anything that makes you stand out from the mass of applicants is worth considering.

Once you have managed to speak to admissions tutors at one or more colleges - and it may take several days even to get that far - they may say they want to take you, subject to confirming your results and references.

The UCCA and PCAS systems differ here. Once you have your PCAS Clearing entry form, known as your 'passport', you fill in your results and send it direct to the college that has said it wants you. In the UCCA system you send your Clearing form back to UCCA, which passes it on to a university that has made a 'Q' (serious interest) request to see it.

In both cases you can only make one formal application at a time. But you may have expressed interest to various other colleges, and they may have said they will get back to you. Either way, the phoning does not end here.

Keep in touch with anyone who shows interest in you: they may have no spaces now, but someone could drop out right up to the day the course begins. And you must let tutors know if you accept their offer orally and then opt for somewhere else: you could be blocking someone's coveted place.

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