Course Vacancies: Fine art of persuasion - Karen Gold says confidence is vital in plotting out your course of action

BE POLITE, be positive, be prepared. Those are the watchwords for anyone embarking on the marathon of telephone persuasion involved in Clearing. And when the admissions tutor you want finally comes to the phone, stand up.

Research has shown that people speak more confidently when they are standing up than when slumped in a chair, says Andrew Colman, psychologist and admissions tutor in psychology at Leicester University. Clearing candidates take note:

'Clearing people tend to present themselves very badly,' he says. 'I know they are demoralised and they might have already phoned several other universities. But the message that comes across is: 'You haven't got a place for me, have you?'

Some have so little confidence that they get parents or teachers to phone on their behalf. This is counter-productive, says Dr Colman. 'It creates the impression that either the candidate is incapable of doing this themselves, or they aren't motivated.'

Confidence depends on believing in what you are saying. If you are uncomfortably aware that you don't know what you are talking about, then you are unlikely to sound confident. You are also likely to be found out.

'People don't have to swot up the subject: tutors aren't going to give them an exam]' says Dr Colman. 'But we don't like to think someone has picked us out at random. We like to think they know about the place and the courses.'

The answer is to do your research before making phone calls. That applies particularly as you comb through vacancy lists looking for alternatives to your original choices of subject and college.

Every year the pattern of course availability is similar: business, humanities and social science courses attract masses of Clearing interest; engineering and science much less. Take advantage of that if your A levels permit it: a business and chemistry degree, for example, will be much more hopeful than straight business studies.

Look at modular degree courses which let you do your favourite subject together with bits of several others. You may discover surprising new interests. Don't forget about new courses, which may have more vacancies because they were not ready to recruit last autumn. You will find lists of these in material sent by UCCA and PCAS.

Keep an eye open for new routes into what you want to do. Reading University, for example, runs a revision course starting on 7 September for students who want to do physics and electronics but do not have the right grades. The three-week course brings you up to standard for the first year, and guarantees a degree place.

The University of Northumbria at Newcastle (formerly Newcastle Poly) has an 'extended degree programme', involving an extra foundation year whichcan guarantee a place on its computing, chemistry, maths and engineering degrees.

As you work through course details, bear in mind what you want. Do you want to specialise early or late? What kind of teaching and assessment suit you? Do you want a year abroad or a sandwich placement? Note down your ideas and add them to the notes which should be in front of you whenever you pick up the phone. 'Don't ramble on' urges Dr Colman. 'Bear in mind that the person on the other end of the phone is probably extremely hassled.

'Ask if it's convenient to talk; then make the points you have written down to explain why the tutor should take you. Tell them about good results in mocks; that you're very motivated, that you've shadowed a psychologist at work. 'I had a student once who rang from a call box. I initially said I was pretty well full up, but she was very persuasive without being rude. She said she was extremely keen and this was what she had always wanted to do and would be an excellent student.

'I was turning people away, but she seemed so keen that I took her for two reasons. One is that someone that keen is likely to be a good bet. The other is because it breaks your heart to turn someone that keen away.

'Of course, if someone is rude or rambling on the phone, or extra persuasive, that ought not to make a difference. But we are all influenced by our impressions. Admissions tutors are only human.'