If you’ve underachieved and failed to meet your targets, why not have another go at your exams, says Lucy Tobin

It can feel like the end of the world if results day hasn’t gone according to plan, especially if friends have received happier news and won’t stop talking about their university preparations. But there are plenty of alternative options.

If you have missed your university offer, the first thing to do is contact the institution and see if they will be flexible. If not, you might want to think about going through Clearing. But if you’ve set your heart on one particular course or institution, and your teachers advise that the offer is achievable with some more hard work, then taking a year out to resit exams is a further option.

Having the right motivation to re-take exams is crucial, according to Nigel Stout, managing director at Mander Portman Woodward (MPW) tutorial college, which has centres in London, Birmingham and Cambridge.

“The best motivations to resit are where you have underachieved significantly – relative to your ability or expected grades – and where your options through Clearing represent a significant comedown from those on which you have set your heart,” he says.

“The amount by which you are likely to improve your grade on resitting does not depend on the subject itself, it’s more about the shortfall in your performance relative to ability. Having said that, certain units within a subject may lend themselves to a resit better than others, and you should explore all options in an interview with your re-take college before embarking on a course.”

While looking at the benefits of resitting one or more exams, first examine the practical considerations. If you’re contemplating resitting exams predominantly in order to get into a specific university or course, contact the institution to check that they will accept candidates with grades from exam re-takes. It’s also a good idea to ask about their offers. If you’re applying to the same university course a second time around with re-sat exams, some will increase the grades of their original offer.

Remember, too, that the modular system for A-levels means that by re-taking individual exam modules, you might be able to boost your overall grade. It can also be possible to do a “short course” re-take, as some exam boards offer modules for examination in January – check if this is available with your subject and examiners. And, since AS and A2-levels are equally weighted, it can be easier to re-take an AS.

Going over work from two years ago might seem less tedious than re-doing the work of the year just passed. There can also be financial benefits, as some tuition colleges have lower fees for students resitting an AS module. Be aware that some subjects might be more worth resitting than others. David Lowe, head of Davies Laing and Dick (DLD) tutorial college, in Marylebone, London, says that resitting maths, science and economic subjects can have greater effect.

“Given the conceptual understanding of these subjects, students can improve simply by working on practice papers, when that might not be the case for a subject like English or history,” he says.

Money matters

Tutorial colleges like DLD and MPW are popular for resit students, since many choose to change institution to re-take exams. State schools may only permit post-A-level re-takes under special circumstances, such as illness or family bereavement during exams, so the most common route to resit A-levels is at private tuition colleges. This means that those offering specialist re-take courses – “crammers” – can get filled up, so it’s important to act quickly.

Crammers have the added appeal of smaller class sizes and individual attention, but the benefits come with a hefty price tag. At DLD, a one-year A-level course costs £2,110 for one subject, £4,220 for two or £5,820 for three. There are also extra costs suchasa£300 fee to enter exams and a £200 enrollment fee. At MPW, course fees range from £615 to resit one unit in a January exam to £2,562 for each term of a yearlong course. Shop around the retake colleges in your area, order a prospectus and book an interview at several colleges to see what they can offer. Try to contact pupils who have studied at the centres to see if they rate the courses and teaching.

Getting the grades you want

Not all exam resitters are students who have underperformed. Students who have surpassed their grade predictions might want to try to boost their grade even further. Other tuition college students might be adding an extra subject to their exam portfolio to apply to the top universities.

Alice Harper, 22, from London, has just graduated from DLD. She gained A grades in her A-level exams and had accepted a place at Cambridge to study English. Yet during her first year of A-levels, Alice lost her father to a disease which then affected her mother. As Alice cared for her mother, the experience made her want to study medicine. So after graduating she applied to DLD to study chemistry and biology, and was granted a “work-scholarship” to work part-time while pursuing her studies. Predicted to gain A grades, she now has offers at UCL and Imperial College to study medicine.

My story: 'At tutorial college, I really benefited from the inspiring teachers’

John de Bruyne, 19, from Trumpington, Cambridge, took his GCSEs at the Friends’ School in Saffron Walden. He found the Quaker school old fashioned and decided to move to Cambridge Regional College (CRC) to resit his GCSEs.

“I moved to CRC but the large classes of 25 to 30 people made it difficult to get motivated,” he says. “I received reasonable grades – Bs and Cs – but felt that I could have done better.”

So after receiving his GCSE results, Johnny moved to MPW Cambridge for a two year A-level course. He studied English literature, film studies and media studies. “At MPW the tutors were genuinely passionate about what they were teaching and the classes were tailor-made. I received two As and a B at AS. Now I’m predicted three As for A2 but I’m really nervous about results day in August. I’m taking a gap year to be in a band, then hoping to study English and film, maybe at Edinburgh, or perhaps Norwich.

“Having tried to resit exams in a big college, I’d say I’m a walking example for the benefits of tutorial colleges. I didn’t flourish in the normal school environment, but at MPW I’ve really benefited from small classes and inspiring teachers.”