A second chance at success

Not inspired by your Clearing options? Consider a resit, but do some research first, says Clare Dwyer Hogg
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The Independent Online

The irony, of course, is that there isn't much time. It's important, then, to know what factors should form the basis of your decision-making. It's worth getting in touch with university admissions just in case they are not oversubscribed - you may get in anyway. Also, if extenuating circumstances have hampered your progress, there may be special dispensation, or advice about reapplying the following year. "Institutions will, of course, wish to hear from students who have had to retake qualifications for medical or personal reasons," assures a spokesperson from Edinburgh University's Student Recruitment and Admission.

If you are thinking about retaking your A-levels, find out how the university of your choice will deal with retakes. Some universities prefer students to take new or additional subjects, others may ask for higher grades to guarantee a better chance of entry. This has to be the first stage: there is little point in blindly setting off to repeat a year's study without being completely sure of your goal. Next comes the difficult part. Once you are armed with the requirements, and are sure of your position, you have to be brutally honest. Why didn't you get the grades you needed? It's a tough question, but across the board, educators give the same advice: in order to decide how and where to retake, this has to be the starting point.

"The only way that you can unravel what happened and put it back together is by being totally open," says Richard Leathes, who has been a director at Gabbitas, the educational consultancy, for 21 years. He has seen streams of students come through his door asking for direction. "Don't beat about the bush," he continues. "If your results were because you struggled with a mathematics A-level and were on the wrong track, forget about maths and engineering and do something else. If you were doing the right subjects, but had a problem like glandular fever, fine, look at retaking."

Similarly, he says, consider retaking if there is a specific career path you wish to follow. "With something like medicine, if you know it's the right path for you, but you didn't get the right grades, there's also a strong argument." Remember, too, that perhaps first time around, you did all the work you could, in which case a retake would turn up the same results. Find the root of the problem: if you don't, you could find yourself repeating the same mistakes all over again.

Soul searching aside, the practicalities have to kick in pretty quickly. It is now the time, after the initial disappointment, to start making a potentially negative situation into a positive one. "The message is that making a mistake in life is not as crucial as how you respond to it and learn from it," Leathes says.

Once you have decided to retake, get the ball rolling by officially declining the offers you have. This has to be done by 20 September to enable you to begin the process of retaking; the centre where you took the exams will be able to advise you about it.

Next decision is where to retake. There are specialist independent colleges with long standing experience in helping students retake exams, but they can cost anything from £5,500 for one A-level to £14,500 for three A-levels, over one year. The fees pay for intensive teaching, focussed groups, and often one-to-one tuition. The Council for Independent Further Education provides information on the selection of colleges available around the country. If this option is too expensive, local colleges of further education provide retakes at much less cost. And if you feel that an intensive burst of study closer to exams would be beneficial, the savings from a state college could pay for an Easter revision course.

Where you go could also be determined by how you want to structure your studies. While some examination units - usually A2 science and minority subjects - are only available in the June examination session, others can be completed by January. Perhaps there is a coursework unit in place of an exam, or you could choose a flexible learning course for half a year, so that you could still enjoy half a gap year. Then again, some students prefer to use the whole year, whereas others go back for a two-year course. There are myriad options, depending on your circumstance and personality.

The teachers at the institution you attend will help you decide how best to structure your retakes. It could make all the difference. Fiona Pocok, principal of Oxford Tutorial College, outlines some questions students should ask themselves about their choices: "Have you considered all the implications? Are you making the most sensible decision as to which subject or subjects to retake? Is this an opportunity to pick up an AS subject to broaden your academic portfolio?" she asks. A new subject can keep study lively and interesting, if you aren't relishing relearning exactly the same information for another year.

Pocok also has some advice about how to present your results next time around. "You generally provide information only on results which have been certificated," she says. "Grades which have been declined are not shown." And, she says, you can use your personal statement to explain why the dates on your application show that it's taken a little longer than usual to finish your A-levels.

"It offers you the opportunity to explain your individual circumstances and detail any mitigating circumstances," she says. "If these don't exist, then you'll need to explain what you have learnt from the unpleasant experience, and how this will make you a wiser undergraduate."

'I'm applying to the top places'

Noon Trinny, 22, is retaking A-levels at Davies Laing and Dick, London

Originally, I did geography, business studies and physics. I got a B for business studies and geography AS, and for physics AS I got an E. But I had to take a year off because of family problems, so I couldn't complete the second year of A-levels. I was disappointed, but I had no choice.

When I went back to redo my A-levels, I decided to stick with the geography grade I had achieved, but start afresh with new A-levels in economics and history, subjects I liked and I thought would give me more options than business and physics, which I didn't like.

While it might be a bit disheartening to repeat, I think if people have a clear vision of what level of work they want to do, and feel they can improve second time around, it's good to do. I'll be applying to the top universities - I'll see how it goes; you can't know until you try.

'What's one year in your life?'

Deborah Keane, 19, retook A-levels at Oxford Tutorial College

I was aiming to get ABB in chemistry, biology and PE - I wanted to go to Cardiff to do dentistry - but I got grades BCC. I was surprised and it was very disappointing: I rang the university and asked if there was any way I could get in, but there wasn't. I felt I'd underachieved and could do better, so decided to retake. I'm a motivated, determined person, and what's one year in your whole life?

I decided to repeat the same subjects, but when I spoke to my teacher about what career I wanted to do, I realised I'd been going for the wrong one. She suggested I look into physiotherapy, so I went for work experience and loved it. I'm so glad - I would have gone down the wrong path otherwise. I've been studying from September to June, living away from home, with people from all around the world. It's a totally different experience from school. I took two chemistry modules in January, and the rest in June.

If you don't get your initial grades, remember, it's not the end of your life! Sometimes, people take longer to reach their full potential. I know that I'm still learning.