The publication of a student's exam subject grades in mid-August is the culmination of two years of sixth-form study and weeks of anxious waiting over the summer. A student's grades or point score will either confirm a place at their first or second (insurance) choice of undergraduate degree and university or herald the start of Clearing.
Clearing is managed by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), which handles university applications across Britain. It is the conclusion of a process that began in January when students had to submit a single application, via the Ucas website, listing their five choices of degree and institution in order of preference. Students can apply through Ucas right up to the end of June.
During the applications process, universities will have contacted candidates via Ucas, arranged interviews and made offers via an online platform called Track. Using a unique username and password, students are able to see the status of their application and when a firm offer is made by a student's first choice of university, this then cancels out all other applications with the exception of their insurance choice – a second offer normally made on the basis of a slightly lower grade requirement. A preferred offer could be two As and a B. An insurance offer may be two Bs and a C.
During Clearing it is very important to check on your status on Track, and to keep Ucas updated with any new offers of places from universities you approach. Most universities refer to grades in terms of the A-level marks A, B, or C.
But students can apply to university with a mix of A-level and vocational qualifications, or even entirely different exams such as the SQA Highers for Scotland or the International Baccalaureate. The Ucas website carries a table giving the different exam grade equivalents in terms of a point score or tariff.
Clearing, open from August through to the end of September, is a time when students who have not managed to achieve the grades they needed to be accepted by their first choice or their insurance can contact universities directly by phone to discuss available options, and find a degree they are happy with. Information on available degree courses can be found on the Ucas website and a list of Clearing vacancies is posted and updated continuously.
During Clearing, university admissions departments and student services helplines are fully manned with staff able to offer advice and discuss options, including making a provisional offer if the student finds the right course. "Our lines are open from 8am to 7pm on results day, so phone us," says Kathryn Rees, operations manager at the University of South Wales.
University admissions tutors will have already seen student grades, which are released to them on the Sunday evening prior to the results being sent out to students on the following Thursday. University admissions departments will have a clear idea of how many Clearing places they will have to offer. In the run-up to results day, universities will be checking student grades and confirming their offers. The conversion of a conditional offer to a firm offer is flagged up on the student's page in Track.
On results day, universities know that what counts for students and parents is clear, impartial advice. "We understand this is a stressful time. Students have been building up to it for a long time and if they haven't got the results they expected, it can seem like their world has come to an end," says Rees. "All of our helpline staff are trained admissions officers. They can make a verbal offer if a student has the right qualifications and an email goes out straight away. We have to do checks on their qualifications, but once this is confirmed, the offer then becomes firm."
Although there's plenty of information about Clearing available on the web, people can't always find what they need. Helpline staff are trained to listen patiently and offer impartial advice. "We're a small university and we take the time to talk to students and parents. We're not here to grab everyone who waves a chequebook at us," says Julian Lovelock, pro-vice-chancellor of Buckingham University.
To help make that important decision, students need advice and support from parents. School is also a valuable resource and an early port of call as many open their doors and post A-level results up on a noticeboard, with staff on hand to help students talk through their options.
University admissions officers are sympathetic to mitigating circumstances. If a student has not already done so, lose no time in alerting your first choice to anything that may have affected your exam performance, such as a bereavement or a serious illness in the family. "People go through all sorts of situations. We consider mitigating circumstances and exam results together and we look for any explanation to be corroborated by the school," says Simon Willis, the director of student recruitment at the University of York.
Students fare best at Clearing if they are well-prepared and many university admissions tutors advise candidates to have a 'plan B' in place for if their grades are lower than expected. Students should discuss with their parents and advisers what next steps are needed if their anticipated grades fail to materialise. What are the alternatives?
Above all, Clearing is a time to reflect on whether a similar degree course will do just as well, whether to wait a year and retake exams or whether to give up on the idea of university altogether and aim for a career that offers training on the job. Other study options proving more popular than ever are evening or part-time study, both of which are available at Clearing.
The Open University participates in Clearing, although not actively. OU offers students the choice of either studying for a three-year undergraduate degree full-time, for which student loans apply, or getting a job and studying part-time over a longer period. London's Birkbeck College offers three-year degrees taught in the evening for undergraduates who want to combine full-time employment with study. "This year there is an unprecedented range of degrees offered during Clearing, and Birkbeck will also be hosting a Clearing open day on Saturday 17 August to support students before courses begin," says Birkbeck communications officer Guy Collender.
Clearing is no mark of failure: Ucas matches students to the best available and most appropriate places. Most students end up studying for a degree they enjoy just as much, if not more.