Annabel Andrews, 19, has just completed her first year reading English and French at the University of Birmingham. She went to St Laurence School at Bradford on Avon near her home in Bath. As she opened her A-level results last year, she had no idea whether she had done well enough to get to university...

Annabel Andrews, 19, has just completed her first year reading English and French at the University of Birmingham. She went to St Laurence School at Bradford on Avon near her home in Bath. As she opened her A-level results last year, she had no idea whether she had done well enough to get to university...

"I'd been rejected by five out of my six choices on my UCAS form so I had no insurance offer to back me up. When I picked them up, I didn't open them for ages. My Mum came over and said: 'Aren't you going to open them?' but I didn't want to until I was ready. I really hadn't a clue whether I had the right grades. I didn't come out of the exams feeling I had done excellently in them, although I didn't come out thinking I'd done badly either. Eventually I opened them and looked and knew I'd done it. There was a lot of hugging! To begin with the feeling was almost of anti-climax. I had not been offered a place by the institutions on my application - I was almost ready for it.

Life at university has been different to what I expected. Not better nor worse - just different. I wanted to come to a big city because I'd been brought up in a beautiful but small place, but to begin with I did feel really, really small.

I'd thought I might have difficulty with French but my best exam grade was in French politics which was a surprise. In my second year I will be co-president of the French Society!"

Annabel's top tip: "Have an open mind to new people. And, if you feel lost, get involved with what's going on."

Charles Mumford, 19, has just completed his first year reading mechanical engineering at the University of Swansea. He went to Ryde School near his home in Cowes, Isle of Wight. As he opened his A-level results last year, he thought he had done well enough to get to his universities of choice...

"I'd worked hard for my A-levels and I thought I'd got the grades I needed to read physics at university. My first choice was Bristol, which was asking for ABC and my insurance was Exeter which was asking for BBC. When I opened the envelope I'd got BCD. I felt numb. I didn't know what to do to begin with, but then I thought I'd got a second choice so it would be OK. I didn't really consider the possibility that both would say no - and then they did! I felt totally rejected.

A teacher friend who'd lived in Swansea and gone to university there said why didn't I consider Swansea because it was a university on the beach. I live by the sea and I like beach life and sailing and mountain biking. He also suggested considering mechanical engineering because there was a very good department there. I looked at physics and mechanical engineering and chose mechanical engineering. Going through Clearing gave me the chance to change my mind. I am so happy with my course and so glad I'm not doing physics. I fell on my feet."

Charles's top tip: "There is no need to panic. Whatever your grades, there are opportunities out there if you go into Clearing which is effectively a big market place for lots of good courses people apply for normally."

Kay-Ann Morris, 21, humanities, University of Essex

My school predicted I would get at least three Bs, but I actually got three Es, which was quite a shock. I'd applied to Essex for my first two choices, to do history and sociology, and straight history, and I needed a B and two Cs. I didn't know what was going to happen and I was very worried that no one would take me.

I phoned the university and was told I wouldn't be able to do my top two choices, but I could do humanities for a year and then convert to history if I got a high enough grade. I wasn't even sure what humanities was, but I was prepared to struggle with it for a year if I knew I would eventually get to do my chosen degree.

My head of sixth-from also phoned the university to tell them he thought I was strong enough to make the three years.

I was very lucky because Essex decided to give me a conditional offer as they felt my personal statement was really good.

Clearing was definitely my best option. When I didn't get my grades it was devastating, but three years down the line it's worked out fine.

Richard Gottfried, 23, studying marketing at the University of Luton

I got a merit for my GNVQ in advanced business studies and I wanted to go to university, but after visiting those I'd applied to I wasn't very impressed. I was undecided whether I should go to university at all and withdrew from the UCAS process.

Then during my last year at college we did a marketing module; I enjoyed it so much I decided that marketing was what I wanted to go into and that I would go to university after all. By this time I had to go through the Clearing process.

I looked up the universities that ran marketing courses and then consulted the listings in The Independent. The University of Luton was advertising how much it had invested in new facilities. I decided to research what the university had to offer. Everything just clicked and I decided that it was the university I wanted to go to.

I phoned the Clearing hot line and was interviewed over the telephone. It was quite straightforward.

Susan Harrison, 21, took a two-year HND course in business informatics at Teesside University and then did a third-year top-up course at Teesside to gain a full honours degree

When you leave college, doing a degree seems very daunting. I got a B, C and D in my A-levels at sixth-form college, and I started off on a computer studies degree at Teesside University. But I didn't settle into it in the first few weeks, and when I said to my tutor I would like to do more business modules, he suggested the HND in Business Informatics.

There are fewer exams and more in-course assessments with an HND, and I preferred that. We had to do a lot of essays and reports, but also a lot of hands-on computer work. I enjoyed it, and at the end of two years, I decided - along with nine or 10 other students - to go on to the final degree year. We thought, we've come this far, we might as well keep going.

It's been harder this year, and it's quite a big jump from the HND work, but I think the HND was good preparation.

Allan Rigby, 19, is half-way through a two-year Foundation Degree in land management at Moulton Further Education College in conjunction with University College Northampton

I looked at A-levels, and it seemed like I wasn't going to learn anything I wanted to learn specifically, just have another two years at school. I wanted to do something a lot more practical. So I left school at 16, and went to Moulton Further Education College, to do a two-year National Diploma in countryside management.

I got a distinction in the National Diploma. After that, Moulton College had started up this new foundation degree, and I decided it made sense to stay at the college, because I knew everyone there.

It's a lot more practical than other degrees - it's not just sitting in a classroom, although we do have to do a certain amount of theory work. I'm quite keen to do a third year - on environmental sciences - which tops up the foundation degree to an honours degree; I think it's worth it in the long run. I don't just want to be cutting down trees all day.

Saiyeesh Maheswaran, 20, retook two A-levels at Mander Portman Woodward, a private college in London. He has now completed his first year as a medical student at University College London

When I first did my A-leveIs, at Eltham College, I needed an A and two Bs to do medicine at UCL, but I got three Bs - in physics, chemistry and biology. I was gutted to miss out by such a narrow margin. It would have been very easy to change to a different course, but it didn't seem worth giving up a career that I really wanted.

I had heard about Mander Portman Woodward from a friend, who had been in a similar situation the year before, and I decided to retake there. I started a course in September, and in January I retook one chemistry module, and the whole of biology.

I had to work harder than at school, but the teaching gave me more motivation. I got two A grades and I've had a great year at UCL - retaking was definitely worthwhile.

Sana Viner, 22, has just completed her second year studying for an English degree at Birmingham University. She is blind

I visited quite a few different universities, and I chose Birmingham - not because it was the best geared up for people with disabilities, but because I liked the feel of the place.

Everybody here has been very helpful, in the English department and the disability offices, and they have given me a lot of support. They are quite open to suggestions, and are moving towards having better facilities - but the technology is expensive. It can be difficult for me to get reading materials in an accessible format - either in electronic-audio format or in Braille - and I have to think a long way ahead. Some universities have a centre that does all this for you.

There are now some computers in the library here with screen-reading software, and I have my own software to scan printed books into the computer - though the process is not always that accurate. I get my exam papers in Braille, and this year I've had a Braille embosser of my own - but you still have to have the material in electronic form before you can emboss it.

I have students allocated to read for me, up to 12 hours a week if I need it. I have also had help with note-taking in the past - and made some good friends this way - but now I prefer to take a lap-top into lectures with me and take my own notes. I've had a guide dog since February, which has made a lot more sense.

You can always do with more help but it's certainly not impossible, and I've got through two years. Now that I've got to know tutors, they know how I work and how I need more time for things.

Tayyub Rafiq, 23, has just finished his first year of a degree in youth a community work at the University of Manchester. He left school with no qualifications and got interested in education again while in prison. Last year he won an Adult Learners' Award given by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education

We weren't interested in education when I was at school. I used to mess about and got suspended a lot. When I left school, I got into even more trouble and eventually I was locked up. I really regret all of that.

When I was locked up, I used to read a lot and when I got out I took some GCSEs and realised I could do education. At school they always used to tell me I could never do anything and never would. I'd had jobs in factories and shops and on stalls but I didn't want to be like old people you talked to who always regretted that they hadn't had enough education. And I didn't want to work in a factory for the rest of my life.

I did a higher education certificate at Bradford University and then came to Manchester. I like it at university. It gives you a good perspective on other points of view. I'd say to anyone thinking about doing this that if I can do it, anyone can. I can walk into a class now and I feel like a student. You aren't an outsider anymore - it brings your confidence out.

My aim is to put something back into my community and encourage others to achieve something for themselves. I left school with no qualifications and mixed with the wrong people. Now I feel mature enough to understand the value of a good education.

Angela Smith, a 37-year-old single mother, got a degree in accounting from Dundee University, winning the Dean's Medal in the process. She now works as a care manager in the social work department of Dundee Council. Before taking her degree, she was struggling on benefits with a young daughter

I was working as a volunteer in the Cancer Research charity shop in Dundee when I found a book on book-keeping. I thought it would help me manage my budget better because I was unemployed and money was really tight. I went to Dundee College with the idea of taking a night school course in book-keeping but within a month I had been persuaded to apply to Dundee University and was accepted. I had never considered university before. I got eight O grades and two Highers but I was from a working-class community where there was no tradition of higher education. I thought snobs went to university.

A lot of my ideas changed when I went to university. It opened up my view point of so many different aspects of life. I became more interested in what was happening in the world. In my new job I combine my management education with my nursing skills and I just love it.