Don’t ask someone else to speak to admissions tutors for you — and make sure you’re available on results day / Alamy

A cool head and solid research is vital

As every shopaholic knows, the January sales can be exciting and stressful in equal measure. “You can rush into the shops and see some real bargains,” says careers adviser Sarah Bull, “so you grab one, pay and run out with it – only to get home and realise that you really didn’t want it in the first place.”

Clearing – the process whereby students who don’t have a place to study at university can snaffle unfilled places – is very similar. “While it pays to be open-minded and shop around, make sure that, if you find a university place through Clearing, you’re signing up for a course that is right for you and will help you express who you are through education and work,” Bull says. “That way, when you find the best sale bargain, you can feel very proud.”

Eoin Lally, head of student recruitment and marketing at St George’s, University of London, uses the same analogy. “Some students just want to get to the till without really thinking about what they’re buying,” he warns. Admissions tutors, in his experience, prefer them to take a measured approach.

While increasing numbers of students are applying late through Ucas with the specific intention of finding a course after results day, the majority in Clearing have still found themselves there more by accident than design, either by missing their conditional offer, or having a change of heart about their course.

“The clichéd advice is ‘stay calm’,” says Bull. “That’s easy to say, not so easy to do. So my advice is be real. Let your true emotions out for 15 minutes – and then start getting your head together, being calm and thinking about the options that are available to you.”

Stay positive. “The disappointment is amplified at the time, especially if your exam results came as a shock. There are ups and downs in life. There’s no need to carry baggage about missing your conditional offer,” Bull stresses. “You need to draw a line under it quickly, get good advice, stop giving yourself a hard time and make good decisions so you can move on happily.”

Careers advisers at your school or college, and those at the Exam Results Helpline (ERH), can help. Funded by the Department for Education, the latter makes more than 40 independent careers advisers, each with a minimum of five years’ experience, available to offer free guidance and advice to students. This goes beyond Clearing, also taking in a range of options, including resits and retakes, gap years, careers, vocational courses, and access to higher education, as well as help with practical matters such as funding.

“As well as the call centre, this year we will be providing real-time advice through Facebook and on Twitter,” says Victoria Ward, communications manager at the ERH. This is a welcome addition to the service, she notes: “Students tend to spend a lot of time on social media. When typing on a phone or computer, they may be less inhibited, and therefore feel able to ask questions they might feel embarrassed asking over the phone.”

Such direct questions will receive quick and reliable responses – and students can also potentially get help without typing a word, just by looking at answers to others’ questions on social media.

Furthermore, ERH advisers can add links to more in-depth articles to their correspondence, or redirect students where appropriate. That said, “in many instances, picking up the phone will still be the best way to get advice”, Ward confirms.

The Clearing process also requires a little reflection, says Bull. “Think about what happened – why you are in Clearing – and what you want to do next,” she suggests.

“There are lots of options. University isn’t right for everybody, and there is help out there whether or not you think it is right for you. This is the time to be open to new possibilities so you can move forward positively. Think about how you made your choices in the first place. How did you decide what to do and where to go? Are those choices still relevant?”

If they are, Bull says, it’s worth calling universities that offered you a place. “Don’t assume that because you’ve missed your grades that the offer is off the table. And, even if it is, the university could well offer you a place on a similar course, if you’re sure that theirs is the institution for you and can convey that to them.”

 If Clearing is the right path for you, you are far from alone: the process enables over 50,000 people to successfully find places to study every year. “Staying positive will put you on the front foot,” says Philip Blaker, Ucas’ director of operations. “The best way to succeed is to prepare thoroughly, then call universities and colleges for an intelligent discussion about the courses you’re interested in. Explain why you would be a great fit for the course,” he advises. “Ask sensible questions about the content and structure, aiming to show your passion for studying the subject.”

Lally agrees. “It’s always good for students to know what they’re looking for. If you’re calling a university about a vacancy, explain why you want to study that specific course at that university. We want to answer students’ questions and talk about the detail of the degree. If students are thinking realistically about what it would be like to study with us, we see that they’re committed to coming here, and that they genuinely want to make sure it’s the right match. That’s very important, both for us and for the student.”

It doesn’t pay to hang around, though. “Last year, we had about 2,000 calls in three days for 100 Clearing vacancies, so it’s pretty intense,” Lally says.

However, he adds: “We respect that students need a bit of time to think about an offer.” The best advice is to call around as soon after picking up your exam results as you can. If you’re then offered a place, ask for a little time to research it. Read the prospectus, spend some time on the university website, check rankings, read student blogs, visit the institution if you can. And, while you’re considering all that, you can get back on the telephone to see what else might be available at other universities. Students can hold Clearing offers with multiple universities.

As for no-nos, Bull says don’t ask someone else to speak to admissions tutors for you. “Call the universities yourself – getting Mum involved won’t do you any favours.”

Secondly, make sure you’re available on exam results day. No one knows how the day will pan out, so you need to be ready to think carefully about your future, research your options, and possibly get on the telephone, with your Ucas number to hand.

Put all those pieces together and you can bag yourself a place on a great course, Bull concludes. Approached with a calm head, “people get brilliant places through Clearing”.