Clearing: find a course you click with

Clearing is fast, efficient and online – so finding the right institution is easier than ever, says James Morrison

If there’s one thing that keeps Steven Holdcroft smiling as he hunkers down for his umpteenth Clearing marathon it’s the knowledge that, sooner or later, he’ll have made someone’s day.

His 16 years in university admissions have accustomed him to every type of reaction from students frantically casting around for a place after failing to make the grade for their chosen course. But by far the most rewarding are when their cries of despair turn to delight.

“Every year we get students on the line who have missed their grades, but who we can accept anyway or offer an alternative,” says Holdcroft, head of information, recruitment, and admissions at the University of Kent (Medway). The university takes 15 per cent of its students through Clearing. “When someone is in tears but you calm them down and sort something out, it’s really satisfying.”

Emotions can run high

Clearing fortnight is always an emotional rollercoaster. There are, after all, few sleepless nights to rank alongside the one before you get your hands on that ominous bit of paper showing your A-level results. But if you find yourself facing a column of grades lower than you’d expected, all is not lost: of the 413,000 university applicants given firm places last summer, nearly one in 10 (39,000) secured them through Clearing.

Find your course online

Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, finding a last-minute place has never been easier. Whereas applicants would once have spent days trying to secure a berth at university – waiting for individual prospectuses to reach them in the post, then painstakingly wading through in search of viable substitute courses – the internet has revolutionised this process.

Today everything can be sorted out within hours: a visit to the Ucas online Track service will confirm whether you have scraped in, or have indeed lost your place, while the Clearing website offers a handy A-Z of courses looking to fill vacancies.

A few mouse-clicks later you could be reading through a term-by-term breakdown of a degree that, though not your original choice, makes an inspiring fall-back option.

But be warned: all this user-friendly advice comes at a price. With such detailed information available at the tap of a key, applicants now have little excuse to complain if a course is not right for them once they’ve enrolled. By the time you dial an institution’s Clearing hotline and ask to be put through to the relevant faculty, you’ll need to be crystal clear about what questions to ask – and once you accept a place you must be certain it’s right for you.

“Students need to take responsibility,” says Martha Hebblethwaite, student recruitment manager at St George’s, University of London. “Clearing’s a bit like shopping, but students should consider who they phone, and research courses properly before calling. They may be relieved to be offered anything, but they must make sure it’s the right place and course for them.”

Don't panic!

Olivia Ramsbottom, student recruitment manager at the University of Derby, which has a video on its website in which students accepted via Clearing recount their experiences, also says it is vital to stay calm. “Breathe, check your options, and don’t panic,” she says. “Don’t just start ringing people: look at websites first. You must have some idea of where you want to go geographically, and what you want to do. In most areas there will be really valid courses, even if they’re not ones that immediately spring to mind. Maybe you’re set on doing media studies, but what about multimedia, film, or photography?”

Of course, before you reach this stage you’ll need to have summoned the courage to pick up the phone. A common complaint of universities is that many calls they receive are from anxious parents ringing on behalf of their even more worried children. So frustrated have universities become with this trend that some, like St George’s, now refuse to speak to anyone other than the students themselves, on data protection grounds.

This, and a desire to tackle another perennial complaint – that students are often away on holiday, and unavailable to contact Clearing, when their results arrive – has moved Ucas to introduce a new system this year, allowing applicants to use named intermediaries to negotiate their places for them. More than two-thirds have taken advantage this year – the vast majority nominating their parents.

Although you need to be focused and precise in your dealings with Clearing, you’re unlikely to find yourself forced into a decision by most institutions. While universities may be eager to recruit students for under-subscribed degrees, faculties entering Clearing know it’s not in their interest to take late applicants unless convinced they will stay the course.

Jason Morrison, 22, one of a team of trained student advocates who manned the phones for Thames Valley University last year, and an interviewee on The Clearing Show, a chat show designed to dispel nerves about the process that can be downloaded from its website, says: “I think it helps involving students in answering the Clearing lines, because we’re not fulltime university staff, so we’re not blinkered by financial issues, or having to find people to fill specific courses. I don’t want to get a student into a course for the sake of it.”

  • The official Ucas listings will be published in The Independent newspaper and online onThursday.
  • To check if your university place has been confirmed or declined, visit Track on www.ucas.com/students/track before deciding to enter Clearing.
  • For general information on Clearing, visit www.ucas.com/clearing
  • Get to the point
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