Results day can be tense but there's no need to fret if you don't get the right grades / Alamy

When your grades are not what you expected, talk through your options with a professional for advice on what to do next

For many students A-level results day is tense, to say the least. It's the day when plans for the future are secured. For others, it's the day they're thrown into the air, either by exceeding or by missing the grades they were aiming for.

The lucky few who find they have done better than expected can explore "Adjustment" – a process by which Ucas applicants can shop around for alternative courses with the security of their firm offer in place.

For the far larger group of students who miss their required grades, help – not to mention a host of potentially exciting options – is at hand.

"Don't panic," says Bob Walker, a careers adviser who's been working on the free, impartial Exam Results Helpline for the past decade. "Talk to professionals," he advises. While family and friends can offer support, professional careers advisers – on the helpline, at Connexions or through a local careers advice service – can talk students through a range of courses and ideas without bias or agenda. For students who choose to go through Clearing – a system that matches Ucas applicants with remaining available courses at UK universities and colleges – these advisers can also pass on the most up-to-date information about vacancies.

These conversations are personal. "When callers get through, they get a person, not an automated voice," explains Walker. "They get a knowledgeable listening ear."

That personal touch extends to the care offered by the helpline. Walker remembers a very distressed caller last year, who had missed his conditional offer to go to university. After a few minutes, the phone went dead. "I lost him. But I managed to find his phone number and I called him back," Walker says, with genuine concern. He spent a lot of time over the following three days calming that caller down, talking through his options and, ultimately, helping him find a suitable alternative. "We got him fixed up at another university in a related subject."

In this case, Clearing was the right solution. In countless others, it may be a foundation degree, a higher national diploma (HND), an apprenticeship, a gap year, retakes, a professional training scheme or another option. While the Exam Results Helpline is run by Ucas, it is done so on the behalf of the Department for Education, and so offers impartial advice on different routes. "We carefully build up a picture of what each caller wants, what they need and where they're hoping to get to," says Walker.

According to Mark Dawe, managing director of OCR, a UK awarding body that specialises in vocational qualifications, that sense of direction is key. "We're entering an era where students that have done their A-levels or any other Level 3 qualification need to think about where they want to end up," Dawe says. "The old idea of getting through university and then thinking about what to do next has gone. Employers are increasingly saying we wouldn't mind having you work with us for three years, earning money while we support you in your studies." He cites higher level apprenticeships in management consultancy and in tax as examples. He also says: "Until recently, if you wanted to be an accountant, for example, you'd go to university and then join an accountancy firm. Now, those same accountancy firms are offering the opportunity to work for them with a Level 3 qualification and do a higher level course. Different employers are starting to offer different routes."

Like Walker, Dawe wouldn't say that any of these routes are better. "There are options," he says, "and, for many employers, a number are as good as each other."

Students who miss their conditional offer today would do well to keep an open mind. "If you were thinking of doing a degree to get into a particular field of work, check what qualifications that field is asking for. You might find there are options you hadn't considered before." Some may have lower requirements, and most would save you thousands of pounds in graduate debt.

The British businessman, entrepreneur and 'Twitter Dragon' Simon Dolan feels these work-based routes have great value. "While you might have lofty ambitions of going in on some high paid, fast track route, the likelihood is you will start at the bottom. And that is a good thing – embrace it, because you have a great opportunity to learn as much as you possibly can about the place you work in, introduce yourself, find out how things work and who does what. It might be that you luck out and find yourself in a great company with great prospects and you gradually work your way up the ladder," Dolan says.

Another alternative is to take time out to properly consider all your options. According to Sam Cox, managing director at Real Gap, engaging in a well-structured placement while travelling can have real benefits. "If you want to get into a certain profession – such as marketing or medicine – there are gap projects that can give you a taster. The experience of your gap year can help mould what you end up doing for your career and allows you to stand out from the crowd when applying for university or a job."

Her company sees increased interest immediately after A-level results day. "People realise that, if they don't get into university, a gap project can be a great alternative, because it gives life experience, it can give work experience, and it's a chance to clear your head and think about what you want to do next. We surveyed 500 businesses last year, and it seems employers want more life and work experience on CVs," she adds.

Real Gap launched a new internship range of gap projects this year, including journalism in India, marketing in Argentina, medical placements in Namibia and many others, including engineering and architecture.

With higher university fees from September 2012, and high graduate unemployment, alternative routes may be increasingly attractive. Those with their heart set on university, meanwhile, needn't think their opportunity stops with a missed conditional offer. As Walker stresses: "There is always plan B, a plan C and an even plan D."

The Exam Results Helpline (0808 100 8000), is open until 25 August and supports students who receive higher or lower grades than expected.

Help at your fingertips: Apps to make your next steps a little easier


Designed in association with Harvard University faculty and students, this app enables you to create and study from flashcards, or search through a database to see if any match your course.


Allows users to read Kindle books, newspapers, magazines and pdfs on an easy-to-use interface.

Off Exploring

Create an online travel blog by uploading photos from your adventures, geo-tagging posts and writing notes to sync whenever you have internet connection.

XE Currency

An on-the-go currency converter that helps travellers to manage their money and stick to their gap year budget.

All the Top Bananas

With links to around 180,000 jobs currently being advertised in the UK, this app allows you to search for jobs and shortlist vacancies while you're out and about.

Job Search Coach

Career coach Deborah Brown-Volkman offers advice on how to find your perfect job, with career coaching techniques.