Clearing guide: If at first you don't succeed – try again

Getting a place through Clearing isn't as stressful as it sounds – as long as you are willing to keep ringing round

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The Independent Online

So you've got lower A-level grades than you expected and your chosen university won't take you, or maybe you missed the final deadline for your Ucas application. Don't give up – the advice from all the experts is: "Keep calm and carry on." You're still in with a chance thanks to Ucas Clearing, which helps students to find courses at universities or colleges where there are still places available.

Last year, 50,000 people secured a place through Clearing, but this year universities and colleges in England can expand their places for highly qualified applicants (AAB+ at A-level or equivalent), though not all will.

"Getting in to higher education remains a competitive process and there are already more applicants in the system this year than places available," says Sara Brady, a Ucas advisor. "Clearing isn't just for people who missed their grades, it's for anyone who finds themselves without an offer."

First – do your homework. Even if you're fairly confident about your exam results it pays to consider your options if you don't get the place you hoped for. Well before results day, look up other universities and colleges that offer your chosen subject, and also be flexible about the subject you'll study. You might consider a joint honours or foundation course or a higher national diploma (HND). But keep your goal in sight and ask yourself whether the degree is relevant to your chosen career.

Employability is a priority now for university courses. Teesside University has seen applications for arts programmes fall, while those for animation and computer game courses – where Teesside has an international reputation – have rocketed. It is also seeing a surge in applications for health and social care courses thanks to the university's strong links with the NHS.

The number of spaces varies from course to course says Nic Pike, head of admissions at the University of Surrey. "There can be nuances even within a course. For example, law with accountancy and accountancy with law may have different requirements."

Make a list of all the courses and universities you would consider, in order of preference, and gather all the details you'll be asked for – your exam results, course choices and Clearing number, which is on your Ucas Track page.

On results day, find yourself a quiet corner with a landline or mobile – but make sure it won't run out of battery. Have your laptop handy so you can follow the availability of courses at your chosen universities. Take a deep breath – and be prepared to re-dial. In 2010 Kingston University received 40,000 calls in five hours.

"The main rush is around the 'brown envelope moment' at 8am," says Pike, "but we'll be answering the phone from 7am. We arrange a two-phase phone call, so we can spend as much time as is required with each caller. There are 45 experts on hand, a combination of people from the admissions department, faculties, recruitment and marketing.

"Each applicant will speak to a senior academic who teases out what they want to study and their aspirations. If appropriate they'll make an offer on the spot. We give candidates a deadline of 24 hours to make their decision, because we want them to be sure that they are making the right choice."

Because of the rise in tuition fees, demand for university places this year is highly unpredictable, so universities are having to be even more flexible. At Teesside, which normally admits around 4,000 undergraduates annually, there are 200 places reserved for Clearing. Michael Lavery, director of marketing and student recruitment, explains the process of agreeing an entry level and any concessions that might be made at the Clearing stage: "We decide what level of points we might concede to fill a programme with the right kind of candidate.

"We're not just looking at exam results – the candidate's application, motivation to study and personal references are all taken into consideration. We want to learn what they will bring to the university, as well as their commitment to social responsibility and citizenship. We want to find the best applicants who are a good fit for the kind of education we provide."

Teesside prides itself on its recruitment marketing, making full use of social media during Clearing. For example, students can ask questions on the university's website or Facebook profile, or log on from a smartphone. A public response to their query can be published on the university website and Facebook website, so others can read a stream of the most frequently asked questions.

To help you in your journey through Clearing, here are some words of wisdom from the people you'll talk to on the other end of the phone. "Things change from minute to minute," says Pike. "At 9.30am a university may say no, but candidates have a habit of changing their mind, so it's worth phoning back later in the day or week."

"When you talk to a tutor show enthusiasm, ask what the module means and how assessment works. Demonstrate that you're serious about their subject area – academics like that," Lavery advises. Remember that the university staff are there to help you find the place that is right for you. There's no need to panic.

"I'm well on the way to attaining my dream of becoming a teacher"

Rob Callaghan is studying at Teesside University for a Bachelors degree in early childhood studies.

At 23, Rob was in a job he didn't like and decided to go to university so he could start a new career as a teacher. He needed an A-level, but combining full-time work with studying psychology in only one year was tough, and he didn't get the grades he needed.

"It was very disappointing, but on the morning my results came through I searched the internet for courses on early childhood studies and found Teesside University through Clearing. I knew nothing about Teesside – or even where it was – but I phoned up and spoke to Geraldine Oliver who ran the course. I told her I had a long-term goal to be a primary school teacher and wasn't sure whether that course was appropriate. She explained about the modules and how they would benefit me, and said she wanted to meet me the next day."

Callaghan went to Teesside and was immediately impressed. "She made the course and the university seem so appealing that I took up the offer of a place straight away. The experience at Teesside lived up to all my expectations."

His dissertation focused on forest schools. "I was interested in how outdoor play benefits children, and heard about this concept from Scandinavia which centres on children learning more in the outdoors. I've recently been accepted on to a postgraduate certificate in education programme, and when being interviewed I drew heavily on content from my course."

Callaghan says that volunteering is a big plus on your application form, demonstrating that you're keen and have experience. "I spent some time in a school before I went to university, and also worked as an Aimhigher mentor doing activities in local schools about the benefits of going to university."

He advises aspiring students "Don't give up. Look at the Clearing system and contact appropriate universities – they're there to help. From getting my A-level grades to accepting the place at Teesside was 24 hours, which changed my life. Now I'm well on the way to attaining my dream of becoming a teacher."

"I'd expected lots of hassle, but there was none"

Natalie Moore is studying for a BA in mental health nursing at the University of Surrey.

"My teachers had always said Clearing was a nightmare and to avoid it at all costs," says Natalie Moore. Fortunately, she ignored the advice. Her first degree was in English literature and film, but after graduating she got a job looking after adults with learning disabilities, and that led her to consider a career in nursing.

In June 2011, she made a last-minute decision to apply fora BSc in mental health nursing at the University of Surrey, then realised she had missed the application deadline by a day.

"My only option if I wanted to start a course soon was to go through Clearing," she says. "I had expected quite a difficult process with lots of to-ing and fro-ing, but nothing could have been further from the truth. The day that Clearing opened I had a telephone interview with a mental health tutor who invited me to an interview at Surrey University the following week.

"There I had a literacy and numeracy test, and was offered a university place the next day. All I had to do before the course started was to post proof of my qualifications – there was no hassle at all."

One year into her course Natalie, 24, is delighted. "It's brilliant, I go out on clinical placements and am getting practical experience of what nursing is all about. By going through Clearing I've got on the perfect course to do something I feel passionate about."