Be prepared for the Clearing process and you could still end up on the course of your dreams. By Richard Wallis

So what do you want first: the good news or the bad news? The bad? Clearing's looming and, if you've missed your grades, you could be thinking this might be your last chance of a place in higher education. You've thought it through, for a good 10-15 minutes maybe, and as far as you can see, the only decision left is whether to file your feelings under desperation or despair. So you're eager for that scrap of good news now? Well, there's more than a scrap.

So what do you want first: the good news or the bad news? The bad? Clearing's looming and, if you've missed your grades, you could be thinking this might be your last chance of a place in higher education. You've thought it through, for a good 10-15 minutes maybe, and as far as you can see, the only decision left is whether to file your feelings under desperation or despair. So you're eager for that scrap of good news now? Well, there's more than a scrap.

Let's start with life expectancy. In 1901 it was 45 for men and 49 for women; by 2002 it had risen to 76 and 81. By 2020 it can be expected to rise to 81 and 84. The point I'm making is not to get in a state about whether to go through Clearing or not. With Lifelong Learning more than a slogan now and opportunities to become a student at almost any age, you have got a lot of time in hand to think about what you want to do.

Clearing is not compulsory. It is a fantastic way to get a higher education course, but there are always other options like work, changing direction, taking a year out, improving your qualifications. Results are only a disaster if you allow them to be. You really are talking about the rest of what we hope will be a long life. Within that context, Clearing is just one of many opportunities; you do not have to participate and if you do, there is no need to accept anything in haste.

Clearing is simply the last part of the UCAS system. It allows people without a university or college place to find suitable vacancies on courses. Last year just under 39,000 people found places.

You will be eligible for Clearing if you fall into one these categories: you have been unsuccessful in all the courses you applied for through UCAS; you did not meet the conditions of the offers you accepted and were then turned down; you declined all your offers; you applied very late, after the UCAS deadlines (12 or 30 June).

REMEMBER: If you wish to use Clearing but have not applied through UCAS, you can still become eligible by completing a UCAS application right up to 20 September.

In Clearing, you do the work. Vacancies are advertised on the UCAS website ( and in The Independent, The Independent on Sunday and the Daily Mirror. Any other vacancy lists are unofficial. Those eligible ring the universities and colleges advertising vacancies with a view to establishing a lasting relationship.

If a university wishes to accept an applicant, it will ask for a Clearing Entry Form (CEF). UCAS automatically sends the CEF to all eligible applicants. If you are a GCE A-level applicant, it will not reach you until you have your results. You get just one CEF. It is your way of showing you are not holding a place elsewhere. You can talk to as many institutions as you wish, but you send your CEF to the one you want to accept if it wants to accept you and asks for your CEF. Explain nicely to any others you were talking to that you have chosen somewhere else to go.

Your aim should be for the Clearing Entry Form to travel to just one university or college, but if you did send it somewhere and your application were then unsuccessful, the form would be returned to you. Clearing works in this way because you are likely to make more approaches than UCAS could ever make on your behalf. You are, after all, your own best advocate.

What are your chances?

No one can really assess that, but there are a wide range of courses available at a broad spectrum of universities in Clearing. Everyone will advise you that if you are prepared to be flexible, then your chances will be good. You must remember, however, the context of the decision you are making. You are looking at what you want to do with at least three years of your life - and maybe much more.

As not every course and university will be available in Clearing, it is perfectly reasonable for you to consider whether what you want is being offered. You have no doubt read about league tables, listing the standing of universities and colleges. This does seem an obvious way to assess the value of what is available. However, just as you need to be aware that being totally flexible might lead you to accept an unsuitable course, you should also be aware that league tables need to be handled with care.

When assessing institutions you are interested in, you should look closely at all the available information from prospectuses to websites, with the aim of choosing the best university and college for you. Most tables are compiled by newspapers and list universities and colleges in ranking order. A football league table would be produced on the basis of simple criteria: three points for a win, one for a draw and nothing for losing. The criteria used for university and college league tables differ, using teaching quality, research rankings, spending, staff/student ratios, degree classification awarded, graduate employment. Scotland has developed its own distinctive approach to quality in higher education which varies significantly from the rest of the UK and is rarely translated correctly in league tables. All, or some of this, is turned into points.

On the one hand: overall rankings can disguise individual course and department strengths; positions can vary from table to table for the same institution; data used is permanently out of date; most criteria do not offer any guide to the quality of education provided; all criteria are averages across institutions; different weightings and scales used in tables can exaggerate small differences; in three years' time when you have finished your degree all the positions will have changed; ratings tell you nothing about yourself and you are an important part of the equation.

On the other hand a consistently strong showing across several tables does undoubtedly mean something.

There is a tendency to portray Clearing as a form of chaos. In fairness it is true that vacancies only start being advertised five or six weeks before the start of most courses. This is a short time when you consider you need to negotiate a place, maybe organise accommodation and set in place financial arrangements. But you can't afford to let time constraints rule you. The course will last the same length of time whether you gained the place in Clearing or earlier. University or college will still be a potentially life-changing and life-enhancing experience. View Clearing in terms of the rest of your life.

You may, however, be reassured to know that the pressure is not all on you, the applicant. Vacancies are advertised in Clearing because universities and colleges need to fill them. They are looking to accept students. Their time is limited too and if they are unable to fill their places they can suffer financial penalties. So, you may discover to your surprise that you are a wanted commodity.

When you are ringing universities, you will be more impressive and find it easier if you are prepared. Be able to talk about yourself, have some notes alongside you. Know your UCAS application number and your Clearing Entry Form number - you will be asked for them. Find out something about the course. Each university and college deals with this in a different way, but try to be ready for anything, even being interviewed by phone. You could find yourself talking direct to an admissions tutor. Simply sounding eager opens lots of doors.

Engaging your brain always helps. Do not be tempted by the first thing offered, unless you really are sure. Consider all offers. Think through what has been said. Discuss things with those you trust. If you don't understand, seek help from teachers, UCAS, careers advisers. The One Life service in Clearing has experienced advisers waiting for your call.

It sounds obvious, but the rest of your life ought to make sense to you. There is a lot of it left.

Richard Wallis is a member of the UCAS customer service unit


The UCAS Customer Services Unit provides a friendly, efficient service offering help throughout the Clearing period. The number is 0870 11 222 11. Please have your UCAS application number with you when calling. The lines are open:-

Monday 16 - Wednesday 18 August: 8am-6pm

Thursday 19 - Friday 20 August: 8am-8pm

Saturday 21 August: 9am-5pm

Sunday 22 August: 9am-noon

Monday 23 - Friday 27 August: 8am-6pm

Saturday 28 August: 9am-5pm

Sunday 29 August: CLOSED

Monday 30 August Bank Holiday: 9am-noon

Tuesday 31 August - Friday 3 September: 8am-6pm

Saturday 4 September: 9am-noon

Sunday 5 September: CLOSED

Monday 6 - Friday 10 September: 8am-6pm

Saturday 11 September: 9am-noon

Sunday 12 September: CLOSED

Monday 13 September - Friday 17 September: 8.30am-5pm

Track your progress and check the vacancies on

BBC One Life website ( and the BBC Results Hot Line running from Tuesday 10-28 August offers expert independent advice on 0808 100 8000.

The Student Loans Customer Support Office can help you on finance on 08456 077577 and see for opening hours.