Finding student digs needn't be a nightmare, it just takes planning, says Esther Armstrong

So, it's happened. You applied to a course through Clearing and managed to get a place. But getting into further study is only half the job. Actually going to university or college is another hurdle altogether, and where you stay can make or break your experience of higher education.

"Clearing students have a lot on their plate and it can be a high-pressure time with lots of decisions to make," says Vivienne Robinson, accommodation manager for Newcastle University. With the inevitable speed of a Clearing application, it can be difficult to take time out to consider accommodation. But you must find time to think about your needs and wants.

If it helps, you can even make a list. As a fresher you may only have a few criteria to fulfil. In what is likely to be your first year outside the family home, you probably don't want to give up your creature comforts, but there are compromises that won't hurt too much if it means you are in among the action. After all, does that en suite bathroom look so desirable if it means you face a 10-mile trek every time you have a lecture?

Simon Thompson, co-founder and director at accommodationforstudents. com, says location is key: "You do not want to be too far out of town. There's always safety in numbers and it is more fun to be in the thick of it than out on a limb. The last thing you want to be thinking about is travelling miles on your own to get home at the end of a night."

But with time in short supply, there may be a distinct lack of digs left for you to choose from. So what is the best way to ensure your accommodation search is as fruitful and painless as possible in the circumstances? Your first port of call, of course, should be the accommodation office at the university or college that has given you a place.

"Choice will be a bit more limited, but we always encourage students to come into halls of residence, for the student experience – that is really for their own benefit," says Robinson. "Most prefer to come into university accommodation and their parents prefer it too. It is easier to make friendship groups that way."

She also stresses that although "guaranteed" students – who received offers earlier in the year and met their grades – are dealt with as a priority, by the end of August they will all be placed. Clearing students are not left to fend for themselves and every effort is made to help.

In Newcastle, they have a target number of first-year places and the department plans ahead to provide enough rooms to match that number. Not all universities can offer the same guarantee. Goldsmiths in London have more accommodation applications than they have available spaces. So, to help counteract this problem, they contribute to University of London Housing Services, which provides lists to students as a way of identifying landlords who are known to be trustworthy.

If you are in a situation where you may have to rent privately, it is helpful to look out for recognised bodies. The recent furore surrounding letting scams on is a powerful reminder that not everyone advertises property with the best intentions.

Then there are companies, such as Unite, Liberty Living and Opal Estate who provide private halls. "They tend to be quite similar to halls of residence – a student community, with 24-hour security and all the same facilities. Some even have extra," says Thompson.

With more than 36,000 students on their books, Unite is the UK's largest student accommodation provider and it has a lot of experience in helping clearing students. "We plan our sales cycle so that when Clearing comes round each year, we have 10 per cent of our beds across the UK available specifically for those students," says Nathan Goddard, sales and marketing director for Unite.

While your time may be short, there are people on your side who are happy to help. So, whatever happens come results day, do not despair – get organised, do your research, and prepare to pester.

'Hours were spent on the phone sorting it all out'

Emily Williams, 20, is studying drama at Exeter University

"I was planning on going to Leeds to study drama and I needed two As and a B. When I got my results I had two As and a C. I went into a mad panic and called Leeds, but they were not accepting anyone who hadn't got the grades.

So I went on the internet immediately. Exeter would have been my insurance choice, but they had asked for the same grades as Leeds, so I chose Warwick. But I decided to apply to Exeter through Clearing and got a phone call from the head of year one. He gave me a mini interview and said they would like to offer me a place.

Several hours were spent on the phone to the accommodation office sorting it all out. As I was going through Clearing I didn't get the questionnaire asking about preferences [which halls you want to be in, and so on], but I did get a choice of catered or self-catered.

I got my accommodation sorted two weeks before I went. I would have considered private flats if halls hadn't worked out, but for my first year I really wanted to be in halls. I would advise to keep ringing the accommodation office and don't panic."

The top ten accomodation tips

Work out a budget

It is best to know your upper limit from the start so that you don't agree to accommodation outside your price range.

Try the university halls first – and act quickly

It's an onerous task, but the sooner you get your forms filled out the better.

The internet is your friend

A lot of information will be available on the web. But take any pictures with a pinch of salt. It's amazing what can be achieved with the right lighting and a good camera angle.

Use quality control

Take someone along to help. Make sure there is no sign of damp and ask for an energy performance certificate.

Know what you are willing to compromise on

Think about what is most important to you: proximity to town; catered or self-catered; single or shared rooms?

Ask about deposits

In some cases you will pay an insurance premium against damages, in others it will be a month's rent. Know the conditions before you sign.

Meet the landlord

Are they helpful and co-operative when you ask questions? This gives a good indication of how any future problems will be dealt with.

Check the tenancy dates

Even university halls may require you to move out during the holidays.

Can you lock the bedrooms?

Some insurance companies will only provide cover if this extra security is present.

Be realistic

Even students who have had time to prepare and deliberate do not always get their first choice of halls. That's life.