If Clearing doesn't work for you it might well be worth considering sitting some of your A-level examinations again, says Beryl Dixon

You've come off the phone. Your university won't accept you with those grades - and there's no course that appeals in the Clearing listings. What now? It could be worth considering retaking some modules or even an entire subject in order to improve your grades. Yes, Clearing works for some; but it's not for everyone, and the first year drop out rate among students who have ended up on inappropriate courses is high.

Just as Clearing is not right for everyone, neither is the retake option. It's not easy to go over the same ground. You will need to do some soul searching first. Did you not do enough work at AS level and rely on high A2 grades to make up the marks? Did you do insufficient revision for A2? Were there genuine medical or family reasons that hampered exam performance? Or were you overambitious in your choice of university or course?

If the answers to these questions lead you to think about retakes you will need to act quickly. The final date for accepting or rejecting grades is 20 September. You need to do so through your previous examination centre - usually the school or college where you did your A-levels. A new centre cannot do this for you.

If you decide to retake, how and where will you do so? Could you retake some modules at your school? If you prefer a fresh start, you might find the answer at a local college of further education. It is unlikely to advertise retake courses in the press but may well offer a one-year A-level programme for anyone, a new or retaking student, who is determined and prepared to work hard. The course could be full or part-time. You might not find a perfect course initially but colleges are becoming more flexible in devising plans of study for individual students. You might for instance, be able to organise a package of distance learning assignments, attendance at some A-level lectures and tutorials with subject lecturers. The cost should not exceed a few hundred pounds per subject. You could supplement this with an intensive Easter revision course at a private college.

Another option is to work on your own with private tuition from a subject teacher. This method would require immense self discipline - but has been done.

For many students a tutorial or independent sixth form college is the answer. Their staff have wide experience of getting students into university. Many are subject examiners and can do a great deal to improve students' exam technique. Classes are small and students have individual timetables. However, such establishments are not cheap. You could expect to pay tuition fees per subject of around £3,000 for a short retake course or £5,000 for one year. You should have some flexibility over dates. Many colleges offer courses from September to January or from January to June, which means that you may not have to forgo any gap year plans. You might opt for either period or play safe and think in terms of September to June. Even in the latter case you could find that your timetable was sufficiently flexible to permit some part-time work.

The next decision is which modules to attempt. It would make sense to try the ones in which you were weaker the first time round while carrying forward the best ones. Katie Lowry, for example (see inset), retook her lowest graded AS modules to push up her final score. However, a complete choice of modules and dates is not always possible. Not all modules are available in January and not all subjects are portable. It may or may not be possible to carry forward coursework - and since policies vary with different exam boards it is essential to check.

Some students decide to take an intensive one year course in a new subject, taking AS modules in January and A2s in June. This does mean hard work but for some it can be the right choice. If you first check that one of your previous subjects is not essential this could be a good plan. Universities are flexible about entry requirements to many courses and even medical schools have not insisted on three sciences for some time. Why struggle with physics if you could do better in a different subject "This is not something the majority of our students do." says David Smith, deputy principal of Mander Portman Woodward College in Birmingham. "However it could be the case that they misjudged the leap from GCSE to A-level or simply found the in-depth subject material uninteresting. They could be well advised to start again in one subject, particularly if the weak one was maths or physics acting as a third subject. We have students who have taken psychology or environmental science and achieved places for medicine."

Could you seriously expect to improve your grades? "Whilst some students can and do improve by three or four grades, as a general rule they can improve by one or two grades in January and one to three grades in June" says Hugh Templeton, principal of Lansdowne College in London. "We always make it clear that improving grades is a two-way process. They must be willing to put in the effort because no matter how good we are, if they are not prepared to work they will not succeed. As a rule of thumb, they need to put in as many hours outside the classroom as they do inside the classroom."

Whatever you decide to do, it is important to accept advice - from the teachers who taught you originally and from staff at new colleges. Those at tutorial colleges have wide experience on advising retake students and will know which module combinations to suggest.

Finally, it is important to establish the policy of your proposed university. Many expect students to achieve higher grades the second time round or even prefer an additional subject to be offered. There is no point in spending a year in further study only to find that you are no further forward at the end. You could phone initially but it is advisable to follow with an email or letter so that you obtain a written reply.

How do you choose a college - private or state sector? "Visit several if there is a choice where you live," says Keith Pollard, principal of Harrogate Tutorial College. "Meet tutors and ask questions. If you need to leave home then visit the accommodation provided as well." You could also visit the website of the Council for Independent Further Education which has a good question and answer section and gives information on its 26 member colleges ( www.getthegrade.co.uk).

'The tutor helped me improve my weak points'

Name: Dan Williams

Age: 19

College: Mander Portman Woodward (MPW), Birmingham

I left my revision too late. I needed AAB for optometry at Cardiff but got maths A, chemistry B and physics C. The course was full and there was no hope in Clearing. There aren't many courses and entry is competitive.

I knew I could do better and was considering getting a job and employing a private tutor when my mother remembered that a friend's son had improved his grades at MPW. We went for an interview and agreed that I would re-sit two chemistry and two physics modules in January.

As I was the only student for those particular modules I had individual tuition. The timetable was arranged so that I went in for two days each week and could work part-time. I had a lot of homework and past exam questions to answer. One thing that really helped was that every day I had to do a test in the form of a timed assignment. The tutor then helped me to improve my weak points.

I now have A in chemistry, B in physics and my place at Cardiff. I'm working full-time at Specsavers and I might be able to go back there to complete my pre-registration year.

'Doing retakes was difficult. But it was worth it'

Name: Katie Lowry

Age: 20

College: Lansdowne College, London

I needed three As (in chemistry, geography and maths) to do land economy at Cambridge. When I got BBC - not with high marks - I was devastated. I rang Cambridge and was told that I was welcome to reapply.

I almost accepted a Clearing offer for law but decided that I did want my original choice and that I would give retakes my best shot. My school couldn't offer any tuition though I could have taken the exams there.

At Lansdowne I was taught in much smaller classes. I also learned a lot about essay writing and exam technique which I hadn't covered before. Tutors worked out the best modules for me to retake in order to achieve high As and advised me to do as many as possible in January. I got high marks and was then able to concentrate on study for just two more in June and get a part-time job.

Doing retakes was the most difficult decision I have ever made - and it was also hard to see friends going off to university. I had to sacrifice some social life between September and January but I achieved three As and am now at Cambridge, so it was worth it.

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