Learn the golden rule: don't panic when trying to get that university place

Tens of thousands of students find their university place through Clearing each year. Alex McRae reports
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The Independent Online

The morning that Aishah Pathak, 20, got her A-level results was far from the jubilant celebration that she'd hoped it would be. "That was a traumatic day," she remembers. "I freaked out. I had been predicted two As and a B, and I'd received offers from all six of the universities I applied to. But when the results came in, my sixth form tutor called and said, 'Look, you haven't got the grades.' I called my first and second choice universities, but both of them told me 'No, sorry, the course is full.' You can imagine the panic."

Luckily, the University of the West of England, which had been Pathak's third choice, was happy to offer her a place to read media and cultural studies. Now at the end of her second year, Pathak is keen to reassure those in similar positions that applying through Clearing made no difference to her experience at university. "My biggest worry was whether I'd feel like I'd just crashed in, or somehow didn't have a right to be there. But you get treated exactly the same as any other student. No one even asked me how I got in."

If your results aren't what you expected, you're not alone. Last year, of the half a million people who applied to university, 38,666 students secured places through clearing, explains Chris Dry, head of communications at UCAS. Nervous students are in safe hands, he says. "We're expecting 15,000 calls on results day and all the universities put in an enormous amount of effort to make sure everything runs smoothly. Clearing is a once in a lifetime thing for students, but the professionals behind the scenes have a huge amount of experience. It's a tried and tested process."

So how do the experts suggest students should prepare when results day dawns? The first piece of advice almost everyone gives is: be available. Even better, hover near a telephone, or a computer with online access, with all your relevant papers in front of you, rather than stuffed at the bottom of an out of reach drawer. "You can't do much from a beach in Barcelona," reasons Jamie Bradford, student advisor at De Montfort University. "Even if you're fairly confident, it's a good idea to prepare beforehand. Talk to your teachers, think about a few different back-up choices. It could feel like too much of a shock to do all the research on the day." Preparing early cuts down on stress, agrees Pathak. "If you've been predicted good grades, you might think, yeah, right, why would I need to know about Clearing? But having that knowledge helps you keep your options open."

If you miss out on the grades you need for an offer, don't panic. One of the universities on your first list of picks may still offer you a place. "Take a moment to celebrate the success of what you have achieved," advises Dianne Francombe, director of admissions and international recruitment at the University of the West of England. "Then go back and review the original six choices on your UCAS form and call those institutions, before going off into the wide blue yonder and snatching at the first opportunity that comes along. That strategy might not work, but on the whole, I find it does."

If there are no places available at one of the universities you originally chose, the next step is to think about other options. The key, says Francombe, is to stay calm and avoid making any sudden moves. "Remember what was important to you when you were applying the first time round. Think to yourself, 'Is this the right subject and the right place for me?'" She warns that it's not a good idea for concerned parents to hit the phones on behalf of their children. "Parents should be supportive, but it should be the student who makes the phone calls and asks the questions. Only the student knows the full picture of what they want - and it shows initiative on their part, which gives the admissions tutor a more positive impression."

While you're taking deep breaths and making calls, it may be reassuring to know that plenty of universities are likely to welcome you with open arms. "In many ways, it's a buyer's market," says Jamie Bradford. "There are many more places than there are students. There's nothing to stop you ringing up a dozen different universities."

Susan McGrath, a student advisor at Manchester Metropolitan University, points out that lots of universities work extremely hard at providing support during Clearing. At Manchester Metropolitan, a team of 70 students man the phones on results day to soothe frazzled callers and everyone offered a place is invited to look round the university on special visitors' days. "We try to make sure that everything that is normally available to prospective students is still there for them, only in a shorter space of time. They need the chance to visit and to speak to students and staff about the course, accommodation and finance."

Of course, Clearing isn't just relevant to people whose results are lower than expected. If you get glittering grades, it is possible to try to snag a place at a university further up the unofficial academic ladder. But you'll need to use some serious tact here. Chris Dry says that UCAS is aware that sometimes circumstances change, but reminds applicants who've already accepted a firm offer from one university that "they have entered into a contract with that institution." So the advice here is to call the new university first and establish whether they have a place for you, before calling your original choice and asking to be released from their course.

If you can't find a place that appeals, or if your heart is set on a course that's already full, there are still lots of options. "There's still time to think about taking a year off," says Francombe. "You could work, retake exams, or travel, then reapply the next year around." And Pathak says Clearing can be a gift in disguise. "You have the chance to really think about what you want to do and where you want to study. Look at the positives."

Clearing condensed 10 tips

1 Be prepared. Read about other courses and universities so that you have a good idea of which places would make good back-up choices.

2 Be there. It's much easier to make calls to universities and surf their websites if you're at home, and your UCAS application details and papers are within easy reach.

3 Call your original choices first. Universities take interviews and personal statements into account as well as grades and they may still give you a place.

4 Don't panic! There are lots of universities looking for students and masses of support and information available. The Independent publishes lists of courses with space available until late September.

5 Call the admissions tutors yourself. It makes a better impression and only you can answer all the questions they'll want to ask.

6 Take time to research courses thoroughly. Look at university websites, talk to tutors, travel to the campus. Don't grab the first offer that comes along if you aren't sure about it.

7 Take notes. It's easy to forget important information from phone conversations and it will allow you to compare different options later.

8 The choice is yours. Talk to your parents and sixth form tutors, but keep in mind that ultimately, it's your decision.

9 Be flexible. Retaking an exam might give you the chance to get a place on a particular course.

10 Remember you aren't alone. Thousands of people go through Clearing every year and go on to get glittering degrees and high-flying careers.