Making sure you're in the clear

If you have to use Clearing, don't panic - the whole process is geared to help you find the best alternative without too much stress, says Steve McCormack
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The Independent Online

The chances are that, some time during your sixth-form years, a teacher came up with the snappy slogan that "to fail to prepare is to prepare to fail!" Cheesy, perhaps, but there's certainly a grain of truth in there somewhere.

And, as that eagerly awaited - or perhaps dreaded - A-level results day approaches, it'll do you no harm to make a few preparations for what you'll be faced with if those grades aren't quite what you expected.

Things can move very quickly in the days after results come out, and the Clearing system is at the centre of the most frenetic activity. It's used by around a quarter of all students going to university, and last year 60,000 found places on a degree courses with the help of Clearing.

With that volume of business, it goes without saying that some will move through the system quicker and more successfully than others. They will probably be those who have given a little thought to the possible scenarios before opening that envelope on the fateful Thursday morning.

First, have a look at your diary. Where are you due to be on the morning of 18 August? Ideally, you should not be in India, Ibiza or Ilfracombe.

"You'd be surprised how many calls we get from parents," says Karen O'Brien, admissions manager at De Montfort University's Faculty of Business and Law, "who say their kids are away on holiday. My first advice to every student on that Thursday is: be there!"

Things will be a lot easier if you can get to school or college in person in the morning, on time and with a clear head. Parents should ensure they're on hand or at least on the end of a phone, ready to react quickly if Plan B has to be put into operation. It'll also help if, in the days before results come out, you can gather together all the relevant paperwork.

Specifically, you need to know your UCAS application number, the courses you applied for and their codes, and, of course, the exact details of your firm and insurance offers. If you have these easily to hand when you start making phone calls, it'll be much easier to keep a clear head.

The priority, though, when you get your results, even if they are slightly less than you need, is to find out from the universities in question if they are prepared to let you in anyway.

"Don't automatically assume you'll be rejected if you miss your grades," explains Delyth Chambers, director of recruitment and admissions at Manchester University. "Many universities will take students with slightly lower grades because they prefer to have people who have already shown a commitment to a course, rather than fill the places with new applicants."

Manchester, despite being among the largest UK universities, admits only a few hundred students a year through Clearing. It prides itself on pitching most offers about right, so that most students get the grades they need, leaving relatively few places to be filled by Clearing.

Many of those go to students who missed their grades for one course, but who end up on a different one in the same department. This can open the possibility, in the second or third years, of transferring back to the original course, but Chambers advises against students simply assuming they will be able to do this.

"Some of our popular courses are concerned that students think they'll be able to get in through the back door like this," she warns.

Many students, of course, having established that their options are closed at the universities that gave them original offers, have to cast their net wider in Clearing, and consider courses and institutions they didn't know existed 24 hours before.

Here, the policy that is recommended by most in higher education is to stay calm, keep an open mind and don't make any snap decisions.

However, with countless thousands of courses out there, your search has to begin somewhere. A good place to start is by looking back nine months to when you first applied to university. What sort of courses and places did you consider before making your final choice?

Once you've narrowed things down to a manageable number of options, say half-a-dozen, you can find out more about the courses, first by looking at the university websites, and then, if you're still interested, by picking up the phone.

"Get on the phone and stay on it for as long as it takes," says O'Brien at De Montfort, where about 14 per cent of first year places are filled through Clearing.

Clearing isn't limited, of course, to those whose results are below expectations. If you do much better than expected and decide that you would like to enrol for a course at a university higher up the unofficial pecking order, there's nothing to stop you from looking around.

But you need to be careful because you have entered into a contract with the university whose place you accepted originally. You are only allowed to withdraw from that institution with their permission. Remember, UCAS's position is that the only way to sign up for a course at another institution is to withdraw your application and re-apply next year.

"But we all live in the real world," explains O'Brien, "and a student will find their way to do the course they want to, one way or another. We can't stop them."

The first step is to talk to universities you think may now take you with your better grades, making it clear you are holding an offer from somewhere else. If they say you would qualify and there is a space, you should go back to the original university, explain the situation, and then ask them to release you into Clearing. You'll need to submit this request in writing.

In practice, admissions officers are used to this scenario, and will co-operate, because it's in their long-term interests to get students on their courses who want to be there.

A final word about parents. While they can certainly help you make your final decisions, they shouldn't actually make them for you. In fact, universities, for data protection reasons, are not supposed to deal with anyone apart from the individual student concerned.

And in any case, you'll be the one who's going to spend the next three years on the course. So you should make certain that it is right for you!

CLEARING CASE STUDIES

Interviews by Elizabeth Davies

'After 10 days, all the paperwork was done. I guess it was fate!'

Sangwani Ng'ambi is a law student at De Montfort University Leicester.

I did my A-levels last year at a sixth form college in Taunton. My first offer, to do law at Sheffield University, depended on my getting AAB, and my insurance offer, politics and international relations at Kent University, asked for ABB. What I got was a B in law, B in history and C in politics.

I rang Sheffield first to find out if they'd have me anyway, and the answer I got was a definite no. I wanted to do law so, with my tutor, I looked at the paper and found a few universities with places. I got on the phone, and De Montfort was the only university that actually answered their phones that day! They were very helpful and after about 10 days, all the paperwork was done and I was in. I guess it was fate!

My advice to people this year is, start the Clearing cycle as soon as you can, because the good places go early.

'This process is a great chance to get on a really good course'

Yolande Olonga, 22, entered Clearing when she realised she no longer wanted to accept her first-choice offer. She is now about to start her third year of a degree in air transport studies at City University.

A lot of people have the wrong idea about Clearing - they assume that you only go through it if you've failed in some way. But in fact it can be a great chance to get onto some really good courses.

I was meant to go to London Guildhall University - as it was then known - to study air transport management studies but after looking more closely at the course, I decided my second choice - air transport studies at City - looked more appealing; it is, after all, a proper BSc rather than a foundation degree.

So, when results day came, and I'd just about got the grades required for both my first and second choices, I got straight on the phone and asked Guildhall to release me from my offer. To begin with, I thought the whole process would be very stressful but I was soon reassured. It wasn't long before I had a fixed place at City and I've never looked back.

I've had a great time here. I've always wanted to work in the aviation industry and the City course combines many different aspects that have enabled me to gain a lot of experience of air travel - from engineering to safety management to business.

As a little girl living near Heathrow, I was always fascinated by the planes flying overhead. I had two cousins who were pilots and now I want to work in air operations, probably as a flight planner or safety controller for one of the big airlines. I can't wait to get started!

'After a week, York called back to say they'd squeeze me in'

Bobby Hartshorne, 19, didn't meet the requirements for studying English at York, but was so taken with the university itself that she switched courses and is now reading educational studies.

I had been predicted an A for English literature, so when I failed my first module, I was really disappointed. It dragged down my overall grade to a C, ruling out a place to study English, writing and performance at York.

My insurance offer was to study history at Reading University - but, after visiting the campus earlier in the year, I decided that it wasn't for me.

I hadn't fixed up a gap year, had no money for travelling and no desire to spend months working in a job I didn't enjoy, so on results day I was presented with just one option: Clearing.

I'd been to York on an open day and fell in love with it. Basically, I had my heart set on going there.

Although there were no BA courses available, I was intrigued by the educational studies course. I looked at the prospectus and realised that, although I had never considered it while still at school, it was right up my street. I called the university, who said the course was full but that my application would be considered anyway. After a long week, they called me back to say that I seemed an ideal candidate and they could squeeze me in. I was overjoyed.

I love the course. It's opened my eyes to my real ambition: to be a primary school teacher. I've spent this summer working in a preparatory school teaching four, five and six-year-olds. Clearing certainly worked out for me!

'If anyone is considering Clearing, I'd say, "Go for it!"'

Craig Boldy, 19, received results that fell 60 UCAS points short of the BBC he needed to get into his first choice university. After going through Clearing he was offered and accepted a place at Bradford University, where he is now about to begin his second year of computer science.

When I got my results last year I was really tempted to jack it all in and get a job instead of going to university. I hadn't got high enough grades to get into either Surrey or Essex, but my teacher persuaded me that I should give it a go anyway.

I come from Wakefield and was keen to stay around the North, so when I saw that Bradford had places left for computer science I got on the phone. Within 10 minutes, the head of department had called me back and talked through my A-level courses with me. He offered me a place, explaining that the courses I had done were harder than average and that if I had done the normal ones I would have got the grades easily. I went up to see the campus, which I really liked and, by the Monday after results day, the letter of acceptance landed on my doormat.

Clearing worked out brilliantly. Bradford is one of the best in the country for computer science.

If anyone is considering Clearing, I would say, "Go for it!" You'll have the time of your life.

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