Next steps: how you could still get a place at university

When life steers you off course, grab the wheel and take control
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The Independent Online

Life can be unpredictable. You can plan and research until you think everything is in place – and then something unexpected happens to surprise you.

The same can be said for exams. You may have decided where you wanted to study, but when you get your results you could find that you haven't got the grades you were hoping for. This is where Clearing comes in.

So what is Clearing?

Is it a horrible dark hole for people who have failed all of their exams? Nope! Is it a bargain basement or last-chance saloon? Absolutely not. These are some of the misconceptions that get bandied around at A-level results time, and none of them is true.

Here's the thing: going through the Clearing system doesn't mean in any way that you have failed. You may have had offers from a university or college but did not receive the grades they wanted. You may have changed your mind about which subject to study. Or it may be that you applied too late. Put simply, Clearing exists to help you to get back on track and into university.

Clearing is run by UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, and is supported by a team of advisers whose knowledge and understanding make the whole process easy and simple to use. Last year, more than 47,000 people found places at university or college through Clearing.

Kate Butland, the UCAS customer services manager, says: "If you find yourself in Clearing, don't panic. You can approach as many universities as you wish – don't feel you have to accept the first offer you receive. You will be spending at least three years studying the course, so make sure the university and course are right for you." She adds: "There is a host of information on our website, and all our staff are fully trained to help and support you."

Are you eligible?

You can take part in Clearing if you have already applied through UCAS and you are in one of the following categories:

* You have not received any offers

* You have declined all your offers or not responded by the due date

* Your offers have not been confirmed because you have not met the conditions

* You have declined a changed course, a changed date of entry or a changed point-of-entry offer

* You applied for one course which has been declined/unsuccessful and you have paid the full £19 fee

* UCAS received your application after 30 June 2010

If you made a single choice on your original application, you can pay a further £10 and apply to other courses through Clearing. Haven't applied yet? Don't worry, you can still complete an application until 20 September and you'll automatically be entered into Clearing.

To make the most of Clearing, you first need to check the list of available courses on the vacancy section of ucas.com or in The Independent, which publishes the official Clearing listings. There will be spaces on a number of courses at all sorts of universities, often including the most competitive. These are spaces made available by other candidates changing their mind or circumstance, not making their conditional offer and so on.

When you have found a course that interests you, and you have your exam results, you can contact the institution offering the course to ask if they will accept you. They can also give you details about the university and accommodation in the area. You will, at this stage, need your Clearing number. This is displayed on the "welcome" page and "choices" page in Track, the UCAS secure online system ( ucas.com). When you speak to a university or college, they will ask you for that Clearing number to confirm that they can consider you. They can then view your completed application. If you cannot access Track, contact the UCAS Customer Service Unit on 0871 468 0468. The advisers there can tell you your Clearing number.

What next?

After speaking to institutions, you may be given several offers. Consider them all carefully before deciding which one you would like to accept. It's a good idea to visit the universities if you can, to get a feel for each place. It may seem like a whirlwind tour – and an expensive payout to the train companies – but you will be glad you made the effort. You should be as sure as possible before you commit, and a personal visit gives so much more insight than a website, a prospectus and second-hand advice.

When you've decided, enter the course details in Track. Enter a choice in Track only if the university or college has agreed to offer you a place on the course and you want to accept it. If the university accepts you, the acceptance will be displayed in the "choices" section in Track, and UCAS will send you a letter to let you know your place is confirmed. This confirmation letter will explain whether there is anything you need to do now. Once you have received this letter, you're in!

Basically, it's all pretty simple. Just remember there are always options. UCAS and the Exam Results Helpline are there to help you to find the right one, and to help ensure that your progression into higher education is a smooth one.

ADJUST YOUR SET

There is a fairly new process called Adjustment for applicants who achieve better results than they need for their conditional firm offer.

To be eligible for Adjustment, you need to have met and exceeded the conditions of your conditional firm choice and to have paid the full application fee of £19.

The Adjustment process is available from A-level results day (19 August) until 31 August 2010. Your individual Adjustment period starts on 19 August, or when your conditional firm choice changes to unconditional firm, whichever is later.

You have a maximum of five calendar days to find a new place and be accepted. You must be sure that you really want to change your choice before using Adjustment.

If you would like help on finding out what options are available to you, call the UCAS Customer Service Unit on 0871 468 0468.

EXAM RESULTS

Over the years, the Exam Results Helpline has helped loads of young people find a way through the mass of options available. When A-level results come out on 19 August, there will be plenty of trained careers advisers at the end of a phone to give you advice and guidance. The helpline runs until 28 August.

The team can deal with queries on anything: from specific questions about grades and offers to more general advice about student finance; how to cope with moving away from home; the range of qualifications available; and whether to take a gap year. There are trained counsellors who can help you to cope with the pressure and support you as you find a way forward.

The service gives on-the-spot guidance, unlike other services, which may offer callers an appointment or refer them to someone else.

The Exam Results Helpline number is 0808 100 8000. Calls are free from a landline.

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