Clare Hargreaves interviews two experts on the dos and don'ts of entering Clearing

Andy Masheter, director of external relations at South Bank University

My first piece of advice is: even if you got a bad result, don't panic; take your time. What everyone forgets is that the process goes on for some time. Your first move should be to phone up your university of choice to see if they will still accept you. Often they will. If they can't, think of alternatives, get on the phone and talk to academics at the universities. Remember you don't have to make a decision immediately.

There are various possible paths. One is to do a different but allied course at the same university. For example, if you applied to study medicine, you might try pharmacology, or if you were going to read chemistry, apply to do applied science. Alternatively, try for a course at a different university.

Before you ring the universities, do your research thoroughly and think clearly what you want to do. Nowadays there's plenty of information available, so study it.

Be creative. When people don't get the results they expected, they feel disappointment. But often it can mean people end up doing a course they didn't even know existed, because they had to think again. All too often people get set on a vector at the age of 14 and never question where they're going. Clearing doesn't have to be a dirty word, it can be an opportunity too.

What's really important when you're ringing the universities is to be clear and to sell yourself. We're looking for students who can convince us that they have the capability to study, that they have potential. Whatever you do, don't get your mum to phone. What we need to hear is about the person, from the person. At this stage the person and their desire to succeed is just as important as their grades.

If you're applying to study a popular subject, such as law, you may need to act faster than if you want to go for one of the more diversified fields of study, such as engineering, business studies or computing, which have lots of related courses under them. But the good news is that just about everybody finds a course which is pretty close to what they want to do. This is definitely not a time for panic or despair.

The Clearing system provides people with a useful opportunity to put things right after things have gone wrong. It acts as a safety net. It also provides an opportunity for people to break into a system that is predominantly geared to schools: it allows mature people and late deciders to apply to university. They bypass the UCAS system. Clearing offers a separate route. People often assume Clearing is about people who messed up. In fact, it's an opportunity to get into higher education.

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Dianne Francombe director of admissions at the University of the West of England

Even if a student hasn't got the grades their university of choice is asking for, it may not be a disaster. The university may be willing to reconsider their offer, so the first thing students should do is to ring them.

If students do need to enter Clearing, they should look on the UCAS website and university websites to see what courses are available and take advice from their school or college. Staff here can have a calming influence. Once they've found a course that interests them, they should phone the university and discuss their choice with an academic adviser. Often students are intimidated and believe that staff at universities are untouchable. In fact we're human and we're eager to help them at what for them is a crucial time.

We sometimes steer them towards more suitable courses if they haven't got the right qualifications. If they ring up and ask to do a simple honours in law, for example, we might suggest they do law in business or law in accounting. If they decide a course is for them, we then put them through to the admissions officer who will confirm if a place is available.

Students need to be thorough about finding out about courses and get excited about them. We're looking for people who have worked out what they want to do and are motivated. My advice to students is to study subjects that interest them, rather than subjects which are a means to an end. They'll not only enjoy it more but they'll get better grades too.

It's vital that students ring us themselves. We had a mother on the phone who rang us and said she wasn't sure what subject her daughter wanted to read but thought it began with E. If parents phone us, we ask to speak with the student. Usually they're standing beside them anyway.

Don't go on holiday at this time. It's important not to be 6,000 miles away. We've had people ringing us from phone boxes in South America, then getting cut off when the money ran out. Stay around: even if everything has gone well, there's accommodation to fix and forms to fill in. If things haven't gone well, you've a far better chance of sorting it out if you're in the country.

We suggest Clearing applicants come in person to look around the university. This is especially important if a student is changing course completely - they need to check the new course is the right one and that they are not just making a snap decision. They can chat directly with the tutors and they can also look at the accommodation and check it's somewhere they'll feel happy. We have an open house from D-Day (Results Day) onwards, including weekends and the August bank holiday.

It can be an emotional time for students and there are always plenty of tears. When they come to us they are in a state of stress. It's important they don't make decisions on D-Day - they should spend that day coming to terms with their results. The knee jerk reaction is to say yes to the first offer as they are so relieved that someone wants them. My advice is: don't rush, and hold out for what you really want.

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