It's vital to take time out before results day to work out all your options, including the Clearing process. By Amy McLellan

Life has a habit of disrupting even the best-laid plans. If, come results day on 19 August, your A-level grades fall short of expectations, don't panic. First things first: check whether you're still on track to pursue your first choice.

Life has a habit of disrupting even the best-laid plans. If, come results day on 19 August, your A-level grades fall short of expectations, don't panic. First things first: check whether you're still on track to pursue your first choice.

"If you've only just missed out on your grades, then you may find it's good news," says James Seymour, schools and colleges liaison officer at Aston University. "In the vast majority of cases, if a student has missed out by 20 points, we would still take them."

Krys Daniels, head of admissions at Oxford Brookes University, echoes this. "The likelihood is that if a student has missed out by a small amount, they would still be accepted," he says. "The important thing is to get on the phone and check with us."

The UCAS online Track service will go live on results day allowing students to check whether they have been accepted. It's a useful alternative to the UCAS helpline, which will take about 8,000 calls on results day. To use Track you will need your UCAS number and password, sent out by UCAS when you first applied (it's worth hunting this out now to save time on results day). You should also call up your first choice to see whether your grades will get you on board.

"Often you will find the institution is prepared to offer you an alternative course in the same faculty or study area," says Seymour. "This can be a good option because it means your accommodation offer for the institution will stand, whereas if you go through Clearing, you may not be guaranteed accommodation."

If you are rejected, however, then it's time to have a good think. You may decide to do re-sits, you could take a gap year to consider your options, or you may decide go through Clearing. Last year almost 39,000 people found places through the system, which matches students with vacancies. It's a process that requires a little effort and initiative but one that can pay dividends in the long term. The golden rule here is to make sure you're accessible: try to be in the UK, near a phone and internet connection.

"Clearing is a bit like a degree course sale where students with the right entry points can snap up vacant places," says Anthony Allen, head of student recruitment at Kingston University. "As in any sale, the earlier you shop the better the choice."

It can be a real advantage if you take a little time out ahead of 19 August to plan ahead and create a contingency plan should your results disappoint.

"Have a strategy worked out before Clearing starts," says Seymour. "Think now about where you would want to go if you had to go into Clearing and jot down 10-15 numbers or websites."

If you are eligible to enter Clearing - either because your results didn't match up, you applied too late to be considered beforehand or you received no offers - then UCAS will automatically send you a Clearing Entry Form (CEF) and instruction booklet. However, you don't need to wait for your CEF before hitting the phones. It's worth making contact with institutions on results day, particularly if you want to study a popular course, such as medicine or physiotherapy, where places may be few and far between.

Check the UCAS and university websites for details of vacancies. There will also be comprehensive vacancy lists in The Independent and Independent on Sunday. You don't have to apply for the courses that were on your original UCAS application form: it's perfectly possible to use Clearing to make a dramatic switch from French, say, to sociology.

Talk to your parents, friends and teachers for advice, support and reassurance. Your teachers and career advisers may have contacts in relevant university departments and will be a valuable source of calm advice and guidance at this stressful time.

When you call up a prospective university, you will need to supply your name, address, grades, UCAS application number and, once you have it, your Clearing Entry Form number. As you make the calls, keep a note of who you've spoken to, what they said and any actions that need to be taken.

The call is about two things: extracting information (about the course, the institution and campus life) and selling yourself. Be prepared to talk about your enthusiasm for the subject and your longer-term ambitions. Old hands recommend jotting down key points that may impress a tutor.

"When I was speaking to tutors during Clearing, I realised I definitely undersold myself and my experiences on the UCAS form," says Andy Holland, who went through Clearing to join the University of Bradford, where he is now doing a PhD in forensic archaeology. "It's worth working out some bullet points beforehand and trying to get them into the conversation."

Use this opportunity to investigate whether the course and institution will be right for you. Draw up a list of questions and get the answers you need to make an informed decision. Many university Clearing hotlines are manned by students who can be a great source of information and advice.

Parents will want to be involved - and it's right they should be, particularly if they're going to help fund the next three years - but don't allow them to make calls on your behalf. Tutors will want to speak to would-be students in person.

Make the most of the substantial resources now available online. Many institutions already have Clearing websites up and running or use email to quickly apprise students of the latest vacancies. These new online arrangements have changed the pace of Clearing.

"Clearing used to take two to three weeks, but now a lot of the course trading is done in the first 48 hours," says Anthony Allen.

But while it's important to react quickly, it's equally important not to make snap judgements you may later regret. Take time to examine your options and read the small print.

"You may be feeling under pressure, but remember you are making a decision that will affect how you spend the next three to four years of your life," says Richard Wallis of UCAS.

And despite the internet's growing role, Clearing is still a paper-based system: you may be able to secure a number of verbal offers on 19 August but confirmation will depend on the postal service. It can be worth using this time to visit a couple of universities: most now run Clearing open days when staff and students will be on hand to answer questions and show you round.

"I would recommend trying to attend the open day," says Lesley Jackson, admissions services manager at Edinburgh University. "It's important to choose the right course but it's also important to choose the right institution and city setting."

Open days can also alleviate the stress and isolation of the Clearing process. "It's useful to realise there are thousands of students like you, feeling the same feelings and going through the same process," says Ashar Ehsan of Bradford University.

Once your Clearing Entry Form arrives, it's time to start making decisions. If a university decides to offer you a place, you will have to send them your completed CEF. Use first-class mail and enclose a first-class stamped addressed envelope so the university can return it to you if you are unsuccessful.

The form can be sent to only one institution at a time - photocopies or faxes are not acceptable - so if you're still not convinced this is the course for you, explain so politely and carry on contacting other institutions. When it has received your CEF, the university will write to you either offering you a place or sending back your form. If you decline the offer or you do not get one, your CEF will be returned and you can keep looking. If you accept the offer, the university or college will confirm your place to UCAS and UCAS will send you an official letter.

Congratulations: you're about to embark on your university career.

Need to know

* Clearing runs from 19 August until 24 September - but the sooner you act, the more vacancies you can apply for and the more time you will have to sort out finances and accommodation.

* Use the UCAS Track website ( to track your progress through Clearing. You will need your UCAS application number and password to use the Track service.

Alternatively you can call the UCAS clearing hotline: 0870 1122211. Have your grades and UCAS application number to hand.

* The Independent and Independent on Sunday provide comprehensive vacancy listings.

* The BBC runs a free helpline - 0808 100 8000 - providing a confidential service from advisers with access to the latest Clearing information.

* Research your choices thoroughly. Read the small print on the course and try to visit the campus. Check to compare student accommodation at 240 universities and colleges across the UK.

'I looked around the campus and that decided it for me'

Andy Holland went into Clearing after he was one grade short of his first choice offer. He joined Bradford University through Clearing, where he has stayed on to do a PhD

On my first go at A-levels I missed out on my grades by a long way so I retook them all in one year and applied to Cardiff to do archaeology. I did much better the second time round but I still missed out by about a grade. When I got the results, I went home and had a cup of tea to get my head round it.

It was very stressful. I tried to be calm but I was worried about whether I would get there in the end. I contacted Cardiff at about 12pm to see whether they would still accept me and in the end they did offer me a place. But it was deferred for a year and I'd already taken one year out for re-sits so I didn't want to do that.

So I started to phone round. I still had the UCAS booklet and fortuitously I hadn't thrown away my prospectuses. By the end of the day I held several offers from quite a few institutions.

Once I was holding the offers I asked whether I could visit them. So I drove up the motorway to Bradford and had a look around the campus and that decided it for me. I filled out the form and handed it in. Going to visit was what really made the difference.

If anyone's going through Clearing this year, I would advise them not to panic. Once you've got into university, your A-levels don't mean anything. There's a big difference between A-level and degree level. They're taught in very different ways so A-level success isn't always an indicator of how you'll do at university.

I did my undergraduate degree here in archaeology and a Masters in forensic anthropology. Now I'm now doing a PhD in forensic archaeology and I'm researching protein decomposition in human hair. In my area of interest there are only two places I could study - Bradford and Bournemouth - and I'd never have developed this interest unless I'd come here.

I also met my future wife at Bradford, so coming here really was the best decision I could have made!

'As twins, we wanted to stay together'

Twins Mohammed Kabir and Shabir are now studying physical education at Leeds Metropolitan University after missing out on the grades to study physiotherapy

We needed to get 300 points for physiotherapy but when the results came out we had only 260 points," says Mohammed Shabir. "It was a shock but we took it on the chin. We were given no advice during Clearing from school so we went into it not really knowing anything, but actually it was all very simple. And once we got in touch with Leeds Met, they were fantastic and gave us a lot of help.

As twins, we wanted to make sure we could stay together. We were lucky because we got it all sorted out on the same day. In the end it certainly worked out for the best for us."

'I thought I was being a bit hasty'

Clare Haylor just missed her grades for Sussex University and is now studying psychology at Kingston University

I applied to do to developmental psychology at Sussex and they wanted two Bs from me. I was doing some re-sits and got a B and a C which I was happy with because that was quite a big improvement on the grades I got first time round. But then it dawned on me that I'd just missed out and I was really quite distressed when Sussex rejected me.

Psychology was really popular at Sussex that year so I had to go into Clearing. I was really upset.

My sixth form college gave me a list of four or five universities and I also phoned up some others. By the end of the day one of them offered me a definite place, which I accepted even though it wasn't somewhere I really wanted to go.

It's just such a relief to be offered a place. But then I thought I was being a bit hasty and I decided to take a step back and think about it. You do have to be quick because places do go quite quickly but it's also very important to make the right choice because it's three years of your life and they're three very expensive years.

So I spent a bit more time looking and went onto the UCAS website which was really useful. I picked Kingston University because it has some very good departments and its psychology degree is British Psychology Society approved, which is important. They also still had accommodation available which was a big relief.