Calendars in homes across Scotland will this year feature a big red circle around 5 August. Why? Scottish A-level results day. But if you don't get the grades you were expecting, fear not, because there are still plenty of vacancies out there.

Last year, UCAS helped 27,218 Scottish applicants to go to university or college, 93 per cent of whom chose to stay in Scotland for their studies.

"Whether people get the results that they were expecting, there are still opportunities to go on to study at institutions across the UK," says Eleanor Stevens from UCAS. "We find that some people just apply a little too late, or change their mind – it's not always those who don't get the grades that go into Clearing." Indeed, in 2008 there were over 37,000 courses with vacancies by the time most exam results had come out, covering a very wide range of subjects.

So just what is Clearing, and how does it work? "It sounds like a bit of a bargain basement for courses that nobody wants," is how one Scottish applicant put it.

"It does have certain connotations which just aren't accurate," says Stevens. "The Clearing system is a well-organised and efficient service, backed by a core team of specialist advisers whose knowledge and understanding make the whole process very simple to use."

Clearing is used by applicants who haven't managed to secure a place at university or college for the current year. You will be eligible for Clearing if you hold no offers or your place has not been confirmed by your chosen university or college after the publication of exam results and you have not withdrawn your application. You can also go through Clearing if you have declined your offers, not responded by the due date or have applied after 30 June 2008 (12 June for Route B art and design courses).

Once you become eligible for Clearing you will be sent your Clearing Passport. The Passport contains your Clearing number, though this can also be found using the Track facility on www.ucas.com.

When you have decided to look for a place through Clearing you can start researching vacancies. The official lists will be published on www.ucas.com on Tuesday 5 August (for Scottish vacancies only) and on Thursday, 14 August for vacancies in the rest of the UK (as well as in The Independent).

Feel free to contact any universities or colleges that you are interested in and ask them questions about the courses you like the sound of. When you have found a course and institution you like and they are happy that you meet its requirements, they will ask you for your Clearing Passport.

Only send your Clearing Passport to the university or college that you are sure you want to attend. You must send the original document and make sure that you read the information on the Clearing Passport carefully before sending it.

Once you have accepted your offer, the university or college will inform UCAS who will in turn contact you with a confirmation letter, this will explain what to do next. Once you have received this letter, you will be pleased to know that you have officially gained your place.

Get some advice. If you are unsure about anything, there are plenty of people who can help. You can contact a careers adviser or a Connexions personal adviser at your school, college or local careers office. You can also contact the UCAS helpline on 0871 468 0 468.

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