It's not a total disaster if you don't get the grades you wanted, so swallow your pride and hit the phones, says Rowenna Davis

Damn! For whatever reason, you haven't made the A-level grades you need to get into your chosen university. Automatically, you are beamed into the zone known as Clearing, where you hope to find another course or another university that will have you.

Essentially, you have one month from mid-August to reorientate your life map. Your mission is to decide what and where you're going to study for the next three years. Your means? A telephone, the internet and a notebook. Your obstacles? Pride, laziness and dodgy hold-music.

By way of reassurance, according to UCAS, almost 44,000 people found places at a university or college through Clearing last year.

Conrad Quilty-Harper is one young man with first-hand experience of the process. In 2006, he applied to do law at Brunel and Oxford Brookes, but when the marks were posted he discovered he'd got two Bs and two Es.

"My Mum had this tingling sense that I'd just go and get drunk after the results, so she came home, chucked me in the living room and made me get on the phone," he says. "I was obviously a bit nervous, but in high-stress situations, you either buckle or you focus. You have to put your nerves aside and say: 'I want to get to uni; I've got two Bs; let's try to make this happen'."

So who is eligible for Clearing? Essentially, if you don't have a place at uni in September because you weren't given an offer, you didn't make your grades, or you rejected all your offers, you automatically qualify for Clearing. You are also eligible if you didn't apply first time round, though you will need to write up an application.

For the first time this year, you will be allowed to enter Clearing with a safety net if you get better results than predicted. This so-called Adjustment period is for people who want to try to get a course or a place they didn't originally think they would be eligible for.

The first point of call for all Clearers is the UCAS website. This is your new virtual bible, providing a reassuringly simple guide to the whole process, and an omniscient list of all universities – and their contact details – that are open to Clearing. All you have to do is collect your Clearing number from the site, make sure you've paid your £17 application fee, and pick up the phone.

"The most important thing to remember is don't panic," says Kate Butland, UCAS customer services manager and guru of all things Clearing. "It's the most common mistake people make.

"It sounds corny, but take a deep breath and think through your options. It can feel like a hectic process, but you shouldn't rush into anything. You're making a decision about the next three or four years of your life."

The best way to avoid sweating and hyperventilating is to do things methodically. If you received offers but didn't quite meet the conditions, your first step is to call your universities of choice and beg. You might still get on the course you want, particularly if you can get a bolshie teacher on hand to argue your case.

If that fails, you might want to try to get on to another course at the same institution (with a chance of switching over once you get a foot in the door), or you might want to apply for the same course at a different university altogether. Whatever you do, keep decent notes of names, numbers and courses – the risk of descending into unintelligible scrawl is both high and fatal.

Another crucial tip: Swallow. Your. Pride. Quilty-Harper didn't get his first choice after begging Brunel and Oxford Brookes to let him in, but he pushed on anyway. When Hull offered him a provisional place to study history and politics, he visited the campus the next day, and took up the offer.

"I was a bit snobby about Clearing to be honest," he says. "I thought it was a bit below me. When my Mum first suggested Hull, I laughed – she went there through Clearing herself!

"But the irony of the whole thing is, I think I'm a lot better off now than if I'd got my first choice. A lot of my mates that got in to do law hate their courses!"

The recession means that more people are choosing to apply to university rather than enter a stagnant jobs market, so you've got to be prepared to run that extra mile that little bit faster to get the place you want.

Many students don't expect to flunk their exams, so they're slow off the mark. Don't let that happen to you: before your results even come out, make sure you have a plan B. Draw up a list of universities and courses you might want to pursue if you don't get your first choice, get their numbers written down and think about what you're going to say.

"Be polite and articulate about why you want to go to that particular university and show a bit of passion about why you want to study that course," says Butland. "You might want to ask them about term dates, accommodation or university life – it's important to show you're interested."

Of course, everyone makes mistakes. Last year one applicant rang UCAS in a state of panic thinking she hadn't applied in time. When the adviser managed to calm her down enough to ask what course she was looking for, the applicant stated "crisis management".

A friend of mine who used to work the phones during Clearing said he was asked out by an applicant who thought he had an "attractive voice". Chatting up the person at the other end of the Clearing line is one of the top three things not to do, along with asking: a) "How big is your bar?" and b) "What university is this again?" Asking about the male to female ratio is acceptable if you're a woman, but not if you're a guy.

Final point: make sure you remember how much you have to give to these universities, as well as how much they can offer you. There are a lot of stereotypes about Clearing, but there are a huge number of talented people that go through the process. Quilty-Harper felt pretty bad about not getting his first choice, now he's now pursuing a career in the media, having worked for an internet company in Los Angeles and interviewed John McCain. Let's hope anyone who is snobby about Clearing is reading his stuff.

Top tips: how to land your dream course

*Don't panic: this just leads to bad decisions. Not meeting your grades is not the last mistake you'll make in your life – or the biggest. Focus on the fact that you have options open to you: apply somewhere else, or take a productive gap year and apply again.

*Call the National Exams Results Helpline: 0808-100 8000. It's open to all students, and it's about the only time in your life you can get totally free careers advice from trained professionals. Milk it.

*Be around to make the calls to different universities – and don't get your parents to call.

*Be patient: you will have to spend a lot of time on the phone. UCAS has over 100 advisers fielding calls from 7am on 20 August, but last year they received 14,000 calls on the first day. If you don't get through first time, keep trying, or visit the website.

*Be organised: Clearing is a frantic process and there's a temptation to start dialling without preparation, but it's better to take your time. Remember that Clearing lasts for more than a month, and keeping careful notes and recording who you speak to can save time in the long run.

‘It all happened so fast’

Georgina Clarke, 34, a beauty therapist turned law student, was offered a last-minute place through Clearing to read law at London South Bank University last year. She already has a degree in commercial music from the University of Westminster.

“I’ve wanted to be a lawyer since I was a child, but never thought I was smart enough. When I was 28, I did my first degree, before spending the next few years working in marketing and events.

That’s when I decided I wanted to get into entertainment law, and I started looking at courses last September. It all happened so fast. I got a place at South Bank on the last day of Clearing and was given an unconditional offer that day.

That was on a Friday and I started classes on the Monday! It was very difficult at first. With no money to pay my fees, and maxed out credit cards, I had to move in with my mum and stepfather after 11 years of living on my own. I now work during the holidays to pay my fees, but I think it will all be worth it in the end. Going back to university was scary, but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

‘I wasn’t taken by any of my offers’

Kieran Sims, 21, may have got the grades he wanted, but he wasn’t happy with his options. So he took the bold step of rejecting all his offers and going through Clearing.

This year, students will be able to upgrade through the UCAS Adjustment period, making such a swashbuckling approach unnecessary. “I’m either a genius or really lucky – probably a combination of the two! I got four As at A-level and I had offers to study physics at Southampton, Bristol and Exeter.

I wasn’t really taken by any of the places I had offers from and I decided I didn’t really want to do physics, so I went through Clearing to find something more artsy, but most of the places I was looking at said they didn’t do Clearing. I was expecting to take a year out and reapply, but three weeks before the academic year was due to start, Durham rang me to say there was an opening for physics. I graduated this year with a BSc.

It seems you can get in anywhere there’s a space, because the courses are run by human beings; if you can prove you are worth it then they can make an exception.”

‘It was life changing’

Amy Cordell-Edwards, 19, gained her place on a BA acting degree at Thames Valley University via Clearing after gaining all B-grades in English literature, classics, drama and theatre studies at A-level.

“I wanted to go to a private drama school, but they’re expensive, so I thought I’d spend a year working and saving up after A-levels to try to get in the following year. But then I couldn’t find a job, so I looked on the Clearing website in September and I saw there was one place left for acting at TVU.

I rang UCAS straight away and asked them to put me forward for an audition. The tutor auditioning me accepted me on to the course there and then. It was life changing! It only took about three days in total. I was the only one out of an intake of 40 last year to get in via Clearing.

I really felt like my luck had come in, especially as I was even able to sort out my student loan quickly and got mine before others on the course who’d arranged theirs ages ago. It’s great because, although the degree I’m doing [makes it feel] like drama school, because it’s at a university, it’s much less expensive.”