Research your course options, make those Clearing calls, and you could be off to university or college, says Beryl Dixon

It does not necessarily follow that if you didn't meet the grades, your place will disappear. Your first choice may still accept you if you are a point or two down. They offered you a place originally, because they thought you would make a good student. If they have room for manoeuvre they might fit you in. If they can't, you will be automatically considered by your insurance choice.

Rather than assume you will need Clearing, it is worth checking the situation with both institutions. Their phone lines will be jammed from the minute they open, so you will need to be patient. If neither can take you, you will automatically be entered into Clearing. UCAS will send you a Clearing Entry Form (CEF) and instructions.

Clearing helps you to find a place by providing the information you need. It does not find a place for you automatically, or send your details to any universities. The main Clearing service starts as soon as the A-level results are announced on Thursday 18 August. Universities and colleges give lists of empty places to UCAS, which supplies them to The Independent, The Independent on Sunday, Scotland on Sunday and The Scotsman.

UCAS will also have an interactive Clearing course search on its website,, from Tuesday 9 August, when exam results come out in Scotland, (for Scottish vacancies only); and from Thursday 18 August (00:01 British Standard Time) for all vacancies. Students check where the vacant places are and contact universities and colleges to see whether they can be accepted.

Going through Clearing can be a tough time for students. So before you contact institutions and have to start making serious decisions, spend some time with the Clearing lists. See where the vacant places are; whether they are at places you would like to go to; the grades or UCAS points required; and whether there are any alternative courses you would be prepared to consider.

At most universities, the call goes straight through to a Clearing help desk which is run by specially trained staff. Some are university administrative staff but many are students. What is more, they know how you are feeling and the pressure you are under. They will ask for your name and phone number first. The phone number is crucial. Distraught students have been known to hang up in tears, leaving no contact details.

When they have asked for more information, such as exam results, GCSE grades and the course you are interested in, they will pass you on to a member of academic staff - who in many cases is only a few yards away - who will speak to you. Here again, you should get a sympathetic ear. Some are not too far away from being applicants themselves. Others have teenage sons or daughters.

After asking you some questions, such as, "Why this course?" and so on, they might offer you a place. Or, they might offer you a place on an alternative course. If you are interested, you can provisionally accept it and you might then be invited to an open day. Students often wonder, incidentally, whether they can contact universities they applied to earlier in the year, if they either received no offers or declined them. The answer is yes.

Your place will not be officially confirmed, however, until you have sent your CEF. This is your acceptance of the offer - and you can only accept one. Photocopies of the CEF will not do. It must be the original, which is yours alone, and has your personal Clearing number on it. You must be sure that this is what you want. You cannot negotiate with more places and then ask for the CEF back. When a university receives your CEF it sends it to UCAS. Then, you are no longer in Clearing. You are about to become a student.

Finally, if you don't find a place and have to reapply next year, you will be hit by the rise in tuition fees. That is the date from when higher education institutions may charge up to £3,000 a year. It is obviously going to be very tempting to find a place at all costs for this year. Please don't be too hasty and grab the first place that is offered. If you end up on the wrong course and drop out you will still have to reapply for 2006 entry!

Expert advice

Beverley Woodhams is the educational liaison manager at the University of Greenwich. She has considerable experience of Clearing and offers the following advice.

There is a place out there for you somewhere, but you need to act quickly to find it. Don't hang about! Success is often due to being in the right place at the right time - but you still have to work to set the opportunities up. Phone universities as soon as possible: 50,000 other students will be doing the same. Don't panic. Keep a cool head. If a university you would really like cannot offer you a place, try again the next day. It may have had withdrawals and have dropped the points overnight. But try others in the meantime.

Do consider, seriously, any offer for a related course. You might be able to find something with a different title - such as business law or legal studies (with the possibility of transfer to the LLB in the second year) instead of law. There is the possibility of higher national diplomas or foundation degrees, both of which can be "topped up" to honours degree level. It may even be time for a complete re-think. "Is my original choice really right for me, given my grades? Should I change?" But you should not feel or be put under pressure to accept an unsuitable alternative. We would never offer a student a course simply because it had vacancies. Many who ring are worried and say, "I'll do anything". We are not careers advisers and we encourage them to seek proper advice.

If you are able to visit some universities within one or two days, you can afford to say yes to one or two and have a good look round. Take your CEF with you and hand it in personally. That will take no longer than the post. What you cannot do is stall for a week.