Clearing often means changing the subject you wish to study. But be careful what you choose. By Nicholas Pyke

For most sixth formers, Thursday means the long wait is over, and the celebrations and the planning can begin. The A-level grades posted up on noticeboards and websites will tell them exactly which quadrangle, campus or tower block to head for in the autumn.

For most sixth formers, Thursday means the long wait is over, and the celebrations and the planning can begin. The A-level grades posted up on noticeboards and websites will tell them exactly which quadrangle, campus or tower block to head for in the autumn.

Yet for a sizeable minority there is no such certainty. Instead, the results signal the start of an anxious Round Two in the search for a place. Clearing is a particularly difficult time for students already demoralised at missing out on the course they wanted. They have to cope with a bewildering set of new choices and a tight deadline.

But there are several reasons to remain optimistic, not least the fact that there are as many places available as there are candidates looking to occupy them. Every year between 40,000 and 45,000 A-level students emerge successfully from the process to start life as undergraduates – around 12 per cent of all new entrants to university. And however chaotic it might seem from the outside, the process runs on well-established lines.

Even now, before the results are known, it is certain there will be plenty of room in the newer universities, many of which rely on Clearing to fill their lecture halls. It is also safe to predict that candidates willing and able to study engineering, construction, French or German have an easier ride.

By the same token, places to study media, law, psychology, English or, in particular, business will be harder to come by. Business has been the most popular subject in the university's handbook for some time. And if you want to do medicine or train to be a vet, then missed grades are fatal.

But with some diligent research, a bit of lateral thinking and a small amount of compromise, most sixth formers emerge from Clearing with a place to study the subject of their choice, or one very similar. As Tony Higgins, the chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, which coordinates the process, puts it: "Seek and ye shall find."

It might mean thinking of a different institution, or a slightly different course. Physiology or pharmacy are popular with candidates who fail to make it onto oversubscribed medical degrees for example. Combined courses are another popular route into a favoured subject – English with drama, maybe, or history with philosophy.

Manchester Metropolitan, one of the biggest universities in the country with more than 30,000 students, is a fair measure of which subjects will still be open for business next week. "Most things to do with art and design are already full," says Susan McGrath, the head of education liaison. "And most vocational courses in areas like nursing or law are full or nearly full.

"The places available tend to be in science, engineering and the humanities. Also the subjects not much taught at A-level: philosophy, for example, or economics. You will tend in Clearing to find that the bulk of phone calls comes for subjects that are popular in the sixth form."

She endorses the view that, with just a small amount of creativity, candidates can wind up with a subject pretty close to the one they first thought of – even if they are determined to restrict their search to one university. "We'd nearly always have an alternative to offer. We have a range of courses in most subjects," she says.

Broadly the same picture emerges at most of the newer universities, although there are subtle variations from year to year. Mathematics-based courses are a particular issue this time round, as the chaotic introduction of the AS-level last summer and an unusually difficult set of maths papers for students in the lower sixth has left universities fearful that there will be a shortage of students armed with a full maths A-level. Anecdotally it appears that thousands of potential maths students have given up after taking A1, the first half of the maths A-level. And as a result, according to UCAS, universities both new and old are now looking for candidates who only have an AS in the subject. Even a well-established university such as Surrey is concerned and has written to schools urging their sixth formers to consider mathematical courses. The university will offer "bridging" tuition to candidates wanting to trade up from AS to degree level studies.

Even students determined to study a popular subject can normally find something suitable in Clearing says Tony Higgins from UCAS. "There are always vacancies remaining, even at the end of Clearing. Not all places are filled. Clearly there are some very prestigious subjects where places will be hard to come by.

"Therefore what students have tended to do if they can't get the places they wanted in English, for example, is put together a modular course somewhere else. They might go on to choose one involving American literature, or drama. So they end up with a course based on English but which isn't the straightforward honours degree."

Failing that, it is worth considering a change of destination. The University of the West of England next door to Bristol Parkway station might not come readily to mind for would-be lawyers. Yet it offers a highly regarded degree in the subject. Similarly, despite its modest profile, the University of Bournemouth has a particularly strong record in media studies, as the employment rate for its graduates shows.

But whatever else they do, candidates should ask for a second opinion. As Tony Higgins says, "We always tell students – but they don't always listen – that they must take some real advice before they decide what to go for. The irony is that they very probably spend months deciding what they might apply for in the first place, then jump on the first bus that comes along when they get their results – one that might take them to completely the wrong destination. Might they think about re-sitting exams? Should they take an HND? Go for a different institution? Or even abandon the whole idea altogether?" It's a vital decision to get right.

'I wouldn't change anything about my choice of university'

Steffen Schwarz, 26, had already completed two years of studies in Germany before switching to a course in international relations and politics at De Montfort University. He graduated with a 2.1 this summer

I wanted to study international relations when I'd completed my school studies and done my national service. As an East German, I was interested in the former communist bloc. But there was only one university in Germany that offered a course, and so I went to Berlin to take Eastern European Studies instead.

I did a year of intensive Russian language study before entering the course itself. But the seminars were very crowded, with typically 50 people in each one, and the university itself was cutting back on resources. Then the University of Dresden launched a programme on international relations along the British model, but there were 500 applicants for 30 places, and they preferred students straight from school, so I didn't get in.

A friend of mine had gone to the University of Essex and she kept telling me to think about studying in England. I was worried about the financial burden of studying abroad, but she offered to give me a lift over with all my stuff, so I thought I would give it a try. I arranged all this by phone and email; I started calling and sending emails to the universities on the UCAS home page. It took a while to get anywhere. I emailed some universities and got no reply. One responded to my initial email and said they would forward it on to the right person and I never heard anything more. And I sometimes spent a really long time waiting on the phone; I couldn't spend the money on the calls because they were international ones.

Then I phoned De Montfort University; and I got straight through to the person who was dealing with Clearing, she didn't have to transfer me, she could answer all my questions, and even offer me a place. When I got there, they remembered my name in the office. I was able to register straight away and find somewhere to live from a list given to me by the housing office. The facilities were marvellous; no more than 15 people in a seminar, a library where you could order any book. These things might be standard in England but we had nothing like that. I became a student representative in my first week, and when they asked me what I'd change about the university I had nothing to say.

I'm coming back next year to do a master's degree at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, and after that I'm thinking about a PhD.

Interview by Hester Lacey