Clearing is not only user-friendly but also often points students in directions which they would otherwise never have considered, says Hilary Wilce

The results are out and it isn't good news. Your grades mean you've missed options A and B, your first and second choices. Which leaves you with the third one: option C, or Clearing. Of course you're disappointed; but it isn't the end of the world. Far from it. For one thing, you're not alone. Thirty-five thousand students a year get places in higher education through Clearing. It is a perfectly respectable route into university and once you're there, no one will ask you how you got in. And for another, if you approach the Clearing process calmly and rationally, you may well find it leads onto something even better than you had originally planned. Having to sit down and take a long, hard-headed look at your options is a very good way of contemplating new and exciting paths that you haven't even thought of before.

The results are out and it isn't good news. Your grades mean you've missed options A and B, your first and second choices. Which leaves you with the third one: option C, or Clearing. Of course you're disappointed; but it isn't the end of the world. Far from it. For one thing, you're not alone. Thirty-five thousand students a year get places in higher education through Clearing. It is a perfectly respectable route into university and once you're there, no one will ask you how you got in. And for another, if you approach the Clearing process calmly and rationally, you may well find it leads onto something even better than you had originally planned. Having to sit down and take a long, hard-headed look at your options is a very good way of contemplating new and exciting paths that you haven't even thought of before.

We cannot emphasise enough that if you have missed your target by only a grade or so, ring your chosen two universities, or check with the UCAS website, to see what they say. You may be pleasantly surprised.

In fact Sarah Bugler, of Bath University, even had the university ringing her when she got a D instead of a B in one of her A-levels and missed her place to study international management and modern languages. They persuaded her to switch onto a politics with German course, which she followed for a year before switching again, to politics with economics. Now on a work placement with Vauxhall in Luton, she says she is delighted with how things have panned out. "I could have gone to my second choice university, but I really wanted to go to Bath, and I have loved everything about it." Also, switching courses helped her focus on her developing interests, she says. "If I'd carried on with German I would have had to do a year in Germany, but I didn't want to do this. I much prefer the business side of things."

The main thing is not to panic, says Ian Sharpe, a senior lecturer and admissions tutor in the school of business and finance at Sheffield Hallam University. "Think about what's important to you, and the kind of things you could do. And don't say yes straightaway just because you've been offered something. Ask them how long you've got to think it over. Sometimes people feel they have to make a snap decision, maybe because they've got their parents screaming at them to sort it out. Wait, think things through, and look at other courses."

All the systems are in place to help you do this. Clearing vacancies are posted on the UCAS website, and listed by subject in The Independent from 19 August. And many universities run well-oiled Clearing operations to help you find your way through the maze of choices.

But be realistic. The brutal fact is that there won't be many - if any - places available on popular courses at popular universities. You'll be lucky to find a mainstream law, English, or history place, and if you're thinking about medicine or veterinary science you're probably best advised to try to improve your A-level grades and get some relevant work experience, before trying again next year. You'll also be lucky to find any vacancies at all at top universities such as Bristol, Leeds or Edinburgh, although there may be just a scattering left open by students who have changed their minds, or else on less-popular courses such as minority foreign languages.

On the other hand, there are plenty of areas where places can be found in abundance. Pure science courses often struggle to fill their places, as students who have done science A-levels often peel off to study medicine and pharmacology. And everyone knows about the national shortage of mathematicians and linguists. Phone round for a maths or languages place and your quest will probably be short and painless. There is also an abundance of computing, engineering and business course places of all kinds, and it's not unknown for Clearing candidates in these areas to land on courses at the very best universities. But before your phone finger starts punching the buttons, take some time to think laterally about your options.

Chris Owen of Bradford University did. He originally applied to study optometry but ended up doing a four-year technology and management degree instead, and then he considered starting his own business or training as an air traffic controller. The course was excellent, he says: "half engineering and half management, which opened a lot more doors than it closed."

Another Bradford graduate, Nicola Greenwood, missed her place at Newcastle to study English literature and remembers feeling "quite panicky". But she found Clearing took her off in a new direction. "European studies was a course I hadn't even seen before, so it shows that Clearing can open up avenues you hadn't previously thought of."

Most A-level students tend to choose a university course on the basis of what they have studied at school, but the choices are much wider than that. Think afresh about who you are, what you've studied, where your strengths lie, and what sort of course might most interest you. Would you enjoy a sandwich course, with a year's work experience or placement abroad? Or maybe a two-year foundation degree course with a big element of workplace learning? Are you very focused on one career? If so, how about a degree that is tailor-made to help you get into, say, the travel industry or music production. Or how about combining your interests and looking for a degree in law and biology, or chemistry and geography, or philosophy and physics? All sorts of weird and wonderful combinations exist. You just need to find them.

Get advice from your school or your college careers officer; get organised, then scrutinise the listed vacancies. Have you failed to get your place to study geography? How about pursuing a degree in geographical information systems, or geography and computing, or geology? Didn't get your place to study English? What about a course that links English with philosophy, or politics, or theatre studies?

The same goes for popular art and design courses. If you've missed your place to study fashion design, how about hunting around for a specialist course in shoe design, or even "contour design" (bras, swimwear and other cantilevered garments). If you can't get in to do architecture, what about studying to become an architectural technician?

Off-beat courses such as those in surf technology, alternative medicine, wine studies and golf management often get a bad rap from those who think university studies should be all hallowed halls and ancient manuscripts. But the truth is that the more a course fits neatly into a specific vocational niche, the more valuable it might turn out to be for you. If you opt to study, say, mobile phone technology, real estate, or adventure management, the chances are you will quickly find your feet in your chosen job world. Bournemouth's course in retail management, for example, has been praised by Professor Roderick Floud, head of the university umbrella group Universities UK, for having a 100 per cent employment rate for seven years in a row.

But once you do find a course that you like the sound of, that is willing to offer you a place, always try to visit the university in question before taking the final plunge. What you are signing onto here are three or four of the most important years of your life, and you need to be very sure you're making the right decision.

'I thought I'd have to give up on going to university'

Lee Bestall, 25, almost gave up his dreams of going to university after he couldn't take up his chosen place on a degree course in hotel and catering at Sheffield Hallam University

I had visited all the universities I was interested in and picked Sheffield Hallam because it stood out. The staff were friendly and the course looked the best. But then I failed chemistry so I didn't get the points I needed - I was gutted. I just thought I'd have to give up on going to uni. But during Clearing I spoke to an admissions tutor and was offered a three-year HND in hotel catering and institutional management, with the possibility of topping up or transferring onto the degree course I'd originally applied for. So I did that, and the HND route put me in the same place I wanted to be from the start, over the same length of time; in 2001 I graduated with a BSc (Hons) in hotel and catering management.

After that I worked in a hospitality recruitment agency, but I'm now about to start studying again. I'm working in a job-share at the university as an enquiry and placement co-ordinator so I can also pursue my long-standing interest in garden design. I've already started my own company, which is really taking off.

'My advice: don't give up!'

Nadia Chaudri, 21, didn't get the BBC grades she needed to take up her place at Birmingham University doing business studies and maths, so she went into Clearing and decided she wanted to go to London

My cousin had a place at Kingston, but we both decided we liked the look of Middlesex University. We saw it in the paper and rang up and asked what courses were available and took it from there. They were very friendly and helpful and it all worked out fine.

We lived in halls for the first year, then got a place of our own with friends. And I really liked my course. In fact I ended up getting a First! Now I'm looking for a job, something in finance, and I'm also looking for a car - my graduation present from my parents.

I'd say to anyone going into Clearing: don't give up. You can always find something you can do, and you can still work towards whatever you want, just by another path.

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