If their results are disappointing, the Clearing process can get your child onto their dream course. By Beryl Dixon

What is Clearing?

What is Clearing?

It is a service run by UCAS (the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) for applicants without places, as well as for students who get better grades than expected and then decide to apply.

Universities and colleges advertise their empty places - in the press, through mailshots sent to schools and colleges and on the internet. They also give details to UCAS, which supplies them to The Independent, The Independent on Sunday and The Mirror. UCAS will also have an interactive Clearing course search on its website ( www.ucas.com) from A-level results day.

Many top universities say that they do not enter Clearing, but even high status ones may have a few unfilled places on some courses. For example, last year Nottingham and Warwick had places in chemistry, Edinburgh in engineering, Manchester in some languages, Leeds in music and York in maths.

Students need to contact institutions and enquire about vacant places. UCAS will automatically send each unplaced applicant a personalised Clearing Entry Form (CEF) which an admissions officer will ask for if they offer a place. Only the original will do. It's important that students understand that once they have sent the CEF to one place, they cannot try anywhere else. If in doubt, they should wait!

Clearing works. 38,666 students found places last year.

At the universities and colleges

When your son or daughter makes the phone call, they may be connected immediately with a subject tutor for the course. Increasingly popular though are Clearing Helplines which screen candidates before transferring them to admissions staff. Often the people taking the call are the university's own students, employed temporarily. Coventry University for example recruits 25 undergraduates and gives them an intensive two-day training course.

Claire Bamforth, acting head of recruitment and admissions at Coventry explains: "They know which courses have vacancies and the points score required. If a caller has the right grades, they put them through to an admissions tutor. If not, they tell them about possible alternative courses. They may also advise them to contact local careers services. We never ring off without offering some advice. Colleagues and I are in the room keeping an eye on things and may take over some calls.

"The first two days are hectic, but in the following week if any applicants turn up on spec, I take one of our students off the helpline and send them to do a guided tour. They can answer questions frankly!"

How can parents help?

The important things to offer your son or daughter are comfort and time. They did their best but they are feeling awful. They can't celebrate with friends. They may have to lose money from summer jobs in order to hunt for a place.

On the practical side, they may need help working through the Clearing lists. You could discourage them from being too hasty. The lists are alphabetical - which means that they might miss the odd place at Warwick or York!

They might need reminding too to have UCAS number and GCSE grades ready before they start phoning. Once a CEF has arrived, they need that number to hand as well. One of the most important things you may have to do is get them to the phone in the first place. They might be nervous and ask you to do it. However, no admissions tutor wants to hear a parent explaining why a student wants to do a particular course.

Open days

It's quite common for universities to hold special Clearing open days and for admissions tutors to invite students who interest them. If you can manage it, going with them can be a great support. And you can assure them that other parents will be there and that you will not cramp their style!

A typical pattern is for parents and students to attend one presentation together and then be divided into separate groups for campus tours and question and answer sessions. You can be a great help here by asking questions that your children may feel uncomfortable asking - they are concentrating on making a good impression. You can ask about facilities, transport, living costs and so on. Claire Bamforth says that parents often have the same questions. "Someone will ask something and you can almost hear 'I was going to ask that' around the room."

Discourage hasty decisions

Students can all too easily rush to grab places. They shouldn't - not until they have been to an open day if possible. No admissions tutors worth their salt will exert undue pressure. It's not in their interests to teach unhappy students. Yet places can disappear. It's a question of timing. Your children may need your support and advice while coming to decisions.

'My advice about Clearing: keep a cool head'

Hassan Majeed from the Wirral has just finished his first year in pharmacy at Bradford University

I ended up with BBC when I actually need three Bs. I wasn't too worried though because I had heard that you often get in with slightly lower grades and Manchester had told me to ring if this happened. So when they said they couldn't take me I was very disappointed. They did offer me an unconditional place for the following year but I wanted to start straight away.

I circled all the universities offering pharmacy in Clearing. The first one I called was Bradford. I was put through to an admissions tutor who was very helpful and said he would get back to me within a day or two either to offer me a place or to ask me to an interview.

He phoned again, inviting me to an open day. My father drove me there. We were told about the course in a group - then students and parents were taken on separate tours of the campus. My impression was that the course and facilities seemed more hands-on than others I'd looked at and less computer-based. I was then offered a place. When I met up with my father I said that I was really impressed and would probably accept the offer. It turned out that he had been impressed too, although he didn't put any pressure on me.

My advice to anyone going through Clearing would be to keep a cool head. Don't be too worried. A lot can be resolved over the course of a weekend!