Prove you are the font of emotional and practical wisdom that your child needs, says Beryl Dixon

Your son or daughter has not obtained the grades they need. They come home upset, bewildered and not sure what to do next. There is a definite role for parents here - first in offering understanding and moral support; second in practical terms.

Your son or daughter has not obtained the grades they need. They come home upset, bewildered and not sure what to do next. There is a definite role for parents here - first in offering understanding and moral support; second in practical terms.

It is worth checking first that they do know they have definitely been rejected. Frequently the first choice university accepts applicants who are a point or two down. Alternatively, the "insurance choice" may do so. Your child can find out his or her position by visiting the UCAS website, www.ucas.com, going to the Applicant Enquiry Service and keying in the password they were sent earlier in the year.

If it is not good news, Clearing comes into play. Clearing is run by UCAS and is for applicants without places. It is not for those who have confirmed places but now wish to try elsewhere. It may also be used by students whose grades are better than expected and who decide to apply for the first time.

Universities and colleges advertise their empty places - in the press, through posters sent to schools and colleges and on the internet. They also give details to UCAS - which publishes the only official and comprehensive vacancy lists - on its website and in The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.

Clearing works. Last year 39,757 students found places through the service. It might have been explained at school - but how many students really took it in? Briefly, the idea is that students contact an institution and negotiate for a place. When they receive a suitable offer they accept it and complete the necessary paperwork. 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. The CEF was introduced a few years ago in the interests of fairness to all and to prevent students from jamming the system with multiple applications. It also acts as proof that a student has no confirmed place and is eligible to enter Clearing. For this reason, faxed or photocopied CEFs are not accepted. It is important that they understand this - and the fact that by sending the CEF they have accepted a place and may not try elsewhere.

There is sometimes panic because a CEF has not arrived in the post. It is possible to ring UCAS, get the reference number and quote this to a university, promising to send it as soon as possible. Admissions staff will understand and should allow a few days' grace.

Getting on the phone to a university may not come easily. The first call will be the worst and, if it does not result in any luck, subsequent ones will become easier. Encourage your children to persevere. They should make the calls however nervous they are. Admissions staff want to hear from students in person, not from parents or teachers.

Students should expect what is in fact an interview over the phone. Sometimes a place is offered immediately by staff on the institution's Clearing Helpline, but usually the student is passed to a member of teaching staff who will ask why they have chosen that course. That lecturer is recruiting and wants an enthusiastic applicant rather than one clutching at straws. Admissions staff are not ogres. They know how vulnerable the students are and harsh interrogations are not the order of the day.

Another important role for parents is to prevent students making hasty decisions. They can be all too quick to take the first place offered. They put a lot of time into choosing their courses last autumn. They should not rush now. Places will not disappear overnight. In fact more will become available as successful applicants' insurance places are released.

And if you can make time to take them to open days in the coming weeks, that would help. Parents are expected and welcomed. You won't be in the way!

Case study

Gemma Biggins, from Rotherham, graduated last year with a First in psychology from the University of Lincoln. She is now doing a part-time MPhil while working as an assistant psychologist in a NHS neuropsychology department, before beginning training as a clinical psychologist. Four years ago Gemma never dreamed of reaching this point. She had just received her A-level results and was about to enter Clearing.

"I had had offers for business studies but after the exams I changed my mind about higher education and found a job in accountancy instead. I was keen to earn some money.

I went with friends to get my results and was frankly disappointed. I'd got a C in psychology and Ds in business studies and French. Not good enough for my business studies place but it didn't matter as I no longer wanted it. I still felt upset though and felt I should have done better. It was chaos at school. Some people were celebrating; others were in tears. One of my friends went home to ring universities. The next day I began to think about doing the same. I couldn't see myself staying in accountancy. Psychology had been my favourite subject.

I rang a nearby university that was advertising places and was invited to an open day. My father and I went that afternoon. I could have had places on other courses but not in psychology, so I declined and went home. The next day I rang Lincoln and was invited to go there. I was impressed by the campus and the friendly staff and students who showed us round. When I was accepted I immediately and sent them my Clearing Entry Form." BD

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