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You have plenty of options if you have low grades

You can still apply through Clearing, but you'll have to wait a while to do re-sits, says James Wardrobe

Today's A-level students who have just missed out on the grades they need face an new problem. In the past their options were either to accept their insurance offer (if available), enter Clearing or retake their A-levels.

Students who were only a grade or two short of their desired higher education objective were ideally placed to resit their weaker modules in the January exam session, offered by all the examination boards. The results came out in early March and, provided the retaker had reapplied through Ucas the previous autumn, improved grades could well mean a confirmed place achieved five months before the next cohort of university entrants received their summer results. Job done, and off on a shortened, but still feasible "gap".

Unfortunately for some of this year's students, last January saw the last of the winter exam sessions and A-levels can now only be taken in June. According to the Council for Independent Education (CIFE), many students interested in resitting their subjects are unaware that they face this new dilemma.

Paul Redhead, a spokesman for the CIFE, explains: "Evidence from current enquiries to our colleges is showing that there has been widespread confusion and subsequent anxiety among that group of A-level students who thought that – having missed out by a grade of two on their first choice offer – they could do a quick resit, perhaps of a few modules rather than a whole subject. In the past this would have been a possible alternative. Now they are faced with a long wait until June 2014 if they want or need to resit. The likelihood is that more students in this situation will opt for Clearing, though there are solutions for those who aim to improve their grades instead."

So, if in previous years you were the ideal type to have opted for a short September-January retake course, what can you do now? First, a note of caution. You need to check how wide the gap is between the grades you got and the grades you need. At the very least you need to know what level of grades you need next year from retaking. This means checking with your first choice university if you will require higher grades second time round for the same course. Next you must establish how easy or difficult it will be to bridge that gap. Working that out will require you to think honestly about your academic background and performance to date.

These are the questions you need to answer:

  • What did you get at GCSE and AS, and were those results consistent with your A-levels?
  • What were your Ucas predictions and mock exam results like?
  • What did your teachers say about your study habits, skills and exam technique, etc?
  • What happened to you in the exam room? Were you well-prepared, did you mis-play the exams, were you unwell at all?
  • What do your teachers say now about the prospect of resitting? Are they encouraging?
  • What do you think you need to focus on in order to improve?
  • How is the overall standard of your work? (Take work along for your adviser to see, ideally work you've done under time pressure.)

Taking all this into account, a skilled advisor can help you to build a pretty accurate idea of whether you are looking at an easy task or mission impossible.

Having built up a picture of your potential, and the improvement you need to make, these are your options for retaking:

January to June courses

These are widely available from the colleges that previously offered September-January retake courses. This route is likely to suit you if you need to retake units in one or two subjects, and to improve by a maximum of two or three A-level grades. Such improvement will be consistent with your ability.

September to June courses

A better choice if you have real gaps in skills as well as knowledge and you need to improve your grades considerably. A one-year course can cover everything in detail. It also offers the chance to take a completely new subject as part of the subject mix if you need to.

The Easter option

If you really only need to improve results a little, in a few units, you might consider leaving it until Easter 2014 to resume studies, take an Easter revision course and then study through to the summer exam. This is of course riskier, because it leaves you less time and puts a lot of pressure on your own motivation. Some structured support between Easter and the exam might help, though at the moment no institutions are offering a formal course which runs from Easter to June. Most importantly, don't go into denial. Don't shrug and take off on your pre-prepared and long-awaited "gap" year travels anyway, leaving decisions about your academic future until you return from paradise. Ucas re-applications, for instance, need to be dealt with this autumn as swiftly as you can.

According to John Southworth, principal of Lansdowne College, the most telling reaction is to seek help straightaway. He says: "Following your A-level results it is important to take stock. But there is no need to panic, if they are not what was expected. The key is to get expert advice as a matter of urgency and then you can consider the full array of possible solutions."

For more advice, visit cife.org.uk