With potential record numbers of unplaced school-leavers missing out on a place at university this year, many are now unexpectedly having to make alternative plans for 2010-11.
If you are one of them, embrace your new circumstance as an opportunity to improve your skills and broaden your horizons.
If university or college is your ultimate goal, use this year wisely. You can then reapply through UCAS to start at university in 2011. In the meantime, you may decide to focus on gaining life experience. Go travelling, for example. Perhaps more usefully, do some charitable work, or do voluntary work relevant to the sector you later hope to work in. Alternatively, you could spend this year improving your qualifications. Perhaps your time would be best invested in retaking some of your A-levels, or embarking on new courses. All of these choices would enhance your CV and make you more attractive to admissions tutors next year.
When it comes to taking a gap year, there's much to be gained, even on a project arranged at relatively short notice. You are not alone: thousands of young people choose this route – and this year, there are more applicants than ever.
"We've seen an upturn in inquiries for gap projects for next year, which I think is related to people's options going forward, with many missing out on university places, and a general feeling of needing to do that little bit more to get ahead in a competitive and stagnant job market," says John Boughton, the managing director of Real Gap, specialists in gap years, career breaks and adventure travel holidays.
"Most of the people who contact us are aged 17 to 24, so they are exactly the people who are currently missing out on oversubscribed university places."
Boughton also says that the type of gap experience young people are looking for has changed: "Over the last five years, we've seen an overall reduction in the length of time people want to spend away, down to as little as four to six weeks. But this year, it's rocketing back up – people now seem to want to commit a significant amount of time to their gap project."
He believes this is because the purpose of the experience has changed, with applicants looking to prove they can commit. "They also want to use their time wisely, gaining skills to improve their chances of impressing university admissions tutors and employers.
"Inquiries about the 'learner skills' trips we offer have gone bananas," he adds. "The number of people doing those has gone right up. For example, we offer an experience where people go to a martial arts academy in China. That is far from our cheapest option, and you might expect it to have a niche market, but it gets huge interest. It's about getting a life experience and a skill on your CV, to show you're willing to learn something new and commit to it."
The same can be demonstrated by completing an internship, whether in the UK or abroad. If you have a career aim, it can be a way to discover if the reality of that environment matches up to your expectations.
Sometimes, there's the added incentive of a salary, too. To find a role which suits you, visit yini.org.uk, internship-uk.com, milkround.com, topinternships.com and placement-uk.com. Some of these opportunities target undergraduates, but most companies are flexible; their aim is to get the best intern for the job. Enthusiasm and commitment can take you a long way.
If you need to improve your qualifications, retaking an A-level or two in the hope of topping your competition can be a valuable use of time. Consider this option carefully, though. If you believe you could have studied harder, or received more support and guidance, retakes could be the answer for you. But if you gave it your all, it may be wiser to consider routes that might suit you better – such as different subjects or alternative courses.
"I didn't make my conditional offer, so I couldn't take up my place at university," says Ellie Ledford. "That was to study medicine. I was then going to retake my A-levels, but I realised that I'd be better off doing a different course."
Ledford's ambitions had changed. "I decided I wanted to be a doctor when I was quite young. In fact, I had grown into a different person without reconsidering that goal." So she reassessed her future. "I'm now at university studying psychology, which I'm really enjoying," she says.
Unplaced students may have other fears. With a new government in place and a review of higher education in process, this is a time of uncertainty for UK universities.
The Browne review is due to report by the autumn, and many believe that it will recommend an increase in tuition fees – perhaps even to as much as £7,000 per year.
David Willetts, the Universities minister, has acknowledged that, with more students wanting to go into higher education, we will need greater provision in future, and we need to find new ways to fund it.
He has also said that universities should "secure new funding streams" and find innovative new ways to gain funding. For students, this implies a rise in fees.
There may also be changes in the way universities work, with increases in, for example, distance learning and flexible learning.
Rest assured that, through all this speculation and debate, the students' corner is being fought, not least by the students' union. Quality, accessible higher education is here to stay in the UK, and you can benefit from it. But be realistic, too: changes may well be afoot, and competition for places is increasingly fierce.
University is still a fantastic opportunity, and one that is within your grasp, so use your "extra" year wisely. Make a plan, and make it count. With a little commitment and effort, you'll have a brilliant year – and secure your place in higher education for 2011.