Results day is always memorable. For some, it's when plans fall beautifully into place. For others, it's a much more troubled time. Disappointing A-level grades are tough to take – especially if you think that they will affect your academic career.
All is far from lost, however. University applicants with no offers could scoop a place through Clearing – a service, run by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas), that matches unplaced students with course vacancies. A number of competitive programmes at sought-after institutions could be up for grabs. "There's every reason to be positive if you find yourself in Clearing this year," says Steve Jeffree, chief operating officer at Ucas. "Thousands of courses are available."
Many are strong options, too. "It's not that age-old myth that Clearing's only obscure courses open to students who've achieved low grades. There are some great opportunities at the table," confirms Eoin Lally, student recruitment officer at St George's, University of London. "Last year, through Clearing, we were able to get some really strong students."
It's a similar story at many other institutions, including Pearson College, a private higher education provider in central London. "We have some spaces in Clearing on our business and enterprise degree programme," says Kerry Law, director of marketing and student recruitment.
If you find yourself taking this route, Clearing is a fast-paced yet straightforward system. Check your Track status. If it says "You are in Clearing" or "Clearing has started", you can start searching for suitable course vacancies.
If you missed your conditional offer, but neither of these messages are displayed, it's worth contacting your first-choice university – they may be considering you regardless.
Otherwise, look at listings online and contact institutions directly to find out where they have spaces. Lists are updated continually as some places get snapped up and others become available, so keep checking to see what comes up – and do look at Twitter updates from institutions you're considering, too.
When an opportunity arises that piques your interest, arm yourself with information and talk to admissions tutors. "Ask them to tell you about their course," recommends careers adviser Nick Hynes.
How is it assessed? What is the course content? Find out what the location is like, too; what would it be like to live there for three years? "Draw up a shortlist of places that interest you, then discuss it with your family." Also, factor in the practical aspects, such as accommodation, and be open-minded. Look at institutions in different areas.
Think carefully about your course. "There's no necessity to stick with the same subjects you originally applied for," Jeffree points out. "Do keep in mind, though, that admissions officers may want to explore your reasons for choosing something different." Prepare some questions for such conversations, he advises, "with the aim of proving that you're likely to succeed after three years of study".
According to Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters, it's important to do as much research as possible during Clearing "so you are comfortable you're going to an institution you're going to be happy at, studying something you're going to enjoy."
This will help ensure you go the distance and finish with a respectable qualification. "One of the things graduate recruiters look for is whether you got a good mark in your degree."
By all means, ask about a university's employability initiatives, adds Isherwood, but don't focus on that too much. "Sometimes it's not about what your university does, but how you maximise the responsibilities and opportunities you get."
Ditto individual course employment statistics. "The bulk of volume graduate recruiters don't mind what subject people study," Isherwood observes. "They want to know how bright and practical you are and tend to look for all-round ability."
Throughout the Clearing process, it's really important to get impartial, expert advice. "The staff on the Exam Results Helpline are all experienced advisers," explains careers adviser John Carberry.
"We help students make the best of their situation. We have masses of information at our fingertips, and we've talked a huge number of people through Clearing in the past – so we can say with confidence 'I know someone who's done this, and it worked out well'."
Advice goes beyond Clearing, however, as advisers on the Exam Results Helpline can also provide information about other courses and training routes, as well as resits and gap years. "It's important to remember that you don't have to go through Clearing," notes Hynes. "There are 101 reasons why people's plans don't work out as expected, and there are as many different options open to them."
If you do find the right course through Clearing, however, you must provide the university with your Clearing number – displayed on Track – and your Personal ID number. Institutions may then make an informal offer on the telephone, and provide a deadline by when you must accept or decline it. You can get as many informal offers as you wish, so use that thinking time wisely. Visit the university if you can, explore the local town, and talk to students and tutors face-to-face.
"We interview every student that expresses an interest through Clearing, regardless of how many points they have," says Law. "We think it's very important that students come to meet us and find out more."
Once you've made up your mind, you can accept an offer by adding it as your Clearing course in Track. The university will be asked to verify the offer, and Ucas will then send out a confirmation email. If the institution doesn't confirm your place, you will be able to add another.
From this point, it's all onwards and upwards. "The students we took through Clearing last summer are very dedicated and astute," notes Lally. Any anxiety around results day quickly becomes a distant memory, thankfully, and Clearing students tend to settle in to university every bit as quickly and comfortably as their peers. "Lots of ours have gone on to become student ambassadors, helping out at open days and recruitment events, as well as with outreach work. Their attendance and participation is great, and they're really happy here."
'I'd tell anyone that gets unexpected exam results: don't give up'
Dave Murdoch, 19, achieved ABB in his A-levels in 2012, rather than the AAB he needed to study economics at University of Sheffield.
"I had been to lots of open days and Sheffield had everything I wanted – so I was gutted when I missed my conditional offer to go there.
I spoke to a trained careers adviser at the Exam Results Helpline, who talked through my options, including Clearing, getting my exam papers re-marked, and resitting my final year of A-levels. I was open to resits and getting a job if it meant getting to Sheffield the following year. It was really nice to have someone properly explain alternatives I hadn't thought about and the processes I needed to go through. Without that support, I may have missed out completely.
The helpline adviser also reassured me that my results were very good and that I had lots of options. It was nice not to have someone judge me or be disappointed with my results. Best of all, he gave me objective advice.
While I was weighing up my options, the adviser said I should continue to contact Sheffield to let them know I was still interested in the course.
I emailed them five or six times that day, but heard nothing back. I also found a place at the University of Liverpool through Clearing.
A few days later, I logged on, ready to accept my Clearing place at Liverpool – and I had an email from University of Sheffield offering me a place! I couldn't believe it. I was so shocked and pleased as I had discounted ever getting there that year.
I've just completed the first year of my economics degree at Sheffield and it has completely met my expectations. I've loved the course, met so many new people – and the social life is fantastic.
I'd tell anyone that gets unexpected exam results: don't give up. Get in touch with the universities you want to go to. Don't just call once, either – be persistent. You need to stay in their minds in case a place becomes free."