Clearing 2011: top tips from admissions tutors | Lucy Tobin

Lucy Tobin asks admissions tutors how you might swing a university place through Clearing, and looks at some of the alternatives if you don't

If you've woken up to the news that you've missed your uni offer, you might feel your chance of becoming a fresher has disappeared for ever. Maybe you're already booking flights to Malawi, since the knowledge that this year's cohort of students will be the last to pay the current, cheaper tuition fees has put you off uni entirely. Or maybe it's resits you're booking, in a bid to try again next year. But before you do either, read this: because you still have lots of options, some of which could see you shopping for uni saucepans by the end of the day.

First up: call your university. If you only just missed your grades, they might be sympathetic. Don't cry or beg, but speak to the admissions tutor, lay out your situation clearly, and ask politely if there's a possibility of a place. If that doesn't work, check out Clearing. This last-chance saloon matches unis with available places with students who need them.

Unfortunately, however, Clearing comes with a big caveat this year. Because next year's higher fees have created extra high demand for places this year, and a government cap on numbers has squeezed supply, Clearing is a mere a shadow of its former size. Last year, a total of 180,000 candidates chased places in Clearing – up from 135,000 the previous year – and only 46,925 were accepted. But if a course you like is available, it's still worth trying. Below you'll find tips for cracking the system from the admissions tutors who'll be answering your call.

And if Clearing doesn't work out, there are still some amazing opportunities out there. Check out your local further education colleges and see if you could sign up for a degree there; investigate the option of combining part-time studies with work, or take a gap year and spend it boosting your grades, getting more experience and having fun. You could apply for one of the hundreds of university courses that start in January, or carve your own career by starting a business, or apply for a corporate's school-leaver course. Many will pay for you to go to university in a few years' time. Whatever route you take, good luck.


Be flexible while searching for available courses. Consider a joint-honours course, for example, or widening your preferences from, say, an undergraduate degree to a foundation one or an HND (Higher National Diploma). But don't opt for a course because you think you'll get a place: you'll be studying it for three years, so make sure it's worthwhile. Will it help your career and stretch your skills? Does it follow on from something you've enjoyed at school? Do you have the required Ucas points?

Next, note down all your details including exam results, course choices and your Clearing number, found on your Ucas Track page, plus your Ucas personal statement. "It's really important to have all your information to hand when you ring," says Katie Jenkins, head of applicant services at the University of West England. "Because by the time you've hung up and gone to find it, someone else may have just got your place."

Now sit somewhere quiet with a landline phone or topped-up mobile. "Save your favourite five universities' Clearing hotlines on speed dial," advises Nick Bhugeloo, head of applicant services at Kingston University. "If you have a smart phone or a laptop, save their websites, too – that way you can see the courses still available and check how many points you need. You can also check the Ucas entry profile to see whether they have the right number of points for the few remaining courses."

Be prepared to redial: lines get very busy. Last summer, Kingston received 40,000 calls in five hours. While you're waiting, use the web to find out more about the courses and tutors. "During Clearing, students should make the most of social media tools to get the best information available," says Becka Colley, dean of students at the University of Bradford. "Use Twitter to follow the universities you are considering, your course title and even the UK location you'd like to study in. Don't be shy to ask questions, and consider following academics or staff related to your universities or courses of choice."


It's not a counselling session. You might be feeling teary after a difficult morning, but don't use your crucial Clearing time to explain why question two in that third A2 paper was unanswerable. Instead, when your call is transferred to an admissions tutor, be specific about your course inquiries (asking for "something in media" will make you sound indifferent) and, even though the tutor might sound very friendly, treat this as an interview. You'll face factual questions about your background, plus more taxing ones about your motivation, interests and experience. Have some questions ready to fire back, too: this is an ideal opportunity to both show off your detailed knowledge about a university ("I've noticed Professor Knowall answers students' questions in a weekly blog – how much tutor/student contact is there?") and find out more about the course, faculty or campus.

At the end of the call, the tutor will normally tell you their decision. Ask for written confirmation of an offer. "Don't just settle for a course that has vacancies: unless you're enthusiastic about the course, you're unlikely to succeed," says UWE's Jenkins. "Ring as many institutions as you want, you do not have to accept the first offer you receive."

If a tutor sounds positive, but simply doesn't have enough space, use the call to try to jump next year's queue. Ross Renton, head of recruitment at the University of Hertfordshire, advises: "Ask your chosen university if they will offer you a place for 2012 entry. Then use the year to get experience, like a job or internship, and keep learning."


If the call doesn't work and you're still desperate to get on to a particular course, don't give up. "Write a letter to the course leader explaining your passion for the subject and desire to study their course," says Joanna Kelly, of Bolton University: "It's now so unusual to receive a handwritten letter that your plea will really stand out. Use expensive paper and ensure that your spelling, punctuation and grammar are impeccable." Students might fail to turn up to courses or drop out after a few weeks, so it's worth keeping in touch with admissions tutors.

If not, FE colleges may have availability on their degree courses. "Contact the college direct and speak to the programme leader," advises Philip Davies, head of admissions at Bournemouth & Poole College. "Most administrators will tell you the course is full as a matter of routine, but only the programme leader will really know and usually they're the ones who make decisions. Try to see them face to face. If they have a place available, sell yourself as someone committed and enthusiastic."


Lucy Tobin

The GuardianTramp

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