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Researching universities: how to make the right choice

The Telegraph

Anyone tying themselves in knots at the prospect of chasing places on Clearing should bear this in mind: universities want students as much as students want university places. Lower than expected grades can still lead to a fulfilling degree. As admissions staff confirm, being in Clearing is no reason to panic – over the last few year’s numbers of students securing places have slowly risen to more than 50,000 last year.

Although she’s far from her home in the north east, Diane Heslop is happy with her decision to study Maths at the University of Surrey – a choice she only made at the end of results day in 2010 – she graduated this year. “I ended up going through Clearing after I made some poor choices with my firm and insurance choice for Edinburgh and Nottingham. I didn’t really know too much about universities in other parts of the country. But coming to Surrey has been the best decision of my life – it’s helped me become more independent.”

Only a few universities such as Oxford and Cambridge opt not to go through Clearing, and until universities receive exam results, they won’t know what spaces are available – the whole process is a delicate balancing act. “There’ll be thousands of courses available,” says Philip Blaker, Ucas’ director of operations.

Track

Track is the online system that students log in to at 8 am to find out the status of their application. It won’t display results but will let students know whether they’ve been accepted by their firm or insurance choice. If not, they will be notified that they’re eligible for Clearing. Mercifully for anyone panicked by lower than expected grades, there is some breathing space. Students can’t accept a Clearing place through Track until 5 pm today.

Research

Both Ucas and the Telegraph’s Clearing listings and app advertise updated information after results are announced. While tens of thousands of places are available, these will go as students begin to accept offers. Ucas and most universities run social media feeds – which are good for a prompt response to queries - and advertise vacancies and information about courses on their websites. A few universities, such at St George’s University of London, hold Clearing open days for interested students on Saturday after results day. “Some students don’t know exactly which course to take and that is fine. We can guide them through their interests and suggest which course might suit them best,” says Eoin Lally, head of student recruitment at the University of London.

The phone call

Universities expect students in Clearing to phone and enquire about courses, and possibly secure a conditional offer. They generally won’t accept a student if they haven’t contacted them in person. As places shift quickly, students should call universities in order of preference.

An admissions team will usually field initial calls and might pass students on to relevant academic departments, who’ll discuss options and help them find the right alternative course. Reassuringly, staff are used to dealing with the upset of candidates on results day, and don’t expect a bright and breezy approach. But they do prefer students rather than parents to make the call. They also want proof the student has seriously considered the course content and delivery, rather than a “what can I get onto with the points I’ve got?” attitude.

“Students should also have their results, Ucas number and university registration number (URN) ready,” says Erin McLeod who works in admissions for the Faculty of Business at the University of Surrey. As Clearing progresses, it’s important to have this information to hand. “Otherwise by the time you hang up to find it, someone may have taken your place,” says Julie Cowley, Head of Recruitment and Admissions at Glyndwr University.

But an initial call should be informal and staff don’t expert students to be fully clued up on courses which might differ from their pre-results choices. But veterans of Clearing do advise a certain level of self-promotion. Given the timescale, students might struggle to prepare thoroughly, but they do need clarify their thoughts and plan some intelligent questions. “Explain why you would be a great fit for the course,” advises Blaker. “Ask about the content and structure, aiming to show your passion for studying the subject.” Think about delivery and teaching, and possible dissertations. On a practical level, says McLeod, students should note down the name of anyone they speak to, in case they need to call back.

The offer

Typically a student in Clearing will spend results day researching vacancies and speaking to universities, who might make an informal offer over the phone. “The great thing about Clearing is that you will hear swiftly from an institution if it wants to offer you a place,” says a spokesperson from online forum The Student Room. Universities will generally set a short term deadline, inviting the student to accept a place by Monday after results day for instance – or sometimes on the same day. “Be realistic about the courses that could suit you or your grades and be prepared for them to decline and for you to move on quickly to the next uni,” The Student Room advises.

Use the experts

Advice is available at the end of a phone from the small hours – Ucas’ helpline (03714680468), available all year, is open from 7.30 am to 8 pm today and social media will be answering queries until 2 am today (too early for this piece?) and again from 6 am. Ucas will also run an exam results helpline 0808 1008000, staffed by independent career advisers from schools and colleges and open today from 8 am and open throughout the Clearing period. Universities’ social media feeds are also active and happy to answer questions. But students are also advised to speak to those who know them best – their parents, teachers and careers advisers.

Making a decision

“Don’t rush into your choice of clearing place, but don’t wait too long, either,” says Antony Wright, director of higher education at Bournemouth & Poole College. “Numbers caps are still in place so if you delay, chances are that you’ll miss out,” he says. Even though the clock is ticking, costs of making a hasty decision could be high. “If you leave your new course part-way through the year you will still have to pay tuition fees, accommodation fees and other costs,” says the Student Room.

Accepting a place

From 5 pm today – students can make a formal choice if they’ve received a provisional offer by adding a Clearing choice on Track. This is a firm commitment and students can only accept one offer at a time. Although most popular courses get snapped up, students can get a university place in Clearing throughout September. If a student wants to be released from a firm or insurance choice for which they’ve been accepted, he or she must contact the university and wait to be released. This could take several days and won’t be a priority for admissions departments.

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