Top 10 ways to conquer clearing

With university applications up hugely this year, anyone who gets a place through clearing has to be good… very good. Follow our tips on how to sell yourself and work the system to your advantage. By Gail Dixon


On August 21, details from this feature were quoted on Absolute Radio - a national radio station in the UK 

Clearing essentials
  • You must have your Ucas application number to hand on results day
  • All clearing applications will be dealt with online at
  • If you've not secured a place, you need to be in the Ucas online clearing system by noon 
  • You'll be given a clearing number by Ucas and access to the full list of clearing places. They will also be in The Independent
  • Most university phone lines will be open between 8.30am and 9am on August 20
  • Once you've clicked 'accept', there's no going back

I still remember that sinking feeling. I had As for A-level English and History but Biology had come in just a grade under the B that I needed to study English at the University of London. Fortunately I squeezed through on points and was soon propping up the student bar when I should have been out buying a copy of Beowulf.

This year, the clearing process promises to be a greater challenge than ever, with university applications up by 11 per cent. Many universities are advertising clearing places now, however, and there is much that can be achieved in advance and on the day to help you find a course that suits.


1 Stay close to home

On Thursday, August 20 – A-level results day – it will help vastly if you are at home or can get to school easily. Mark Beard, head of Sixth Form at Brighton College, a leading independent school, says: “Our default advice is that they should be here on the day to pick up results from their housemaster or mistress, then those who want further advice can come to me in the Sixth Form centre.

“Only a very few of our pupils go through clearing each year, but we’re set up to help with strategic advice on higher education and careers, complete with phones and computers and prospectuses. Other teachers and heads of department will also be in school that day.

“A couple of years ago, one of our pupils was in America on results day and she missed out on her place on a dentistry course. We had to have this complicated phone conversation and email exchange with her, taking into account the time zones. In the end, however, we helped her re-apply (successfully) and she had a marvellous gap year visiting dental practices around the world.”


2 Don’t panic…

Emotions will be running high, but if you’ve missed out by just a grade, remember that you still have much to offer. “We try to be positive and say ‘you’ve got good grades but you’ve been unlucky because you’ve just missed out’,” says Mark.

“I send the students off to have a coffee and calm down – sometimes with their parents, who are often more traumatised than the students themselves. Then we start the nitty gritty of looking for places online or in The Independent.”


3 … but be prepared to act on the day

This year all clearing applications will be handled online by Ucas, which should speed the process up. This creates pressure of its own, however. “The places go very, very quickly,” says Helen Clapham, Head of Student Recruitment and Marketing at the University of Leeds. “The peak activity period has got shorter over the years and much of it will take place on the afternoon of Thursday August 20.

“Most applications will come through online, but we do have a large call centre to deal with clearing applicants and this is manned by representatives from admissions and students.”


4 Do your research…

Despite tales of doom and gloom about a 50,000-shortfall of places, a number of universities are advertising clearing places which you can research now (see below for more details).

Don’t rule out leading universities or popular courses. For instance, the University of London, Queen Mary College, is advertising clearing places for psychology – one of the most popular degree courses. Also, James Reed, a spokesperson for York University, anticipates that places will be available on the following subjects through clearing: “Biology, Computer Science, Electronics, Environment, History of Art, Management and Physics.”

At Leeds, Helen Clapham expects there to be clearing places “mainly on mathematics and chemistry, and perhaps on some environmental courses”.

If you have science or technology A-levels you do stand a better chance through clearing. The government has funded an extra 10,000 university places this autumn, and most of these are in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).


5 Be flexible with your course options… and know how to work the system

Considering joint honours degrees or a wider breadth of courses can be a solution. Second year student Saskia Duff explains: “You can get around the clearing system, if you persevere. I liked the look of Reading University but didn’t have the grades for the English course.

“They were, however, willing to offer me joint honours English and Classics at slightly lower grades. I can drop the Classics module in October and next year I’ll graduate with straight honours degree in English from Reading.”

(Read in full how Saskia turned clearing to her advantage)


6 Sell yourself… only you can

If you’ve got through to a university with an attractive place it’s vital that you sound convincing, as Kelly Parkes-Harrison, a spokesperson for Warwick University, explains: “A well-prepared student will always have an advantage over one who is fishing around for anything and not considering their options carefully. Students must always make contact with universities themselves and should on no account let their parents or teachers do it.”
Don’t be deterred by what could be a daunting prospect on a day that’s stressful enough. “Because they’ve crafted their personal statements, students know how to sell themselves and it’s not necessarily a hard sell,” says Mark Beard, of Brighton College. “The universities are inundated on the day, and as long as they feel the grades are good enough and the candidate is keen then it’s almost a done deal.”


7 Is the offer right for you?

Tempting though it may be to secure a place, don’t jump at the first offer. “Clearing is a really emotional time and may not be conducive to making the right choice,” says Helen Clapham of Leeds University. “We find that when students drop out it’s usually because they chose the wrong course. Often it hits them when they go home at Christmas.”


8 Consider asking for a re-mark

It’s a cruel irony that pupils can miss out on a coveted place because they’ve dropped a grade in just one subject. In this scenario, there may be a case for an emergency re-mark. 

If you think that your mark is unexpectedly low, speak to your head of department or teacher. Humanities are the subjects where the marking is sometimes open to question because they’re so reliant on interpretation. Science tends to be more black or white.

“In virtually every re-mark we’ve had done the grade has gone up,” says Mark Beard. “If that goes over a grade boundary, you could get your place.”

If you decide to do this, call the university and tell them you have requested an emergency re-mark. They are obliged to hold the place and accept you if you get the grade requested. There is a charge for re-marks.


9 What about deferred entry and a gap year?

If you have your heart set on studying a specific course (especially a popular one) and you just miss out on the grades, there may be a good case for deferred entry. The modular system allows you to improve your grades during a gap year, so you could resit exams at your old school or pay for extra tuition.

It’s important to check that the universities that you intend to apply to consider applications from someone who is essentially taking a ‘third year’ at A-level. Some can afford to be choosy and state that you must achieve your grades within two years.


10 Can you make it on points?

Your grades may vary from those specified by the university, but it may not be the end of the world. If the university has asked for three Bs and you get ABC, your Ucas point score will be the same and the university may accept you. Some, however, may be stuffy and say ‘you got a C, that’s not good enough even though you got an A’.

The point system can also help if you’re borderline between two grades. To score an A you have to get 480 out of 600. If you get 476 and are awarded a B, some universities will say ‘that’s good enough’. “This has happened to a few people at Brighton College,” says Mark.” They come in all tearful and think they’ve missed their offer but they’ve still got their place.”

Read our case study about a student who took a gamble on clearing... 

Clearing places: check out a selection of top universities

We found places in a matter of minutes. Here are just a few...


New for 2009: trading up your place

For the first time this year, Ucas has introduced an adjustment period. This means that if you have met and exceeded your first choice university offer, you can put that offer on hold for five days and research a place at the same or another university for which your grades match.

It seems a good idea, in principle, but how will it work in a year that promises intense competition? Mark Beard, head of Sixth Form at Brighton College, is sceptical: “I don’t think that there will be many places available in adjustment or clearing for those students who have achieved three Bs or above.

“One of the reasons for that is the selective universities who can pick and choose quite often give out a few more offers than they have places for. They know that 10 per cent of those they offer to don’t get the grades so they over-offer by 10 per cent and on results day their course is full.

“The same problem will occur for those who want to take advantage of the adjustment period. If you have three Cs instead of three Ds, then you might well have choice out there, but at the higher end of the grades I’m not sure that there’s going to be the same flexibility.”


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