Worried your A-level results might not go to plan? Check out our step-by-step guide to clearing

Worried your A-level results might not go to plan? Check out our step-by-step guide to clearing

If you drop a few grades, don’t despair. Here’s what you need to do to find a new course so you can still realise your university dream

A teenage girl studying online using her laptop from home in her bedroom with her pet dog.

When A-level results are released on Thursday, 18 August, many thousands of students will breathe sighs of relief as they celebrate securing places on their chosen courses. But every year, a sizeable chunk of students don’t get the grades they need.

If this ends up being you, don’t panic. There are tens of thousands of university places up for grabs and a well-trodden route to secure them through Ucas Clearing, which matches universities’ empty places with students seeking courses. Last year, 51,540 found a place this way, with more than half of them deferring a year. The majority of universities will recruit students via clearing.

So if you’re one of those getting results this year, here’s what to do on the day if things don’t quite go to plan.

It all starts with the Ucas hub
You can log in from 8.15am on results day to see if you’ve been accepted by your firm or insurance choice (the system can be slow as high numbers of students will be checking in). By now, universities will know your grades and will have made their decisions. If you don’t have a place, Ucas will show that you’re eligible for clearing. You’ll get to know your exam results through your school or college. When it comes to finding a new course, don’t feel pressured to make a snap decision, remember you can’t accept a course before 3pm on the day – and even then, universities will give you longer to mull things over.

If you’re in clearing
It might be worth ringing your original university choice to discover if it has any options open to you. It could offer you a similar course or joint honours, says Kieran O’Sullivan, recruitment manager at the University of Liverpool. If you want to ask your school or college for a priority remark of your exam, alert the university, but remember your mark could go up or down.

Shop around for courses
Start contacting universities. Ucas offers a clearing course search and also the clearing plus tool – which crunches data to suggest courses that may suit you best – if you click on a suggested uni, it should contact you directly if places are still available. University websites show vacancies too.

Trading up
This year, students having second thoughts or wishing to trade up can use the “decline my place” option on Ucas, which releases them into clearing. Before pressing the button, you can browse other courses or even ring around and gather offers from universities – you don’t need to be officially in clearing to do this. (Ucas is no longer offering “adjustment”, which allowed students a short window to trade up if they did better than expected.)

Prepare in advance
If you think you might go into clearing, it’s worth doing some early groundwork. Clearing officially runs from early July to mid October, but students need results to hand to use it and most action happens on and after results day. “It pays to be proactive ahead of the day,” says O’Sullivan. Universities usually publicise course vacancies in advance. You can use online forms to register your interest before results day, and then simply update with your grades – you’re not committed until you accept a course.

Teenager with mobile phone

Contact universities
There are three ways to do this: using an online clearing form (more common since the pandemic); chat functions; or by phone.

“Phone is the best way to find what you need, and get a sense of the place. Ask questions – you can ring back, change your mind,” says Alix Delany, head of admissions at the University of East Anglia. “Don’t assume that one call is the only contact you can have – ring back if you’re not sure. Don’t be put off if lines are busy, perseverance really pays.”

Have your A-level and GCSE grades and Ucas ID to hand, and a copy of your personal statement in case admissions staff want to ask questions.

Keep track of your offers
Note course titles, and contact details of people you’ve spoken to. Parents and teachers can be on hand to support you and help sift through courses.

With all the choice, you might feel like a rabbit in the headlights. Universities might make you an offer over the phone, backed up by an email. Remember, you’re not committed until you accept through Ucas. You can in theory gather as many offers as you like from different universities before you make a choice.

Take stock
“We don’t deny it’s fast paced, but once you have offers, don’t feel you have to rush,” says Delany. At a certain stage in the day – the morning is the busiest time for offers – you can sit back and examine your options. “Subjects with the same title will vary hugely between unis so look closely at the details,” says O’Sullivan. Importantly, check whether accommodation is guaranteed – some unis offer this in clearing, or you may have to find your own place. Where you live matters, says Delany – and it could help swing a decision.

Universities usually hold your course offer for a couple of days and lay on clearing open days on the Friday and weekend after results.

Take a decision
If you’re certain about a course that a university has offered, you can enter the details in Ucas after 3pm on results day for the university to confirm, or you can sleep on it until your decision deadline. Whatever’s happening, try not to feel overwhelmed. “Clearing is not something you do every day, but everyone gets through it,” says Delany.

Sort student finance
If you’ve already arranged finance, log in to gov.uk and update your course choice on your student finance account. If you are applying for the first time, you can now register and apply online.

Other options?
You can of course decide to reapply the following year instead or think about autumn retakes – or do something else entirely altogether.

For more guidance on the right course for you, check out the Guardian university league tables for 2022. The Guardian league tables for 2023 will be out on 10 September in print and online.

For more helpful advice and student news sent straight to your inbox, sign up to the Guardian’s student newsletter.