Education Guardian - 3rd August 2009
"When I opened the envelope and saw my results, it was just – disappointment. I felt really, really bad. I threw them on the floor and went to my room in tears."
For Nooreen Akhtar, it was the second summer dominated by A-level results. For two years running she failed to get what she needed to achieve her goal of studying medicine.
"The first time I went into school to get the envelope and that was even worse. It felt like everyone else had got what they wanted and was smiling and happy and I felt even more disappointed."
But Nooreen was lucky. Through the process known as clearing she got a place to study biomedical sciences at Aberdeen, where she is getting good grades, and when she finishes next year she plans to apply for a medical degree.
Getting poor results, she says, "feels like the end of the world, but it's not and you find a way to move forward".
Nooreen, 21, says looking back at herself at 18, she didn't have the maturity or the work ethic to cope with a medical degree. "I have my social life but now I can say to myself, 'the party's over and it is time to sit down and do some work.'"
She went to school in York, and had never visited Aberdeen University when, having picked herself and her results off the floor, she sat down at a computer and scrolled down the Ucas list of courses with available places. "I liked the sound of the course and it was by the sea." A few encouraging phone calls later, she found herself looking for digs in the granite city two weeks before freshers' week.
Three years on, she has a summer job working in Aberdeen's admissions office and will be answering the phone to school leavers in clearing, the process by which around 10% of places on degree courses in the UK are allocated.
A head start in Scotland
This year promises to be a tough one for many who are hoping to start university in the autumn. The combination of the recession and a cap on the number of places available means there will be more competition for any places left unfilled after the A-level results come out on 20 August.
Scottish students get off to a head start as they get their results earlier and Ucas lists clearing places available at Scottish universities on Wednesday 5 August . A Ucas/Careers Scotland helpline starts on the same day with access to clearing for Scottish places. The number is 0808 100 8000. The same number will be open for clearing places in the rest of the UK from 20-29 August.
According to Robin McAlpine of Universities Scotland, clearing is less of an issue north of the border as most Scots qualify for university in fifth year, with only 6.5% of Scottish students actually go through the clearing process.
"Fifth year is about getting a place, sixth year is about preparing for university," McAlpine says. "In England students spend six years working towards a qualification and then an awful lot of them end up deciding where and what they will study in this giant, crazy headlong rush. Personally I'm not sure if it's a very good idea. It is one of those decisions that really matters in terms of your future."
However, he advises anyone, north or south of the border, who is hanging on for results they may not achieve to "have a plan B". "Don't be snobbish, don't do something you are not interested in to go to an institution you think is more prestigious. But be ambitious for yourself. Look for courses that you really want to do. Phone up in advance and find out who you need to speak to on the day and be enthusiastic.
"The universities want the best students they can get but if they don't fill those places in clearing, they won't fill them at all."
Not all Scottish students get what they need in fifth year. Connor Robertson, 18, from Edinburgh, is waiting to see if he has achieved the results he needs to do engineering after falling just short last year.
"I have been under a constant bit of pressure," he says. "When most of your friends are talking about the university they are going to, not the one they may be going to you feel under pressure. Sixth year is a year when you have fun. You do work but you have fun as well but I have been restricted. I could have chosen to go for a different course but engineering is what I really want to do. There is no plan B."
An opportunity to review your existing choice
For food stylist Gregor McMaster, as for a significant number of Scots, clearing meant a last-minute opportunity to change direction. He had been accepted to study history and economics, but at the end of sixth year he changed his mind and secured a place on a food and consumer science degree at Abertay University.
"I never really wanted to study history but there was pressure on me to do something academic," he says. "My Dad wanted me to do an extra Higher and I did food technology, and in sixth year I had a Saturday job in an Italian restaurant. I realised I wanted to do something more practical.
"I talked to my food technology teacher at school and I wound up doing what would once have been called home economics. Now I am working on a food magazine, doing styling and coming up with recipes and I love it."
This year for the first time, UCAS has formalised the process of "adjustment". Now students who out-perform their predictions have a window of opportunity of 120 hours to try and upgrade to a more prestigious institution. This is important because evidence shows that young people from deprived backgrounds are more likely to suffer from under-prediction.
However, Paul Govey, head of admissions at Manchester University, which takes less than five per cent of its intake through clearing, said most courses at traditional universities were already full and students would in most cases find it impossible to trade up, this year at least. "When the adjustment plan was decided on, no-one could have predicted where we would be now," he says.
Coping with the stress of clearing
Clare Beckett is head of student recruitment at Thames Valley University, which takes a higher than average number of students through clearing. She says: "On the first day I know we will get students and parents in tears on the telephone and coming in off the street. We have boxes of tissues and 200 academics ready to help. There are very few students we can't help. If we can't offer them a place on a degree course, we have further education courses or we can help them to work out where they might go next.
"We talk to parents too, once the student has given us permission, and explain to them what the options are because they can find it very confusing."
Beckett is particularly sympathetic as she went though the experience herself. "I really remember the devastation I felt when I didn't get the exams I wanted. But it worked out well in the end. If I had got them I would be an audio engineer now, and frankly I would be wasted on that."
• On 20 August EducationGuardian will publish The Fresher, our guide to clearing and everything you need to know about going to university