'Clearing happens so quickly there's no time to think it through'

August 13, 1999

Nina Oakes's A-level results were not what she had expected. While her grade A in music was welcome, two Es for maths and physics threatened to scupper her dream of studying engineering at university, writes Alison Utley.

Her first choice institution would not take her and she spent a whole day on the phone ringing round other departments. In fact she says she phoned every university in the country.

After securing several offers - aided by school reports stressing that the results were uncharacteristic - she opted for Sussex. "The dean there had been so helpful and encouraging," she recalls.

Her problems began, however, when the university's administrative machinery took over. "They were extremely slow in sending me the relevant forms so my confirmation of a place was at the very last minute. As a result there was no accommodation for me and I was placed with a host family miles away from the university," she said.

Not only was the distance a problem but her elderly hosts imposed a 10pm curfew - not a terribly healthy start to undergraduate life. After a week Ms Oakes found herself struggling to cope, not least because of the culture shock of her new way of life.

Having come from an all-girls school she was trying to make

her way in a department of 200 males and just three females. Soon she became so desperate that she moved into university halls unofficially, sleeping on people's floors.

She said: "The housing office was incredibly chaotic and there were some occasions when I seriously considered quitting my course because I was so unhappy.

"In fact, if I hadn't been so determined, I'm sure I would have dropped out. It's hard enough when you first leave home. You don't need any additional hassles. The trouble with the clearing process is that it all happens so quickly, there's no time to think it through."

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