How to keep a 'clearing' head

July 15, 2005

Publication of A-level results brings with it the yearly round of clearing as students rush to secure a degree place to match their final grades. Harriet Swain offers advice on how best to manage the maelstrom

Phew. You've processed the applications, held the interviews and chosen your students for next year. Now you're about to go through the whole thing again -only a lot faster. How do you keep a clear head in clearing?

It's all about timing. And if you're reading this and feeling worried, I suspect your sense of timing could be better.

"You have to plan and prepare in advance," says Matthew Andrews, secretary of the Admissions Practitioners' Group and director of undergraduate recruitment at Durham University. "The whole clearing recruitment process needs to be thought through." He says you need to analyse beforehand which programmes are likely to have students who don't make the grade and work out the likely demand for vacancies.

Alan Warner, brand director of the recruitment advertising company Euro RSCG Riley's education brand team, says early planning is also needed to develop your marketing campaign and consider your media options. He advises starting to think about this in January in preparation for that year's clearing. "You can do most of these things now, but it will take more effort and panic," he warns. He argues that time is needed to develop and test relevant creative ideas for a campaign that not only targets potential students effectively but reflects the particular strengths of your university.

Starting early also allows you to experiment with new ways of reaching students, such as using online advertising and text messaging. But Warner warns that you need to be careful with this kind of technology. "Messages need to be relevant and informative or they can be seen as spam e-mail and people will disregard them," he says.

Andrews says students still tend to rely most on traditional media such as The Independent listings, and he warns students against using websites and other sources making great claims that are difficult to prove.

Warner says any campaign you run should be "front-loaded", concentrating on the earliest part of the clearing period, because this is getting more compressed every year.

This means that you also need to ensure that there are people on hand as soon as clearing starts - from 8am on the morning A-level results are published.

Andrews recommends a tiered system of dealing with applicants. The first should be a hotline filtering out unsuitable applicants. The second should be a bank of staff able to make quick admissions decisions over the phone and answer queries about a course. Third, students should be invited to visit the campus, with the opportunity to stay overnight and attend a campus tour. "You are trying to show them that you are interested in them while still letting the student feel ownership of the situation," he says.

Finally, you need to process the clearing documentation.

Warner says you have to ensure well in advance that your telephone systems are up to receiving large numbers of calls and that you have fully trained people to operate them.

For campus tours, meanwhile, you need to plan refreshments, signage, maps and open-day programmes, ensure all relevant staff are on hand to give advice and think about how you are going to deal with parents.

Chris Alcock, admissions manager at Staffordshire University, advises bearing in mind that not all students going through clearing will have traditional A-level qualifications and that you must make sure that those manning the hotlines are aware of what the alternative qualifications mean and what skills they involve.

This may also help you to see the bigger picture and to steer students towards courses that are similar to their original choice.

Nyssa Koring, who studied law and criminology at Staffordshire after going through clearing, says getting instant responses was crucial. Her phone call was answered straightaway, she wasn't put on hold and she was told immediately that she couldn't do the course she wanted - law - but that there was an alternative. "All that was done in five minutes," she says.

"It's such a daunting thing to do - I think if I had been put on hold, I would have put the phone down."

Alcock says that you not only need to be patient with students in the way they make their academic choices but in explaining how the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service works. "From my point of view, Ucas is quite straightforward but I have been doing it for ten years," she says. "You have to take the applicant through it step by step."

Kate Griffin, head of Greenford High School, in Ealing, West London, says her students find it particularly worrying when, because of the way the system works, they sometimes have to reject an offer from one university before receiving formal confirmation of an offer from another. Speed in dealing with the paperwork is therefore crucial she says, as is being absolutely clear about when they can expect to hear from you and when to ring if they haven't.

She warns that you need to take particular care with online clearing systems and to point out clearly when students need to make a call rather than relying on e-mail.

But your work should not stop once a place has been formally offered and accepted. You should be able to point the applicant swiftly in the direction of information about accommodation and finance.

Only then will you be able to breathe a sigh of relief - and start preparing for the next admissions cycle.

Further information

Universities and Colleges Admissions Service:

Academic Registrars Council, incorporating Admissions Practitioner Group:


Plan early

Be able to give instant responses

Offer the opportunity to attend an open day - and prepare for it

Be friendly and sympathetic

Offer information about finance and accommodation

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