Despite efforts to guide potential students into courses that match both their abilities and their interests, many students are still undecided about what to study, even at this late stage. Some will take virtually any course they are offered. Others make decisions on little more than a whim.
Nael Soliman, 18, was "gutted" when he opened his brown envelope last Thursday. Having received a prediction of three Bs - in computer studies, business studies and art - he was quietly confident. "It was such a shock when I realised I'd only got D, D, E," he said.
Nael, a sixth-former at Birkdale School in Sheffield, had been geared up for clearing because his original Universities and Colleges Admissions Service application did not yield any offers. Determined not to miss out on going to university despite his disappointing grades, Nael rushed straight home and combed the newspaper for vacancies.
He had originally applied for business studies but had since had a change of heart and plumped for archaeology. "The trouble was I couldn't find any places at all through clearing," he said. "Everything was full."
Nael then did what every admissions officer advises strongly against. "I made around 100 phone calls and basically just offered myself to them," he said. "I was logged on to the internet for seven hours. I didn't really mind what course I did as long as I got into a university with a good reputation."
Sue Reece, head of student recruitment at Sunderland University, said this was a highly risky approach. "If someone rings us and they are so desperate that they will accept any course, we try to find out their interests and focus them in a direction that might suit them," she said.
"Then we ask them to go away and think about it. After all, this is not just a numbers game. Students will be at university for three or four years and they need to like it. It doesn't do anyone any good if the student doesn't like the course or the university."
Up to 25 per cent of Sunderland's students come in through clearing. They are encouraged to visit the campus on an open day and to check accommodation and facilities. "We keep on sending out the 'don't panic' message, and I think now it is starting to hit home," Ms Reece said. Perhaps with unexpected consequences, since Ms Reece still takes calls from would-be students with no A-level passes at all.
Despite his, perhaps unwise, clearing strategy, Nael Soliman did achieve a number of offers on computer studies courses, although he did have some problems getting past departmental secretaries once they discovered his low grades. He is choosing between the University of East Anglia and Liverpool.
"I think it will turn out OK, the problem was I just got complacent," he said. "I expected to do well in my A levels without really putting any effort in. When I got my results I was in shock and felt abandoned.My friends all seemed to get exactly what they wanted. But I really want to go to university, otherwise how am I supposed to get a decent job?" The same thought occurred to Greg Nickson, a student from Huddersfield who had applied to study law at his local university. But he failed A-level law.
"I talked it through with my careers office at Park Lane College, Leeds. We looked at the various options, such as a year off, HND courses, retakes and so on, then I came home and flicked through some prospectuses. And I came up with something totally different." Greg decided to pursue pharmaceutical sciences despite having no chemistry A level, and when he telephoned Huddersfield they made him an offer on the spot to join their science foundation, which could, in turn, lead him on to the pharmaceuticals course.
"I thought it would be a lot harder to get something, especially as I only have two grade Es," he said.
Fellow Park Lane student Lina Javeed also had inspiration at the 11th hour.
"I didn't apply to university through Ucas, but when I got my results last week I decided to give clearing a go. When I came across a course in ophthalmic dispensing I knew it was perfect for me," she said.
"I hadn't even considered the idea before and was totally gobsmacked and over the moon when I was offered a place over the phone. I just didn't think it could happen that quickly."
Similarly, Andrea McGowan said she had not bothered to apply for a university place through Ucas because she did not expect her grades to be good enough. But when she received a B, C and an E, she thought again.
"I was shocked how easy it was," she said. "I just looked through a Derby prospectus because my friend is going there and I rang them up."
She received an offer over the phone to read law. Her friend Gemma Marshall had a few anxious moments because her grades fell short of the 18 points required for law at Derby. "I telephoned and they were really nice about it and said I could keep my offer," she said.
Lynne Fox, careers adviser at Park Lane College, said a lot of students had been accepted this year despite gaining fewer points than originally required.
"It seems that a lot of universities would rather choose a student who has shown commitment to that institution, even if they do drop a point or two, than take someone completely unknown through clearing," she said. One student even managed to keep a place at Magdalene College, Cambridge, despite her results being a point below the offer, Ms Fox added. "Everyone was thrilled about that," she said.
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