No cocktails, but tea and sympathy

August 10, 2001

Being an admissions officer is bad for your teeth, says Anne Maddox in the second in our series from the grass roots.

Ah, summer, oh what does it mean to you? Long sunny days in Tuscany perhaps, or sandy beaches, a G 'n' T by the pool? Yes? So you have nothing to do with admissions, then. Not for you the crawling into work on a hot Sunday in August, watching your university's telephone system go into meltdown as students ring up to inquire about vacancies. Not that I am bitter, you understand. Through occasionally gritted teeth I will confess that as admissions officer at a large and dynamic institution, I have an enjoyable job with interesting things to do (most of the time) in excellent company, which is why I have been doing it for 17 years. And the time goes quickly. Really quickly. In fact, I could make good use of J. K. Rowling's time turner.

My normal pattern of work in clearing is to oversee the processing of some 5,000 undergraduate offers, plus some 4,000 taught masters offers, within a very tight timescale. There is a fantastic team spirit in the registry and we accomplish this task as speedily as possible. I had thought that this was a fairly typical workload in admissions offices in August, until I met a charming consultant.

"Ah yes," she reminisced, "I worked once as a student helper in the admissions office of my alma mater (an ancient and prestigious university). It was such fun ringing people to tell them that they were successful. I expect you find that?" I clenched a resolute jaw against my first uncensored response, nearly cracking a tooth in the process. "Mmm," I managed to say, non-committally, wondering how long it would take me to ring all of ours.

Despite the pressures, however, there are real highs associated with smoothing the progress of admissions, which spring mainly from the personal contact with potential students. It is a great feeling giving someone a hand up out of the slough of despondency into which he or she has fallen on opening the dreaded envelope that contains not just results but sometimes that person's whole future. This is a typical scenario in clearing: a science student, plainly distraught and gulping back the tears, rings up to say: "I've totally messed up my A levels - whatever can I do?" Help is at hand in the calm person of Alison, our biology tutor. She takes over the call and swings into competent action. Four years on and that same distressed caller will walk across the stage at our graduation ceremony this month to collect her first-class honours degree - now that gives real job satisfaction. This highlights one of the other pluses of the job. We in the registry are only one part of a team act in clearing. Academic and support staff in the faculties come together with marketing, registry, switchboard, student housing, premises officers, cleaning staff and so on, to make things work for students and their parents. It is tremendous being part of that team.

Unfortunately, not all our applicants are always so eager to grab at the great chances we offer them. The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service sends applicants a letter advising them not to go on holiday at the crucial time, ie when their results are through and they might have to react quickly to ensure a place. Naturally, I am always thrilled to get a late response from someone who has just woken up to the fact that all her friends are streaming off to university:

Dear Anne

I have only just realised that I should have replied to you six months ago about the offer you made me but I have been too busy painting my nails. I know that term started three weeks ago but is it too late to say "yes", I would like to take up the place?

Also could I apply for accommodation? I need an ensuite room with a Jacuzzi and somewhere to keep my iguana. Perhaps you could arrange to collect me from the station? I don't know when that will be but I can always phone you when I arrive.

Best wishes

Miss X

In my dreams, I compose a reply:

Dear Miss X

Certainly. Could you also make use of one of my kidneys?

Yours sincerely...

But the bitterness soon passes. I have far more sympathy for parents abandoned by uncaring offspring to deal with Ucas and university forms. The telephone rings. It is Mrs Justifiably-Anxious, who is a bit breathless:

"Hello, can you help me, my son is somewhere in Nepal or Antarctica, I'm not sure, he hasn't rung me for four weeks, but he's left me to sort out his admission to university this year. Could you please tell me exactly how I should accept his offer through Ucas, request accommodation, get help with his tuition fees, apply for his student loan, etc? Sorry, you want his Ucas number? Er, which one is that exactly?"

There is a pause and an audible clunk while my brain gets into parent-soothing mode. How tempting to reply: "Well, I tell you what, Mrs J, next time your boy condescends to relieve your anxiety and call, tell the little tyke to get home now and sort out his own life. He's got to stop relying on you sometime and you deserve a rest. Take that holiday in the Seychelles. That'll show him."

Instead, clipping the little demon on my shoulder around the ear, I put her mind at rest as best I can and guide her gently through the admissions maze.

Finally, at 7.15pm on Friday night - I think I'll pack it in, after all, I'm back on duty at 9am on Sunday - the telephone rings. Shall I? Better had, might be an emergency. "Hi, could you just do an offer pack for someone who's motored down from John o' Groats specially? Oh, and he's left his clearing entry form at home..."

Anne Maddox is team leader of the student entry and support division of De Montfort University's academic registry.

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