Elizabeth Stokoe: Four tips for university clearing applications

Students from the University of St Andrews walk along the harbour wall wearing their famous red gowns. Picture: Jane Barlow
Students from the University of St Andrews walk along the harbour wall wearing their famous red gowns. Picture: Jane Barlow
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Every year, in August, thousands of students in the UK receive their A-level results and discover whether or not they have got the marks needed to take up a place at their chosen university.

If they fail to make the grade – or exceed them – students telephone university clearing centres, to try and find a more suitable course. Twenty years ago, getting a place through “clearing” was seen as something of a failure. Now it is not. Not only are grades often higher in clearing than the original prospectus listing, but students can “adjust” their offer to secure a better place.

For the students making these calls, it can often be a nerve wracking time, filled with unknowns and uncertain outcomes. So to try and find out what makes these calls a success, we transcribed and analysed 300 calls at a clearing contact centre last summer. We looked at how people spoke on these calls, as well as what they said. We were able to identify common patterns in the way the calls unfolded and what made a difference to the final outcome.

So to try and make things a little easier if you are going through clearing, we’ve put together some tips based on our analysis.

1. Do your research

Clearing may seem like a mad dash to the finish, but while there is an element of time pressure in trying to get on a course at a university of your choice, it’s still worth taking time to research which universities or courses to apply for.

It was revealed in our research that university websites are updated more rapidly than UCAS’s, so prepare for your call by checking the grade requirements and spaces beforehand.

If you have your heart set on a particular university, make a list of all the available courses you would be willing to study at that institution. Flexibility will help you, but make sure it’s a course you actually want to do as it’s a big commitment.

2. Know who’s who

It’s also worth having a look at who the key members of staff are in your relevant department or subject area. Our research showed that when students’ grades did not meet the requirements, they sometimes asked to be transferred to the relevant department – but for these students, just asking to be transferred did not always work.

We found that having the name of the programme director or admissions tutor for the course was more likely to result in a transfer. So make sure you look these up ahead of phoning, and have these names to hand throughout the call.

3. Have all your information ready

When you phone a clearing centre, make sure you are in a quiet place where you can concentrate. Have your laptop, tablet or computer in front of you, and pen and paper by your side to scribble down any last minute notes. Make sure you have all your grades clearly written out so you can refer back to them at a moment’s glance.

As well as doing this, make sure you have any other relevant information to hand from the offset. This could include details of extenuating circumstances surrounding your A-level performance – as this might change what universities will offer.

Our research showed that call takers at clearing lines don’t know about these circumstances, and don’t ask about them either. So if you don’t mention them, the call will close without you maximising your chances of an offer. And remember that unless you have nominated them on your UCAS form, your parents cannot call on your behalf.

4. Don’t waste time

In our research, we saw a number of instances where students made repeat calls – presumably to try and speak to a different call taker – to see if they could get a place that way. But our analysis showed that repeat calling simply wasted everyone’s time – slowing down call takers and other callers. In the calls we analysed, there wasn’t one case where repeat calling produced an offer when the original call did not.

The take home lesson here is to understand that you only get one chance to call a university clearing helpline – so make sure it counts. It’s also worth knowing that many university clearing lines are open well into the evening, and even the week following results day so don’t feel disheartened if you can’t get through when you first call – lines are likely to be busy. Be patient but persistent and you’ll get through eventually.

This article was originally published on The Conversation