Not every student has a smooth journey from A levels or other Level 3 qualifications to the higher education course of their choice. However, there are systems in place to help you if you don’t achieve the grades you need for a confirmed place, or if you don’t get any offers at all.
Getting a place in university is a competitive matter, especially if you choose a popular course at a prestigious university. UCAS is there to help you through the process, and there are other things that you can do to help yourself.
Many students are made offers that are conditional on them gaining certain grades or “UCAS Tariff points” in their Level 3 qualifications. Although, in many cases, at results time, universities will accept lower grades than an original offer, particularly if an application was good in other respects. However, every year some students have to rethink their options.
If you have not received any university offers, consider why this has happened. Work on anything you can change, and try to find explanations for the things that you can’t, so consider:
- Were all your choices for very competitive courses?
- Did you have the wrong supporting GCSEs or were your GCSE grades too low for entry to more competitive university courses? (Yes, admissions tutors DO look at GCSE grades too).
- Did your personal statement or reference let you down? Perhaps the admissions tutors could tell from your application that you were not really suited to your chosen course or insufficiently committed to your choice.
- If you had an interview, could you improve your technique?
- Were you predicted to get the grades you needed to meet the offer?
- Were the grades you were required to get really within your reach?
- Could you have worked harder or revised better?
You may decide to retake your A levels or other qualifications, and to try for a university place again next year. Talk to your teachers and your chosen universities, as admissions tutors often expect a considerable improvement in grades, and/or additional subjects, to make an offer after retakes, and some won’t even consider students who have done retakes unless there are extenuating circumstances, so be realistic about your chances!
If you and your teachers genuinely believe your grades are inaccurate, you can ask for your paper to be remarked. However, remember that your regrade could be lower rather than higher!
From 25 February to 4 July each year, UCAS operates “Extra”. This is aimed at applicants who have already applied for five courses but don’t hold any offers because they have either been turned down or have declined all their course choices. It allows you to make one additional choice at a time by searching on the UCAS website for courses with vacancies. If you are eligible for Extra, an ‘Add an Extra choice’ option will appear on the application section of your UCAS personal hub. It is wise to contact institutions to check that they still have vacancies before applying through Extra, to make sure they will consider you. You can offer to send a new personal statement if you are applying for an entirely different subject. If you are offered a place you want, you accept it through your personal hub by the date shown. This commits you to the course so you will not be permitted to apply for any more.
For more information on UCAS Extra, see the following link:
If you cannot find a suitable course through Extra, or don’t get an offer, you enter the Clearing system.
UCAS Clearing operates between 5th July and October each year, and courses with vacancies are shown on the UCAS search tool. You are eligible if you have applied through UCAS, but are not holding any confirmed offers, for whatever reason, or if you have declined your firm offer. Every year, thousands of students find university places through Clearing. There is information and advice on the UCAS website, and careers advisers and teachers at your school or college may be able to support you through the Clearing process.
For many students, Clearing starts on A level results day in mid-August. Lists of available university places can be viewed on the UCAS website and universities advertise their course vacancies on their own websites, sometimes before results day. If eligible, you will automatically be entered for Clearing; you will be able to tell this from your UCAS application status. Research courses carefully, check that the content of the course is what you want. You should then contact the university or college directly, giving your Clearing number and personal UCAS ID, and ask if they will accept you. It is important that you are available to do this. Make sure you prepare for discussions with admissions tutors, so think about:
- your reasons for wanting to do the course
- what you can offer
- how your future aims relate to the course
- questions you need to ask
After you get one or more informal offers over the phone, think carefully before deciding which one you want to accept. If possible, it is well worth visiting the institution if you have not already been there, or at least do a virtual tour. When you are offered a Clearing place that you definitely want to accept, you add the course details to the ‘Your choices’ section of your UCAS application in your personal hub. The university or college then confirms the place through UCAS and you can see the confirmation on your application. If you receive an offer and accept it, that is a commitment on your part, so choose carefully!
If possible, you should talk to your tutor and/or a careers adviser about the most suitable course to apply for, bearing in mind your results. For example, if you applied for a very competitive subject, you could consider a related subject instead. Or if your original choices were for degrees, consider the possibility of an HND, foundation degree or degree with foundation year, which generally require lower entry qualifications. HNDs and foundation degrees are recognised qualifications in their own right, and, with further study (usually one more year), can be converted to an honours degree. Whatever happens, try not to panic and take the first offer; it is important that any course you accept is suitable for you.
UCAS also operates Clearing Plus, a direct contact service. If you have not secured a course place, you can opt to view matches on your personal UCAS hub. Universities and/or colleges can then contact you during the Clearing period if they have available places on courses that they think might suit you. However, you should also continue to look for courses yourself using the UCAS search tool.
For more information on Clearing, see the following link:
If your grades turn out to be well below what you expected, or if you did not enjoy your studies, then it may be the right time to rethink your plans. Think carefully about your commitment to university. If in doubt, look at other training or employment opportunities.
- Advanced, Higher and Degree Apprenticeships can be an excellent pathway into a career and include gaining recognised qualifications. For more information on apprenticeships, see:
- School-leaver schemes in industry and commerce can offer candidates with Level 3 qualifications a route to management and may also include study towards professional qualifications.
- Vocational further education courses at colleges can lead to employment, or entry to university. Remember that a significant number of people go to university as a mature student (age 21+) so it is always an option for the future if it is not right for you at age 18.
- Part-time study while you work may give you the opportunity to gain an HNC/D, a foundation degree, a degree or a professional qualification (if you meet the course entry requirements).
- You could consider an Open University degree. OU degrees do not have any set entry qualifications and you can study at your own pace. This enables you to do other things such as taking up employment.
- A well-spent gap year, perhaps studying or doing voluntary work before reapplying to university again, may improve your chances of being accepted into university.
- Taking an Access to Higher Education Diploma may offer an alternative route into university if you do not hold the usual Level 3 entry qualifications. N.B. Access to Higher Education Diploma courses tend to be aimed at students who have been out of education for some time, so may be a suitable option if you still want to get into university at a later date. You generally need to be age 19+ on the 1st September of the academic year in which the Access course starts to be eligible. For information on Access courses, see:
- Some work experience and time to clarify your ambitions can enhance your motivation and therefore make you more attractive to universities as a mature student. Bear in mind that you will have likely been in education continuously for 13 years, so time out can give you time to think about your future, and there is much evidence to show that mature students do well in higher education owing to the confidence and motivation they often develop.
Remember, disappointing A level or other Level 3 qualification results can be a setback, but there are plenty of options open to you. Many people who experience setbacks make considerable success of their future careers.
Ray is a qualified Careers Adviser for the National Careers Service West Midlands. Ray has extensive experience of providing advice and guidance to young people, having been practising for more than 25 years.