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University clearing: things can work out for the best

Student options for university clearing

What happens when you don’t get the A-level results you wanted and needed? While it can be a shock, it does happen. Guest author Dr Helen is here to tell us her university clearing story…

I remember my Mum telling me that ’things work out for the best’; it was the day after I’d received my A-Level results when I found out that I hadn’t got the results that I was expecting or needed. Those were not the reassuring words I wanted right then.

University plans gone pear-shaped

Originally my plans were all set out. I was going to go to the University of Birmingham to study Psychology for three years. Afterwards I would apply for a doctorate course and become a qualified psychologist.

But the problem was that I didn’t get the results I wanted, which meant that I couldn’t go to Birmingham. Birmingham had been my first choice and my lowest offer. I therefore didn’t have an insurance option.

To say I was devastated is an understatement. Thinking back to it now I still feel the dread and worry of not knowing what I was going to do. I rang my parents to tell them the bad news.

Wild thoughts ran through my mind. Was I going to give up on my dream, not go to uni and instead get a job? Could I defer a year and go travelling? What about resitting the year? – this wasn’t an attractive option, as it meant being in 6th form with my younger brother.

I then thought – what about going through clearing?

University clearing

I was put on a computer at school to start the ‘clearing’ process and made a number of phone calls; the universities ready with information at the other end.

It’s quite a weird experience having to build new plans in an instant, but I had the support of my family, teachers and friends.

I knew I wanted to study psychology – the question was where, and what was the best course?

I narrowed down the different options looking at the universities that offered psychology and that would accept me with my grades.

Two days later I’d visited three universities and got an offer from the University of Hull. The course looked good, the facilities great and while it wasn’t what I’d set my heart on at Birmingham, I knew I’d enjoy it.

Things do work out for the best

I spent three brilliant years at Hull thanks to university clearing. I made lifelong friends and after I graduated I got a place at Birmingham University to do my doctorate in psychology in the area of my choice.

I’m now a qualified psychologist, in my dream job. In the end I got to where I wanted to be – it wasn’t easy, and not getting the A-Level grades I was expecting was a set-back, but as it turned out, not the end of the world.

Maybe Mum was right all along: things do work out for the best.

My top tips for university clearing would be:

  • Stay calm: easy for anyone to say, but your mind will run faster and make up ridiculous scenarios that will never happen – trust me I’m a psychologist. Take a breath, sit down and have a think about what you really want.
  • Keep your options open: be open to different ideas and different places. There’s no way I’d thought I’d end up at Hull when I first started applying for uni, but I did and I don’t regret it.
  • Find facts and information: Going to uni is one of the biggest decisions that you’ll make. Everyone needs help and information to make big decisions, so go and find it. Look online, talk to others who have been through similar process, and of course use Which? University to find out about different course and universities.
  • Have an amazing time: Whatever decision you make, it will be the best decision for you. Uni is great fun and no matter where you go, or what you do it’ll be an experience where you’ll make new friends that shape the rest of your life.

This is a guest post by Dr Helen. Helen is a practicing Psychologist and wishes to remain anonymous. All views expressed here are Helen’s own and not necessarily those shared by Which?.


Life lesson one for a young adult, the best laid plans o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley; two, indeed don’t despair, things may very well work out for the best (to say that they definitely do isn’t quite realistic, but I appreciate the spirit of optimistim); three, always have a plan B (or C).

And that’s among so many other lessons…

UK Universities have an abundance of places on offer this year and those whose A level grades aren’t quite up to expectations will almost certainly get an offer from somewhere. There are always places in the easier subjects, Arts, Sociology, Psychology, Biology, while the ‘hard’ sciences – Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Engineering – tend to need students to have gained the higher grades.

Most of the older institutions will be fine in terms of tuition, and the Atkins group are world renowned, anyway. But the decision making process isn’t cast in stone. Bright students can switch courses in many cases and depending on the actual degree, employment usually awaits the steady worker at the end of their four years. If I were to make one observation it’s that students should aim for a Master’s as a basic.

I agree there’s a lot to be said for doing a good Master’s degree, especially if it is in a practical subject like Engineering.

My employers sponsor their favourite Masters Degree Courses. Many of those end with a Thesis Project which can be performed in industry, rather like a 2 or 3 month long job interview.

There is lots of good experience which shows that the graduates from these courses really can “hit the ground running” when they start their professional careers.

I’m glad you have put ‘hard’ in inverted commas, Ian. I would also have put ‘easier’ in inverted commas, although I think I understand what you mean.

DerekP, unless I’ve got it wrong, I think that there is a lot of industry (and other) sponsorship in Germany for students at all levels, much more than here. A leaf to be taken out of their book? It makes so much sense to make such an investment, doesn’t it. Re university clearing, however, I don’t know what grades those sponsored students need to have in the first place.

They mean slightly different things, Sophie. ‘Hard’, in that context, relates not to difficulty (although they are demanding) but to the well-established sciences that everyone in the academic community agrees are sciences. Sociology and Psychology are still regarded by some as ‘semi-disciplines’: part science, part arts and part luck 🙂 I’m not expressing a personal opinion, either; we have one of each in our children and my better half is a scientist while I’m a mere musician and writer. Complete dysfunctional family…

Ian, to understand more about your “complete dysfunctional family”, if you look into previous generations in both your families, you will discover that familiarity plays a huge role in your existing choice of partner. For example, my personality used to lean towards that of my mothers with a much smaller percentage towards my fathers. I ended up marrying someone with a personality similar to that of my fathers.

This is an unconscious truth established by Psychiatrist and Psychoanalyst Robin Skynner who wrote an extremely enlightening book together with comedian and actor John Cleese – Families and how to survive them. You can read up on his biography @ en.m.wikipedia.org – Robin Skynner – Biography.

For the record, I eventually went to great lengths to correct any resulting imbalance in my own personality that I had inherited from being raised with two extremely opposite temperaments and which led me to a whole new fulfilling and illuminating perspective in my life 🙂

It’s not helped by the fact that ‘hard’ has two antonyms – ‘easy’ and ‘soft’. I would regard Psychology as soft [compared to, say, mathematics] but not easy.

I wouldn’t put too much emphasis on soft or hard. Most would depend on your particular affiliation to either subject and your inclination and desire to follow through with the erudition and learning processes.

I would wager that a little of both is incorporated into both subjects, one through calculus and the other through monitoring and surveillance.

Cheers, Ian and Beryl.

Also, the best teams are made of disparate people complementing each other, so your family is the opposite of dysfuntional, Ian! :0)