On Thursday, news coverage will be dominated by images of excited students, jumping into the air clutching newly-opened A Level results — the stereotypical image of success, youth, celebration and bright futures ahead.

But what about the students whose results instead trigger bitter disappointment leaving them not wanting to jump in the air, but sink into the ground?

For these students, what comes next is the daunting and highly-stressful experience of going through clearing – the process of securing a place on courses universities still need to fill. With the right support, students who’ve missed their grades can still secure excellent university places, but with a record 67,000 students going through clearing in 2017 and the number set to rise again this year, clearing support needs to be thought of as an integral part of A Level provision.

So what will this actually mean on the day? Well, having found out they have missed their grades, students need to get straight onto the UCAS website to check which courses still have places. Fast decisions have to be taken about which courses will be right for them to spend the next three years and potentially many thousands of pounds studying.

A nerve-racking wait

Then they need to call universities’ busy and often engaged clearing hotlines to find out if their grades are acceptable. On getting through, students face on-the-spot mini interviews explaining why they are interested in the course and answering and asking pertinent questions. Sometimes students face a nerve-racking wait for a call back, only to find the course they had hoped for is full up.

This is a lot to deal with for a disappointed teenager, in the midst of a chaotic school hall, surrounded by students either as anxious as they are, or worse, classmates loudly and excitedly celebrating success. It’s not an easy day.

With so much at stake, students going through clearing need all the support we can offer them, which is why this is a core part of our work here at The Access Project.

Our goal is to support bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve their full academic potential by gaining places at top universities. Ideally we want them to avoid clearing all together preferably by getting their predicted grades, but in instances where they don’t, by having chosen a realistic insurance choice.

Trust and rapport

We prepare all our students for results day in workshops that cover everything from how to research alternative course choices, to how to manage the phone conversations, all with the aim of avoiding a ‘panic’ situation should they not achieve the grades they hoped for.

On the day, a dedicated member of staff is in school to advise any of our students going through clearing. Having worked with them for several years, we have a real insight into what courses would serve as good alternatives for particular students. Just as importantly, we have built a rapport and trust with these students, which makes coaching them through an emotional and sometimes distressing day far more productive.

Our resources are in addition to the robust clearing support provided by our partner schools. We know the schools we work with are hugely appreciative of the intensive one-to-one advice we are able to offer students on our programme, allowing them to focus their efforts on their other students.

And with the right information and encouragement, there really are some incredible courses and universities available through clearing and students can come out with some fantastic destinations even when they’ve missed their grades.

Great things can lay ahead

For example, last year one of the students I worked with missed her firm place at Warwick and also missed her back-up place. She was absolutely distraught. It was initially a very emotionally-charged morning as she navigated feelings of shock, panic and utter disappointment.

But after giving her a few minutes to calm down, I explained that we were going to go through alternative courses still available at top universities, noting down entry requirements and phone numbers as we went. She prepared herself for the ensuing phone calls and powered through the next few hours of talks with admissions officers, sandwiched between endless stints of hold music.

Her last call of the day was to the University of Reading, a university she had visited, loved, had an offer from and had nearly put as her back-up choice. This was also her longest phone call; she was on hold until late in the afternoon, by which time all rejoicing students had long since left, and the majority of others in clearing had also resolved their situations and gone home.

Despite being drained and exhausted by this point, when she finally got through to the admissions officer at Reading, she held her own, communicated clearly and passionately why she deserved a place on their English course. To her delight, they were impressed by her application and phone interview, and offered her a place.

There’s no way around it: going through clearing is an arduous and challenging process. But if you stay calm, persevere and have the right support, great things can absolutely still lay ahead.

By Sara Papamichael, London Programme Manager, The Access Project

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