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Confessions of a Clearing call handler

As someone who has answered hundreds of phone calls in the past from students on A level results day, what advice would I suggest that you give to your students to help them through this rather daunting process?

As A level results day approaches, your students will be waiting nervously for their results. Many will simply progress smoothly to their firm or insurance choice of university. Some students however may decide to end up looking for a place through clearing.

Attitudes towards clearing have been changing in recent years. What was once seen as some kind of university bargain basement is now becoming much more commonly used and is a service which is being taken advantage of by a wider range of students and a wider range of universities than ever before. It’s also worth pointing out that the clearing system runs alongside UCAS’s lesser known Adjustment system in which students who have performed better than expected can try to trade up to a higher tariff course at a different university. This means that students in a range of different circumstances could find themselves on the phone to universities later this week.

I was lucky in that when my results came in I had met the entry requirements for my firm choice. My experience of clearing phone calls therefore comes from the other end of the conversation – I have been one of the people who answers them. From my perspective, what is the best advice you can give to your students?

1. Speak up!

Clearing call handlers can find themselves in a busy room which can be a bit noisy. This is especially true first thing on the Thursday morning when the phones will be ringing off the hook. Therefore it’s important for students to speak slowly and clearly, even though they may be nervous. Unfortunately the pronunciations of many lettered grades (such as B, C, D, and E) all rhyme with one another, creating the potential of a mix up. Students can use the phonetic alphabet (Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo…) to ensure there are no misunderstandings.

You could also remind your students that in the olden days there were things called “land lines”. These were like mobiles but there was no risk that they would suddenly lose reception. If students can find one of these in their house, this may be a better choice than a mobile, however they may wish to dust it down first.

2. Have a strategy

Once a university fills a course it will be removed from clearing, therefore it’s important that students get calling as early as they can. Students will be mid-way through their summer holiday and their sleeping patterns may have adjusted accordingly. However they should be setting their alarm clocks (another item from the olden days?) nice and early so that they are ready for when the lines open. Your students may well be planning on calling multiple universities, so they need to prioritise and stick with their priority universities even if they are placed on hold. Since there is every possibility that students will be waiting in a queue if they call as soon as the lines open, they could even consider using two phones (or even more!) to sit in two queues at different universities at the same time. This might involve using the aforementioned land line whilst having their mobile on speakerphone. A supportive parent, teacher or friend can also come in handy here. They can step in and speak to a university in the event that both answer at the same time. Some universities will be willing to speak with a parent or teacher on behalf of the student.

3. Ask questions (politely) about the university's admissions policy

When a student is calling a university to enquire about a clearing vacancy, this is likely to be the first contact they have had with that institution. The university doesn’t know the student, and they won’t know what kind of background they have come from or whether they have faced any extenuating circumstances.

Therefore it can be worth students enquiring gently about the university’s admissions policy, and how it applies at the clearing stage. If students have faced extenuating circumstances, they could flag these up and enquire as to whether these will be taken in to consideration. They can also enquire about whether the university operates a contextual admissions policy. Suppose, for example, a student has used the POLAR postcode checker and has learnt that they are living in quintile 1. It’s possible that grade requirements could be adjusted down to reflect this. Having said this, since universities usually offer lower entry requirements at the clearing stage anyway they might not be willing to go lower still as part of a contextual admissions process. The fact remains though that students have nothing to lose by asking. Callers ought to adopt a certain mentality when it comes to clearing and remind themselves that the worst that can ever happen is that someone can say no, and the person saying no is someone who they are never likely to meet or speak to again. What’s the worst that could happen?

4. Stay calm

Just as in the earlier part of the UCAS process, students need to ensure that they are always making a careful, considered, rational decision about their future. On clearing day it’s easy for students to get swept along with the frenzy of it all. Students will have friends who have already got a place at university, and they will be keen to have some positive news of their own which they can share on their social media. However even though clearing moves at quite a fast pace, there is no need for students to rush and panic.

Make sure your students understand what they are (and aren’t) committing themselves to. Typically a student will be made a verbal offer on the phone. They will usually be given a certain time frame to accept, but this could be a few days. They should ask the person on the other end of the phone if they don’t fully understand the process.

There’s nothing to stop students calling around to get several verbal offers and then taking some time to mull things over before making a decision. They could even visit the universities in question – there may be a small scale open day for clearing offer holders, but even if there isn’t most universities tend to be public spaces and they can of course also check out the city or town where the university is located.

Students don’t have to accept any of their verbal offers and some students may legitimately decide that they are going to apply again through the UCAS process next time around, resitting certain subjects if necessary. This is an option which ought to be given proper consideration, especially by those students who were thinking about taking a gap year anyway. If the worst comes to the worst and their second UCAS application still isn’t as successful as they hoped it would be, they can always step up and ride the clearing roller coaster again this time next year.

We wish all of your students the best of luck for results day!


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