‘Clearing is a fantastic opportunity’: how to find a university that’s right for you

Sometimes, you’re too young at 16 to make definitive choices about your future, says student Sophie Thompson, who had applied to a “cosy and comfortable” campus-based university close to home, only to regret it after she’d done her A-levels. “I chose the only university I looked at.”

After receiving top grades at the age of 18, and having grown in confidence, she fancied student life farther away from home in the north-west, and voluntarily entered clearing.

Since 2019, Ucas has made it easier for applicants such as Thompson to decline their existing place and choose a new course or university. She’s now finishing a degree in mass communication with advertising at Northumbria University, and it has turned out well.

Students are growing more proactive about their futures, and clearing is an extra tool to unlock opportunities – and not just the “last-chance saloon” for people who didn’t get the grades they expected, says Ucas. For three years in a row*, the proportion of those applying to university for the first time directly through clearing – rather than during the main application window – has grown.

Many of these students are in their early 20s and may not have considered university before; last year 16,600 students were placed directly through clearing, according to the latest figures from Ucas*. Even more students, like Thompson, decide to decline their original place and voluntarily enter clearing.

But before taking the leap, students should do their research and have a clear idea of what they’d like to achieve, says Clare Marchant, chief executive of Ucas. Last year, some 20,000 secured a place* after changing their minds about their first choice – this is mostly because they wanted to study something different, live somewhere cheaper, or they’d done better than expected. More than half of students who did this had already thought about it before August, research shows*.

“We’d recommend students find out as much as possible about the course and learning style,” says Marchant, who advises students to talk a choice over with parents, teachers or career advisers first. As Helen Bower, director of student recruitment at Northumbria University, points out: “It’s a time of year when lots of students make very big life choices in a short space of time.” She urges students to prepare before results day.

Students often don’t realise that clearing opens on 5 July – and for anyone applying directly, the sooner they get in touch, the better, she says. “Clearing is a fantastic opportunity to access universities you might not even have thought about … but it could be a gamble. To have the best chance of getting what you really want, you must plan in advance.”

This means contacting universities to ask which courses have vacancies, what grades they are after, and visiting if possible. Students can also register with some individual universities in advance for clearing, and those who already have their grades can get their clearing offer from 5 July. “There’s no benefit in waiting if you’ve already got your grades,” says Bower. “We want students to make good decisions that they’re comfortable with.” After results day, universities will publish key information and advice on their websites, and also publishes real-time information on vacancies.

Students in clearing can only choose one course – as opposed to five in the main application. But this doesn’t stop them speaking to several universities, and gathering informal verbal offers over the phone before making a firm choice. “There are no restrictions on the number of conversations students can have with universities,” says Marchant. “We encourage students to shop around … and not to take the first offer they receive.” A phone call, she says, could make all the difference to their future. Universities might give students a few days to decide. They also lay on open days for students in clearing.

Roughly half of students in clearing will not have visited their new university of choice, although most do know something about it, according to latest research by Ucas*. Thompson picked Northumbria University because the course fitted perfectly, even though she’d never visited in person. Northumbria made her an offer after a reassuring phone call – research shows* that students still prefer to speak to their future universities by phone rather than online. “It was nerve-racking,” recalls Thompson. “I remember driving to Newcastle for the first time at the start of term, thinking, ‘I can’t believe what I’ve done.’ But I wouldn’t change any of it – I’m really glad I went through clearing. I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I’ve had, including working for a year in the middle of my degree as a digital marketing intern, if it hadn’t been for Northumbria. Newcastle is an amazing student city and this is a great university.”

Once you arrive at university, Thompson says, whatever route you took to get there is irrelevant. “There are so many people who go through clearing who’ve used it because they’ve changed their minds or their circumstances changed.”

Students who apply through clearing do just as well as their peers who’ve applied in the main Ucas cycle, says Bower. “It’s a valid route to university. There’s no difference in their performance, retention or their success.”

For Thompson, success means some precious time off before job hunting after a busy four years of study and work. “With my degree and my work experience, I feel quite comfortable now to take some time to travel.”

*Ucas 2022 Clearing report (pdf)

For more information visit Northumbria University’s clearing hub