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The mechanics of clearing - a physicist's guide to fulfilling your potential at university

The awe-inspiring appeal of astronomy, or gravitational waves? Big discoveries in particle physics or the quest for dark matter? Maybe an inspirational teacher or scientist?

Whatever it was that sparked your interest in studying physics at university, most likely you can’t wait for A-levels to be over so you can enjoy the next few years exploring the most exciting aspects of physics, guided by expert lecturers, tutors and staff, in a supportive academic environment.

Maybe you already know where you’re going? After all those open days, you had plenty of offers to choose from and soon with those stellar exam results, you’ll be off to your firm choice in September! If that’s you, congratulations!  But wait a minute, increasingly, many of the best students find their university place, or change their firm choice, after A-levels results are out. Did you know more than 60,000 students in the UK get their place at university through clearing? Some even decide to apply for the first time at clearing. Those who do better than expected on results day, may reconsider their options and use adjustment to upgrade to their dream course.

Despite the benefits, there are many common misconceptions or even fears that A-level students may have about clearing and adjustment. In this article we aim to clarify the process, offer tips, and share a few of our students’ experiences.

What is clearing?

Clearing is a process to match applicants to university places that are yet to be filled. It’s an opportunity for those who don’t yet hold a confirmed offer after results are out, or who have reconsidered which university they want to attend or course they want to study.

Why might someone not have a confirmed offer and be in clearing?

  • they did not yet receive any offers
  • they missed the required grades, so their offers were not confirmed
  • they declined all of their offers
  • they did not accept their offers by due date
  • they applied after 30 June

Is this about courses that nobody wants?

Certainly not! The lifting of student caps means top rated physics departments can still offer places via clearing and adjustment. Availability of places depends on each university’s policy, department targets, and much more.

What is adjustment?

Adjustment enables students who achieved better than expected exam results to potentially swap to a different university. To be eligible you need to meet or exceed the conditions of your firm offer – please see the requirements on the UCAS website.

Be prepared by looking around: check subject specific independent guides, such as the Guardian League Table for Physics. Importantly, check UniStats for the course, where you can find results from a survey of final year undergraduates giving the low-down on their satisfaction having just completed the course. Don’t rely on reputation - find out the real picture from the students who just graduated!

When is clearing?

Clearing starts at 8am on UCAS results day.

The first two days will be the busiest, though clearing runs until mid-September and the closing date is up to each university. The timeline for adjustment is shorter, please see the UCAS website.

When is the earliest someone can apply for clearing?

Those who already have exam results and no offers can use clearing from July. Find your clearing number in your UCAS status tab, then search for vacancies via their search tool.

The clearing step-by-step

The process takes place over the phone. Students do their research and call each university to obtain an offer. You’ll need your clearing number (from UCAS track as above), personal ID number and exam results to hand. Having your GCSE grades easily accessible and personal statement is also helpful.

Before your call, it’s a good idea to prepare brief notes on the course you are interested in. Bullet points will help you navigate the discussion, especially if you’re feeling nervous. Include information about the course, why you are interested in it and why you would like to attend that specific university, in case you’re asked.

The person you speak with on the university hotline will guide you through the process, but it’s important not to cut the call short once you have an offer. Above all, ask to speak to directly with the physics admissions tutor, who should be there to chat and give friendly advice on the course. Even when you feel time is limited to phone around other universities, take the time to discuss the course with the physics admissions tutor so you have the full picture when it comes to deciding which of your clearing offers to accept. Do ask questions you might have, as this gives a good impression and demonstrates that you’ve done research and put thought into your choice.

Use UCAS track to do the required electronic paperwork after you have a verbal offer. You can have many clearing offers on the phone, but you can only submit one through UCAS. Before deciding remind yourself of what was important to you when you made your initial choices. Once more, check UniStats, and independent league tables. Don’t rush into a decision under pressure without thinking it through.

Falk, a recent graduate from Royal Holloway physics, shares his clearing story in this video and he cannot stress enough that the most important thing is not to panic. “The timings are quite short - you think - it’s July/ August now, will I even have time to go to university this year? The advice I can give is don’t panic and crack on with research. Try and find a course which you’re interested in. Don’t just go to university for the sake of going to university. Find a place and a university and a department that you are really interested in”.

Sonal, from biomedical sciences agrees in her video. “Going through clearing, I was really nervous. However, once I started calling universities I saw that it was fine and not as nerve-racking because when they picked up the phone, the people on the other side were very kind and supportive. I went to the clearing open day the next day and I spoke to a lot of teachers, peers and student ambassadors, walked around uni and I just knew that I would be really happy here, it made me certain that this would be the uni for me”.

Once you have your clearing offers, visit the campus and ask to talk to the physics admissions tutor. You’ll also meet the lecturers, tutors and staff that will support you throughout your studies and have the chance to check the department facilities and feel the atmosphere. Take in the environment, talk with current students, observe how people are moving around and then take a moment to think: can you imagine yourself studying here?

What you are looking for is the place you will settle and thrive in for the next few years. It is not an easy task, so try to learn as much as you can beforehand, to make a choice that will make you happy. Find out what works for you, what will make your time fruitful and enjoyable and embrace the learning adventure you have ahead!

Written by Anna Christodoulou, physics outreach officer at Royal Holloway and Dr Stephen Gibson, accelerator physicist & admissions tutor in Physics at Royal Holloway.

For school and college physics students


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