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'At the busy hub of clearing, we stared at each other, terrified...'

The clearing system will deal with about 70,000 worried students this summer. Most universities have places, even top institutions like Warwick. TES reporter Sue Learner (right) worked in clearing in 1993 and 1994. She recalls her experiences.

"FOUR of us were led into a small room with a desk in the centre on which sat four phones.

"The bare room high up in a tower block was the busy hub of clearing for Cardiff University. We were students in need of holiday cash and our training consisted of a 10-minute pep talk. The phones were switched on on the dot of 9am and we stared at each other terrified as all four phones rang loudly. We bluffed our way through our first call and began three weeks of confined tedium. At first, the phones were red-hot and we put people through to departments only for busy staff to bounce calls back, leaving us to deal with a stressed caller.

"Every morning we were given a list of vacancies with the largest number being in chemistry and maths. We were the first port of call for anyone who had not got their predicted grades.

"We would check through the list and turn away anyone for subjects with no vacancies. This proved harder than it sounds, as tragic stories were poured out to us.

"It was sad listening to a girl who had got a grade E and two Us pleading to be let on a course - but not even the maths department would take her.

"Sometimes an uptight mother, used to getting her own way, would ring up and demand to be put through to a head of department.

"Often the poor caller would become the butt of a joke. A couple of people I worked with would put the caller on hold and laugh hysterically at his or her low grades.

"We were ill-equipped to deal with nervous A-level students. By mid-afternoon of every day, we all felt slightly mad - and home time never came soon enough."

Clearing websites: www.ucas.com; www.ecctis.co.uk

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