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Choose a clear path to a degree

Claire Johnson takes a tour of sites designed to take the stress out of last-minute university applications

Locating course vacancies via clearing takes time and can be frustrating - students have to search lists of nationally available courses, then phone the universities' clearing hotlines. Last year, 25 per cent of university places were secured in clearing by more than 50,000 students. For those whose grades are disappointing, consolation is on the way in the form of a free online clearing service to be launched on August 16, results day, by Ecctis, the Government's official database of British university course information (www.ecctis.co.uk).

Many sixth-formers will have used the Ecctis Course Discover CD-Rom (network licence pound;365 plus VAT) or online subscription service before completing their UCAS forms. The new, real-time online service gives immediate information on course vacancies on one site, continuously updated by universities and colleges. Information is searchable by course and university and includes full admission contact details.

The Guardian provides a more holistic combined print and online service, and its clearing website is first-class. Students can register to receive step-by-step results-day advice and email alerts of places. The question-and-answer section provides reassuring advice ("keep your options open"; "trust your instincts"). Clearing "survivors" give first-hand tips - there's also useful information on courses and institutions and the Guardian's ratings. Its website is www.guardian.co.ukclearing0,10052,,00.html The Independent's accessible online complete clearing guide (which supplements its print digest) offers an A-Z of degrees by subject, including answers to questions such as: "Why do it? What's it about? What A-levels do you need? What grades do you need? Where's best for teaching? Where's good for research?" An A-Z of colleges and universities gives useful snapshots to help students decide ("How cool is it?" What are the students like?"). Course vacancies for those applying through clearing will be available from August 16. Visit http:advancement.independent.co.ukhigher The Times and the Sunday Times share a clearing website at www.thetimes.co.ukclearing, which includes case studies and links on student life and finance, and both newspapers carry course vacancies.

Students who have set their hearts on a particular institution can go straight to its website, which will have up-to-date information on clearing vacancies. Most universities have an A-Z listing of current vacancies, a clearing hotline, an email service and a drop-in centre.

The UCAS site at www.ucas.ac.uk will publish clearing vacancies daily, and its undergraduate course search facility allows students to choose by subject, institution or location.

BBC2 Ceefax has lists of all clearing vacancies, as does ITV's Teletext. BBC Online will have several clearing information sites which are updated daily. Radio 1's Student Essentials site at www.bbc.co.ukradio1essentialsstudent18clearing.shtml provides general advice and a telephone helpline on 0808 100 8000. The HE section of BBC Online's Just the Job at www.bbc.co.ukwalesjustthejobhomeintro.htm also has clearing information, including sections on where to get advice, tips for clearing success and alternatives to clearing.

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