‘Don’t panic if your exam grades fall short’

Ahead of SQA results day, Dorothy MacGinty reassures students that - whatever their grades - there are always options

SQA results day: It is important that students have a contingency plan in case they don't achieve their grades, says Dorothy MacGinty

After 2018’s exam results were released more than 60,000 students found a university place through the process known as “clearing”, according to admissions service Ucas.

The Ucas application process is a long haul for everyone concerned, with students preparing from as early as June the year before with visits to university open days and talks with tutors about course details and opportunities. It is a tense journey to the finishing line of August the following year, when offers are confirmed and decisions made.

And results day, with its inevitable fallout, is undoubtedly a crossroads for students. However, it can be just as stressful and bewildering – if not more so – for the support crew waiting in the wings.


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For both parties, planning ahead for any eventuality is crucial and, at this time of inevitably heightened emotion, it is important to keep a firm hand on the tiller.

Ucas’ “Save the student” section of its website states: “Things move pretty fast once you have got your results, so it’s important you’ve thought about what your contingency plan is going to be.”

SQA results day: finding a university place

Parents and guardians also need to be aware of this contingency plan. Guiding loved ones towards the long-anticipated course can, at this juncture, take a complete U-turn. Parents need to be prepared that the well-planned path may not be the final one chosen. Any disappointment must be put firmly on the backburner and a positive “spin” projected on to the new route/destination/course/subject – no matter how tight those gritted teeth!

I always knew that my daughter would read English at university. From an early age, it was her strongest and favourite subject. Years of Classics and literary discussions over the dinner table guaranteed – of course – that this would be her subject of choice.

It will come as no surprise, then, to learn that she is currently studying marketing, with English long-since forgotten. Deep breath…

How then to prepare for results day and the ensuing surprises, in terms of grades achieved and the possible change of direction for many young people?

Schools tend to be pretty accurate in making predictions of students’ likely achievements in exams important for their credibility, with universities relying on that accuracy when making conditional offers.

In Scotland, however, the results from Higher examinations, taken here in S5 (lower sixth), are published at the end of that year, giving universities a clear picture of academic progress. This also accounts for the higher percentage of unconditional offers made to Scottish students, particularly at Scottish universities. The greater pressure, then, comes to those students on conditional offers.

So, results arrive – alongside the “Yes, you’re in” or “Sorry to disappoint” from Ucas. What if you didn’t make the grades required for your first-choice course at your first-choice university?

Hopefully, students will have been well advised, and their parents informed, that the second-choice course has a lower tariff and entry can be achieved if they miss the grades for their first. However, they need to genuinely want that place, avoiding the anguish of the “I really don’t want to go there” conversation.

It’s a long stretch in teenagers’ lives between confirming choices in January or February and results being published in August.

Ucas clearing

We all hope that students achieve the grades they desire but many obstacles can get in the way of achieving an anticipated grade: illness during exams, recent bereavement, sudden panic, anxiety about making the grade or even just blundering an exam by misreading a high-mark question.

So, what should students and parents do if that first-choice place is not achieved?

The initial port of call is their school.

Headteachers receive results prior to the students and will have already discussed any shortfalls with colleagues by results day. Their collective advice on the next step is crucial.

Most frequently, if grades have been only narrowly missed, students will be advised to speak to the university admissions team in the relevant department, requesting an offer reconsideration, particularly if there were mitigating circumstances. Original offers may still be confirmed.

It is essential that the student makes the call and is well prepared to sell their own application. Forward planning is key to success: make a list of possible courses you would consider with contact details of admissions tutors.

Secondly, careful consideration should be given to the reserved offer, and often that is a highly successful outcome.

Thirdly, consider clearing through Ucas. Many times, I have witnessed students go through this process, initially because of disappointment, subsequently finding a course and university that they actually prefer above their first-choice.

Universities run helpful clearing helplines on results day, but to be “ahead of the game” you need to be prepared: think of those 60,100 students who found undergraduate courses through clearing in 2018.

Consider proposals very carefully. Don’t panic and choose the first offer, as this route could determine your path through life. Make sure it is the style of university you want – for example, campus or city? – and ask yourself whether embarking on the new course could, if desired, lead you to further topic study.

Another route is to step back and take a “gap year” to reconsider options, reapplying the following year with more experience on the clock. With the wealth of opportunities out there, this is an increasingly popular choice.

Dreams and aspirations heighten dramatically throughout the year leading up to exams, and expectations can become completely focused on the outcomes of results day.

For many, those aspirations are consolidated, but for some it can be a day of realisation that change is afoot. The key things are to discuss it with the school, talk it through with the relevant university department and consider clearing.

Vast opportunities do await – whatever your results.

Dorothy MacGinty is head of Kilgraston School in Perthshire, Scotland

*Tes Scotland will be live blogging on exam results day, Tuesday 6 August. See updates on Twitter @TesScotland 

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