My tip for all those in hell over clearing: cool it

This is it, then. The die is cast, young futures spelt out in fateful letters A to E (or possibly Aeeeeee!). The papers are full of girls in strappy tops screaming, and the computers are crunching through tables to prove - well, nothing, really. You can prove anything you like by massaging A-level statistics. But meanwhile, university phone lines sizzle as pupils (or indeed parents) ring up to say that surely the offer stands? I mean, AAC is nearly AAB? Or, to be fair, BBB actually adds up to the required ABC.

When this fails, family conclaves will assemble to discuss What Is To Be Done with tearful Tania or disappointed David. Or, indeed, maverick Max who confounded predictions, got AAAA and now fancies a second go at Cambridge.

Often, without drawing breath or stopping to contemplate the big picture, these conclaves will plunge into the hell that is Ucas clearing. Sometimes a student's ambition is clear and the process straightforward: go for the least worst alternative. Fine: some fabulous courses find themselves undersubscribed. But as often as not, it isn't quite like that.

The student's original choice was a mixture of sixth-form bravado, fashion and close study of the Push Guide pages on nightlife. Thwarted now, denied Bristol or St Andrews, they hunch miserably under a hail of anxious parental prattle.

"Look, darling. You wanted English and drama, and here's drama and interpersonal skills at the University of South-East Rutland. And David, look, aeronautics with Islamic theology at Nosewipe University looks super. They only want two Ds and no maths, and you spend a sandwich year on an airstrip in Tadjikistan."

The weary young grunt non-committally from beneath the duvet. Parents - conditioned for 15 years to deliver children to educational institutions every September - panic at the thought of their friends' children shooting off to "uni" and leaving them helpless. They grow desperate to tune in to any evidence of enthusiasm from the lump in the corner.

"You loved knee-boarding in Turkey that time - look, you can do a waterskiing management degree. Hey, Gemma, how about shoe design forecasting?"

Relax. Chill. Cool it. Parents, stop shoving. Kids, stop fretting. Don't rush. As your overexamined little head clears of the school miasma, you should be able to ask yourself what you really, really want and whether university is a gateway, or just a convalescent home in which to spend three years recovering from school. Even the oddest sounding degree courses can be tremendous, but they're not the only doorway into life. Don't matriculate just for the sake of it. There are things you can learn, trainings you can do without three years and Pounds 20,000 of debt. Even white- collar trades like banking appreciate bright school leavers, and often fast-track them through courses and exams on full pay. Some employers will send you back into education, or give you space later. Or your duff A- level results may be nature's way of telling you that paper-pushing and playing with ideas is not your metier.

It is not true that all graduates earn more; the figure is out of date. Last week, a first-class maths graduate made news by enrolling as a trainee plasterer. She wants to specialise in "intricate things like fibrous plastering, cornices and coving". Two of the most optimistic students I know are doing wooden boatbuilding. Lord Linley learnt furniture-making and became so good he now lectures at the Smithsonian.

Some of my best friends are dons, and universities are precious. But 18- year-olds should not be panicked or shamed into taking any old course just to be at "uni" (actually, my inner pedant thinks anyone too idle to say the last three syllables shouldn't even apply). There are many ways to get educated and get on; and your generation will have to work past 70 anyway, with the state of pensions.

Chill. Think. Do clearing if you must, but see clearly first.

Libby Purves, Author and presenter of `The Learning Curve' on BBC Radio 4.

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