11th August 2000 at 01:00
Polly Mackwood finds the clearing system for would-be university entrants leaves her in limbo- and stressed.

Like many other 18-year-olds I am on a long summer holiday that should be the greatest of my life. I have finished A-levels and left school, but have yet to start at university. I have no one to think about but myself, and I can do pretty much whatever I like.

But things are never that simple. I have spent the past month in limbo as I await my A-level grades, constantly remembering all the mistakes I made in my papers. I cannot allow myself to forget the fact that if I do not achieve the grades my chosen universities have demanded of me, I must face the stressful process of clearing, effectively a scramble for free places following results.

This process is one of the main flaws in the university admissions system, and is one of the factors that makes a gap year tempting. Unlike many countries, in the UK universities select their students on the grounds of grades they have yet to achieve, more than six months before they take the exams.

Students must select their first- and second-choice universities by the end of March, after which they are not allowed to alter their decision unless they pull out of the system altogether and reapply the following year.

It is difficult for students to make such an important decision so early - they must select which universities to list on their UCAS forms as early as October - particularly if they are taking non-modular subjects, and so have no grades by which to monitor their progress. Consequently, many end up aiming too high, hence the huge proportion in clearing, while others aim too low to ensure themselves a place.

This highlights yet another flaw in the clearing system: it is used primarily as a fall-back for those who have not done as well as they hoped. It is not generally used by those students who have exceeded their expectations. They must be satisfied with their firstchoice university according to their form, even though their grades might equip them for a university which they would prefer and to which they might be better suited.

Once committed to a certain university, you have to go there. So, for example, a student needing three B grades but achieving three As still wouldn't be able to apply for a place requiring these grades - even though top-ranked universities such as Imperial College, University College London and even Oxbridge usually have a handful of places available in clearing.

It is understandable that, within the current system, UCAS must make some rules to prevent anyone from pulling out at the last minute, as this could send the whole system into chaos. However, this rule should be altered so that a student only has to accept his chosen place if he obtains the exact grades required. If he achieves higher and wishes to gamble, he should be allowed to.

As it is, many students are refusing to commit themselves in the first place simply so that they can go through clearing rather than spending their summer in anxious suspense, and gap years are becoming increasingly popular as students wait to apply after their grades.

It is unfair to put such added pressure on students when they already have possibly the most important exams of their lives to worry about. The row over Laura Spence's rejection by Oxford opened up the debate about the university admissions system. As August 17 approaches, the cracks are becoming ever clearer to hopefuls such as myself.

If I do not achieve the grades I am hoping for next week, I will join the similarly afflicted hordes in clearing to play for my future. If I achieve better grades, I shall have to decide whether to take a year out or take up a place that someone who had gained the required grades might have been hoping to find available in clearing. It feels like a long summer.

Polly Mackwood is an A-level student from Somerset.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today