How to get a last-minute university place

Words by Steve Beale

25 June 2020

Has your son or daughter slipped a few grades, or not met the conditions of their offer? Don't worry. Here are Quintessentially Education's expert tips for obtaining a top uni spot.

1. Call Your First Choice and See if They'll Let You in Any Way

On some occasions, your child's first-choice university may still admit them even if they haven't quite made the originally required grades.

"It is always worth contacting the universities to see if there's any flexibility," says Quintessentially Education's director, Jess Harris. "Conditional offers are there for a reason, but there's a human element involved, and the registrar or admissions office may be able to make an exception – especially if you have a strong personal statement and are able to talk about your subject passionately." Acceptances vary year by year depending on the performance of the other students across the nation. To have the best chance of getting one of the remaining spots, be as engaged as possible... So get those phones ready if you are at risk of an A level emergency! But be warned - "the call must come from the student themselves, not an advisor or a teacher as the universities want to hear from genuine and enthusiastic students," says Jess.

2. Hit the Clearing Guides

Your son or daughter won't be the first to enter higher education via 'clearing'; a well-established system where British universities fill up places with students who's results do not align with their predictions and offers. Around 50,000 students in one academic cycle alone are known to use this system.

"Clearing nowadays opens on 5th July (IB results day) when some courses that are not fully subscribed are first advertised," says Jess, "but others only become available on the UCAS clearing website on A-level results day – so students might find it's worth waiting for this later date."

Schools are quite active in helping students through clearing, and the Quintessentially Education team are well versed in this particular area too. Last year (2018) there were a whopping 26,587 courses advertised through clearing, including 4,706 at the UK's Russell Group of the 24 'top' universities.

"But the process shouldn't be taken lightly – it needs to be a course that a student is passionate about rather than for the sake of getting in," warns Jess. "It might feel important to keep a similar tier of university, but don't accept a random course that you wouldn't want to do! Make informed choices and be realistic about the fact you're going to spend the next 3 or 4 years of your life there.”

3. Retake Your Exams

Now is not the time for rash decisions. Rather than head to any university this year at all costs, students are better off booking a 'retake' course and getting their heads down.

Some fantastic 'retake' colleges offer a year's refresher course, and a lot of schools are also willing to facilitate. Top universities are littered with students who missed their required A-level marks at 18 but aced them at the second attempt. Many students report they found it easier to focus on the retake course than they did at school, but be sure to check the entry requirements before you bank on this as certain universities specify that results must have been achieved on the first attempt.

Generally speaking, though, this is not the case, and a simple score improvement can make a huge difference. Your child's alma mater will have played retakes down as an option, and sensibly so. But now that push has come to shove, we can let you in on the fact that it's more common than you might think.

4. Location, Location, Location

London colleges are the most over-subscribed in the country: "UCL, King's and Imperial are very popular with UK and international students," says Jess Harris. Just because a university isn't hugely popular with your child's friendship group doesn't mean it won't look good on your CV, or be fun to attend.

"More remote options are sometimes suffering from location disadvantages, and this is not due to credibility or academic suitability," says Jess Harris. International students, for example, are familiar with London, but they might not have an awareness of the opportunities at top tier alternatives such as Durham or Bristol, for example. Plus, out of town universities are often 'campus' colleges with ample opportunities for student interaction and a livelier student social scene than you might expect. London, in particular, has a limited number of student digs available too, so searching for accommodation is a headache which can be avoided.

5. Next Time Alternatives

If tip number 3 is looking the most likely way forward, then don't be afraid to make some changes and have a rethink for your next attempt. 'Gap years' have a somewhat tainted reputation after those infamous YouTube clips created by travelling students' finding themselves,' but there is a lot to be said for "taking some time between studies to work on improving academic grades and gaining other life or work experiences." Whatever you do, make it count and keep your eye on the deadline!

The UCAS deadline is 15th January each year, but Oxbridge applications, plus medical and law school, have their deadlines on 15th October, with tests beginning as soon as 30th October. For more information, please contact Quintessentially Education for independent and expert help and advice.

Good luck, everyone – may your results be everything you'd hoped for and more!

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