There is no better way to get into a top university than hard work and excellent results throughout your school career. A consistent academic record and excellent references lead to an offer from the university of your choice – and the deal is sealed by top A-Level results in the following summer.
Of course, it doesn’t always work out like that. Many reasonably good students receive university offers that they do not really want, and then go on to exceed the conditions of these offers in their A-Level results. The system in effect penalizes those whose potential was not fully recognized at the time that they made their university application.
Since 2009 a development known as adjustment has been designed to remedy this injustice, and to create a neater fit between supply and demand.
According to the UCAS website, within the period of the 15th to the 31st of August students who have met and exceeded the conditions of their conditional firm offer will have five days in which they will be able to hold their existing place while looking around to see if another, more suitable university will accept them. They must register for the process of adjustment and then approach universities individually in order to find out whether places are available. This process is very useful for a student who has done better than expected in their A Levels and is not really satisfied with the institution that has actually accepted them.
Bear in mind, however, that really prestigious universities such as Oxford and Cambridge do not have vacancies available through either adjustment or clearing. It is worthwhile for students to spend some time researching courses in advance so as to prepare themselves for the hectic time that will inevitably ensue if they join adjustment from the 15th of August.
It must be emphasized that many of the best courses will not have any vacancies in August. Even if they do, then students will have to accept that many accommodation options may no longer be available, and it is possible that there will be delays in rearranging their student finance. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that adjustment offers opportunities for certain students that will be invaluable and, potentially, life-changing.
Adjustment has not replaced the more established process of clearing – the process by which students fill vacancies on courses that are listed in August. Clearing is based on the principle that the applicant does not already hold an offer or a confirmed place from another university, although students with offers can ask to be released by the universities they originally selected so that they can enter the clearing process.
Recently, there has been an interesting development in the clearing process, namely the arrival of the big beasts of the Russell Group. Last year, a drop in A-Level results (80,000 getting AAB as opposed to a prediction of 85,000), meant that certain universities, who had been obliged to make offers no lower than AAB, had significant vacancies.
This year the benchmark for Russell Group institutions was set at ABB, which will reduce the number of vacancies, but some of these universities, for example Birmingham and Warwick, are very likely to put themselves into clearing. The process may yield unexpected rewards for persevering students, although, for those with confirmed places, adjustment is a more appropriate procedure.
How can we advise the student whose grades are simply not good enough for adjustment and who cannot find a suitable place in clearing? Is it still possible to resit or retake A level exams and reapply next year with higher grades? Certainly it is in many cases, although some degree subjects, such as medicine, do not consider retake students. (Even here, however, organizations such as Medipathways College offer alternative routes into medical or dental schools, such as a 1-year Pre-Med course and a 2-year BSc(Hons) degree, for those who missed out at the first opportunity.)
Retaking A levels is of course an arduous process for those who thought that they had finished their school education, although private sixth form colleges can offer a more grown-up environment than conventional schools. Another problem has been the recent abolition of January retakes.
June retakes are still possible, however, with 2014 being the last year in which they will be available for AS modules. Moreover, it is possible to do a retake course in some private colleges from January to June, leaving the first term of the academic year free from teaching. For some individuals, maybe a really good Easter Revision course would be sufficient. Students will of course need to make their university application at the normal time, but they can otherwise use their free time to gain useful work experience or even earn some money!
As always, any decisions of this kind need careful consideration. They have to be realistic and well-informed, and students should listen carefully to advice from past or prospective schools, as well as from the universities that they are considering. Students should certainly act promptly, whatever their proposed course of action, in order to meet deadlines and make the right decision. As in so many areas, persistence and forethought pay. British higher education offers an astounding array of choice, and it would be a shame for any student not to do his or her utmost to get the best out of the system.