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News What if your A-level results are better than you ever dared hope?
You could be eligible to go to a better university than the ones you applied for. Here's your complete guide to what Ucas calls "adjustment"
There's plenty of advice about on what to do if you don't get the grades you expected on A-level results day. You can go through Clearing, contact universities directly, or re-apply next year. But these options assume that the grades you got were unexpected in a negative way, and so you can't go to your firm or insurance choices. What happens if, come results day, you actually get better grades than you'd hoped for?
Well, since 2009, Ucas has provided for this through "adjustment" – the happy cousin of clearing. You're eligible for adjustment if you exceed the terms of your firm offer – you get AAB rather than ABB, for example, or BBC instead of CCC. The full details can be found here, but, barring a few exceptions, it's as simple as that.
What's good about adjustment is that it doesn't jeopardise your firm choice – you can shop around other universities, while still retaining your secure offer.
When adjustment was first brought in, it was used by a very small number of students: 382 in 2009, 377 in 2010. But last year, the numbers increased sharply, and 1,382 students successfully found a place at university through the system.
This peak was due to a change in government legislation on student numbers. For the first time, universities could accept an unlimited number of students with grades of AAB and higher at A-level (or equivalent).
It's in the interest of universities to take in a high number of students, as it means more money in tuition fees, which allows them to expand and improve their facilities, services, and overall reputation. So, many top universities – which typically attract the most AAB students – started to increase the number of students they let in. This included students in both the adjustment and Clearing processes. It explains the sudden leap in successful adjustment applications. And, despite an overall drop in university applications, 52,570 students went to university through Clearing in 2012; an increase of over 3,000 from the year before.
Recently, the legislation has been changed even further, allowing universities to admit an unregulated number of students with grades of ABB and over. With no limits on how many high-achieving students they can offer places to, universities are competing to attract applicants.
The government is aiming to create a university system driven by market forces, where students are the consumers, and universities the providers. The idea of a market economy in education may not be very palatable. But it does have the consequence of putting well-qualified students in a strong position.
For those who achieve grades above the ABB boundary, more places are available. These students are a valuable commodity to universities, and they can pick and choose between institutions – not for the most popular courses, but for many others.
Indeed, in this competition to attract good applicants, some institutions are offering incentives. Surrey University, for example, offers scholarships of £3000 to those who gain three As at A-level.
In previous years, the most popular institutions had no vacancies available outside of the main application process. Now, even universities at the top end of the league tables, are offering places.
Ian Blenkhard, head of admissions at Exeter, predicts that the number of students taken through the adjustment process this year will increase. "Exeter students have a great experience, and we want to open this up to as many high quality applicants as possible. We will take more students who have done better than predicted through adjustment."
For these exceptional candidates, it is expected that there will be a limited number of places available on every course.
Exeter is not the only Russell Group university to be entering the fray of clearing. Durham, Birmingham, Warwick and Sheffield all expect to have places still available for students who have achieved good grades. And, for those who have exceeded their grades and are eligible for adjustment, the options are even better. In London, both King's College and UCL will not be entering Clearing, but will consider high-achieving candidates through the adjustment system. Applying through adjustment starts to look, not like the second-best option, but a route to some of the UK's best universities.
Outside of the Russell Group, many excellent institutions are expected to offer places through the Clearing system. And as Helena Pozniak points out, many newer universities offer cutting-edge courses sought after by employers; for some subjects, going to a traditional university may not be the best option.
Leicester is ranked 13 by the Guardian in the 2014 university league table, with both its chemistry and American studies courses coming third in the relevant subject rankings. Leicester says it will have places available for well-qualified applicants through Clearing and adjustment.
Similarly, Aston University is still prepared to accept candidates with the necessary grades; its highly-regarded electrical engineering course is open to students who achieve AAB and above.
Adjustment and Clearing are great opportunities, but there are some associated risks. You only have a short length of time in which to make a decision, and it's important not to make a spur of the moment choice. Julie Taylor, an adviser at the National Careers Service recommends thorough research.
"Students should seek advice, not just from universities who will want to fill up their course places, or friends and family who may have their own agenda." Clear, impartial help is essential.
Taylor suggests speaking to teachers or tutors, especially if you are thinking of changing to a different course from the one you originally applied for. In addition, Ucas and the National Careers Service both have trained advisers, with whom you can discuss your different options. And Guardian Students is running a live Q&A on the day of Clearing to talk you through your options.
It's easy to be swept up in the excitement of getting great results, and the chance to go to a different university. But there are other considerations – those who go through adjustment may be last in the queue for student accommodation, and finance can also be affected. Julie says: "I would never advise anyone against adjustment. Just make sure you're doing it for the right reasons."
If you're happy with your chosen institution, then stick with it; adjustment is completely optional, and you'll have (hopefully) picked your first choice after a long period of consideration about where you want to go. If not, though, this is a year in which the best students are in demand – you could be one of the applicants to take advantage of that.
The adjustment process
• Adjustment opens on the 15 August, A-level results day, and closes on 31. However, from the moment that your firm offer becomes an unconditional offer, you have just five days to try to get offers from other universities. At the end of the five days – even if this is before the 31 August – you will no longer be eligible for adjustment.
• Once you have your results, a "register for adjustment" button will appear on your Ucas track page. Once you've registered, any universities or colleges you contact will be able to view your full Ucas application, and consider whether to make you an offer.
• Unlike for Clearing, Ucas does not list the courses and institutions that have adjustment vacancies on their main website. Instead, you have to go to the websites of individual institutions to see whether they are accepting students through adjustment, and which courses they still have places on. Once you've found a course at a university you'd like to go to, ring up the admissions department, and talk through your application. Be prepared for a mini interview – know why you want to do the course, and why you'd like to go to that university in particular.
• If a university decides to offer you a place through adjustment, they will contact you by email or phone. You then decide whether you want to accept the new offer instead of your original choice. The offer will come up on your Ucas track page; it is only at this stage, if you decide to take the new offer, that your original firm offer is affected.
• If you go through the adjustment process, but aren't accepted by other universities, then try not to be too disheartened; you still have your original firm offer, with the added bonus of even better grades than you'd hoped.
Things to do now
If you think that there's a chance you may exceed your offer, and are considering entering adjustment, then there are things you can do before results day to minimise stress and hassle on the day itself.
• Think about which courses and universities you are interested in. Make a list of universities that you'd genuinely like to go to, and which are expected to have some places available through adjustment.
• Think about specific courses – are you flexible in what you want to do, or do you have your heart set on a particular subject?
• Write down important phone numbers. On the day itself, its likely that you'll have to call or email several different institutions. By finding phone numbers for Ucas and the admissions departments of universities now, you'll save yourself valuable time.
• Write a draft email including your Ucas personal ID number, details of courses you are interested in, and your educational background (school, subjects, grades). Some universities, such as Birmingham, request an email with this information in addition to a phone call.
• Be aware that you may have to make an additional payment of £11 to Ucas if you only paid the single application fee when you first registered.
• Make speculative phone calls. Universities can't make offers through adjustment before results day, but they might have information on their application process, which courses they expect to have vacancies in, and the grades that you need to get.