The British option
Is there any point in an Irish applicant applying for a place in the British universities' clearing system this year?
In Britain, the number of university applications to UCAS, (the British Universities and Colleges Admission Service) increased by about 12pc from 2009, with more than 670,000 applicants seeking places in 2010, as compared to 639,000 applicants in 2009. Last year, a total of 482,000 places were awarded.
Every year, several thousand Irish applicants apply for places in British universities, either at the normal application date back in January, or at this time in August through the process known as clearing.
UCAS figures published in June showed that applications had been made by 8,075 people from the Republic of Ireland this year, a 35.2pc increase on the figure of 5,973 applicants from the Republic in 2009. A total of 2,856 individuals from the Republic accepted a place in a British university in 2009, of which 1,377 accepted places in England, 251 in Wales, 781 in Scotland, and 447 in Northern Ireland.
GCE A Level results came out last Thursday in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, showing improved grades for the 28th consecutive year. The Scottish results come out a week earlier. The British media reported a record number of registered acceptances of offers on the day the GCE A Level results and UCAS offers were published.
So what exactly is 'clearing'?
The British UCAS application system is different to our CAO process, because UCAS makes conditional offers in advance of the results.
If applicants meet the conditions of those offers by reaching the grades specified, the place is theirs. Obviously if results are better overall, more people will meet the conditions of their offer.
If, on the other hand, applicants fail to meet the conditions of their offer, they lose the place, which then goes back into the clearing process. All UCAS applicants who have not been successful in getting a place are entered for clearing.
Anybody may apply for a place in clearing, even people who have not applied to UCAS so far. Every year, it attracts some applications from Ireland. Applicants should not expect to find vacancies on highly competitive courses in clearing, any more than you would find such places in CAO's vacant places lists. You won't find places in Medicine, for example, although you might find places in Biomedical Sciences.
This year, applicants are warned that competition for places in clearing will be very intense, because of the increase in applications, and because the number of university places is being capped.
Last year about 47,000 places were awarded through clearing; this year it is expected that there may only be about 17,000 or 18,000 places in total in the clearing system. But it could still be worth a try.
UCAS advises applicants to treat their clearing application as they would treat a job application; they should deal with it themselves, and not leave it to their parents or friends to sort out.
"During clearing, you need to be available in person to deal with admissions tutors and to make decisions," it says.
It is particularly important for applicants who are now considering applying to UCAS for the first time to think very carefully about the choices they are going to make.
Although speed may be of the essence to an applicant to clearing, you shouldn't rush into an important decision about where you will spend the next four years of your life, and what you will study when you are there.
Stand back and reflect on what you really want to do.