Exam results often force difficult decisions on students
A-level students whose results are not what they hoped for will be weighing up their options on Thursday.
If their first choice of university or course is out of reach, many will see what is available through "Clearing".
Universities say this can lead to new opportunities, sometimes in subjects or places not considered before.
But the charity Edge, which promotes vocational education, says some people who go through Clearing rush their decisions and can live to regret them.
It says students should not feel pressured into academia by school or home and should consider taking up more practical training.
Edge's chief executive Andy Powell said: "A-level results day is a stressful time. Rather than rush into a decision about going to university, students should invest the time in re-evaluating the many paths to success including vocational courses and apprenticeships.
"Practical learning is increasingly important in the workplace and is a genuine alternative to an academic university degree which can lead to a successful high-achieving career."
The government is committed to widening the pool of people who go to university and to raising to 50% the proportion of the population opting to study at that level.
England's Higher Education Bill Rammell said: "Clearing is an important route through which over 30,000 students to access university each year and it is essential that whether you get a place at university though clearing or not, everyone should take time and think carefully about whether the course and the institution are right for them.
"There is a wealth of information available and I would encourage everyone to access all the support available to them, and this will help to keep our retention rates one of the highest in the developed world. This has been achieved and maintained at a time of rapid expansion in student numbers."
Across the UK, universities are staffing hundreds of phone lines to take calls from A-level students anxious to find a place on a degree course through Clearing.
According to Ucas, the body which runs the undergraduate university application system in the UK, more than 30,000 people find a place this way.
Universities advertise their vacancies on the Ucas website or their own and some newspapers carry the lists, supplied by Ucas.
Students ring universities directly.
That was a route taken by Moses Adeyinka, who is about to start his third year at the University of the West of England (UWE), where he is studying business studies and human resources management.
He was initially disappointed with his A-level grades but was impressed with speed of the Clearing process.
"When I found out my grades, I called up UWE and spoke to a member of staff. After about 10 seconds I was accepted on the course I wanted - and now I have proved myself with getting very good grades for my work.
"Clearing may not be a place you would like to be, the feeling of not knowing whether you have been accepted is nail-biting."
He had this advice for A-level students getting their results: "If you do find yourself in this situation, try to stay focused, calm and look at the different options open to you. It is not the end of the world and you still have plenty of time and chances to work hard."
The University of Birmingham has nearly 100 staff on standby to advise prospective students.
Part of the university's arts building has been turned into an "admissions mission control centre" where an expected 8,000 telephone calls will be managed.
The admissions team will advise students about the status of their application at the university or about going through Clearing.
Birmingham's director of admissions Roderick Smith said: "Clearing can be a stressful time for students and their families, but it's important to relax and not to panic.
"Our advisors are on hand to guide students through the whole process and help them make an informed decision."
The university has released its own top 10 list of tips for people going through Clearing.
- Have your Ucas ID number available
- Keep a pen and paper near to make notes, ticking off the universities/courses you've called about
- Make sure to find a quiet spot to concentrate
- Make the call yourself
- Speak clearly and calmly. Ask first whether they have vacancies in your chosen subject, then let them ask you questions and answer them truthfully
- Think laterally about what you might want to do. Don't dismiss suggestions of alternative but related courses without thinking it through clearly
- Don't make speculative calls saying: "what's available?" or call universities you wouldn't want to go to - you will be wasting your time and theirs
- Think carefully about any offers you are made and don't make snap decisions
- Be prepared to travel to an interview if asked
- If you verbally accept an offer and change your mind call the university back and tell them so they can then offer the place to someone else
Some students opt to have a gap year before taking up a university place.
According to Gapyear.com, having a constructive "year out" will help people to stand out on application forms for university and work.
It could also be a vital stop-gap, "preventing hasty youngsters from rushing into courses which many will simply give up or not find useful to find a future career", it says.
Tom Griffiths, Gapyear.com founder, said: "Constructive, well planned and executed gap years, more often than not based around a year spent gaining focused work experience, stick out like the proverbial sore thumb amongst the thousands of bland, identical, clone-like applications.
"Academic achievements and social background are irrelevant. Hungry, motivated graduates full of life skills - most notably initiative, communication and decision-making skills - are the gold we employers now mine for.
"Students are now using gap years to showcase their focus, talent, drive and abilities and as a result are finding themselves a step ahead of the rest."