A-level results 2022: What to do if you don't get the grades and how UCAS clearing works

There are many options available to students receiving their A-level results. Credit: PA

Hundreds of thousands of pupils up and down the country are receiving their A-level results today, having sat exams for the first time since coronavirus hit.

As expected, figures show grades are down on the past two years, but remain higher than pre-pandemic levels.

In 2021 and 2020, students didn't sit exams due to the pandemic. Instead, pupils were assessed by their schools and colleges.

This year has been described as a "transition" year, aiming to bring grade inflation back to 2019 levels.

The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) said the overall pass rate - the proportion of entries graded A* to E - fell by 1.1 percentage points from 99.5% in 2021 to 98.4% this year, though this is up by 0.8 points from 97.6% in the pre-pandemic year of 2019.

But not every student will receive the results they had expected or hoped for. We take a look at what the options are for when things don't go to plan.

What happens if I didn't get my grades for university?

This year's race for university places is expected to be one of the most competitive yet.

It's thought that almost 40% of students will make use of the clearing system - the process used by universities and colleges to fill remaining places on courses.

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) has acknowledged that offer-making has been "more conservative" this year, with chief executive Clare Marchant warning results day will not be "pain-free" for everyone.

For those who do not secure a place on their first choice of course, the advice from one headteachers' union is not to panic, and to seek advice from their teacher or adviser in the first instance.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said pupils should remember that their teachers are "very experienced in providing advice and support" around other options.

"Where students miss places on their first-choice courses, there will be many other options available," he added.

"We would urge students in this situation not to panic and to talk to their school or college, where their teachers are very experienced in providing advice and support."

Teachers can provide advice and support to pupils on results day. Credit: PA

Speak directly to the university or college you're hoping to attend

If you have narrowly missed out on your first-choice course, it is worth approaching your chosen university or college directly to see what your options are.

While there is no guarantee it will change anything, they may be flexible. Your university may also be able to suggest similar courses they offer with places remaining, or advise you on what to do next.

What is clearing and how does it work?

If your results were not what you expected, one option is to apply for a university place through a system known as clearing.

Put simply, clearing is how universities fill empty spots on their courses.

Students generally move to clearing if they received no course offers, or because they didn't meet the conditions of the offers they did receive.

You will know you're in clearing because your application status will update to reflect this, and you will be given a clearing number.

You can also go through clearing if you have declined the offers you received and are looking for a more suitable course or university, or if you applied after the June 30 deadline.

It can also be an option if your grades are better than predicted and you are considering changing to a different university.

If you find yourself in clearing, you can use the ‘view matches’ tool in your application to see potential courses that UCAS has matched you to.

You can also use the UCAS search tool to explore more courses available.

UCAS has created a series of podcasts to help students prepare for exam results day and said it will have more than 250 people supporting students on its different channels on Thursday.

More information on UCAS clearing can be found here.

An adviser talks a student through the clearing process over the phone. Credit: PA

Appeal your A-level grade(s)

In some cases, a review of your A-level result(s) might be appropriate - though the advice from UCAS is that students should still explore their options through clearing as a backup plan.

If you do wish to challenge a grade, you should contact your school or college first - they can request that the exam board reviews the marking of your exam as a priority.

If you’re a private candidate, you can contact the exam board directly, or contact the school or college that submitted your exam entry.

You should also let your chosen university or college know that you are appealing an exam result. This is because they are not obliged to keep your place open, so it's important that you make them aware of the situation and follow their advice.

You should also be aware that grades can go down as well as up, so discuss with your school or college whether an appeal is the right move for you.

If you ask for a review but your grade remains the same, you may have to pay a fee. Check with your school or college before they contact the exam board.

A-level grades received by UK students are down on the past two years but remain higher than pre-pandemic levels. Credit: PA Images

What are the options for students who get better grades than expected?

Sometimes, unexpected grades can be a pleasant surprise.

When students find that they have outperformed the conditions of their university offers - for example, getting three As when they only needed one A and two Bs - they may wish to explore their options.

UCAS used to offer something called 'UCAS Adjustment', which allowed students to apply for a different course or university, but from 2022 this service is no longer available.

Instead, as long as you are holding a firm unconditional place, you can release yourself into clearing using the ‘decline your place’ button in your application.

UCAS advises that you only use this button if you no longer wish to take up your place at your firm choice, and you have spoken to your university or college and/or an adviser at your school/centre.

An apprenticeship is an opportunity to work and study at the same time. Credit: PA

Consider an apprenticeship or a degree apprenticeship

Apprenticeships provide a valuable opportunity to earn while you learn. Usually most of your time is spent doing on-the-job training, and the rest is spent working towards a qualification.

Most apprentices will gain a qualification equivalent to a higher education certificate, higher education diploma or a foundation degree.

There are different types and levels of apprenticeships depending on where you are in the UK. You could work in engineering, construction, business, nursing, or law, to name just a few.

Each level apprenticeship will have different entry requirements, and you apply for one as if you would a regular job.

Meanwhile, degree apprenticeships offer an alternative way of studying for a full undergraduate or master’s degree while also gaining valuable work experience.

You will be paid a salary, and your degree will be fully paid for too - though you won't qualify for any student loans.

With this type of apprenticeship, you will generally spend around 80% of your time working and around 20% studying at university. You might attend university one or two days a week, or in short blocks, such as a week at a time.

Degree apprenticeships work differently across the UK, and each vacancy will have different criteria.

To find out more, visit the UCAS page on degree apprenticeships.

  • Degree apprenticeships - are they right for you? Watch our explainer here:

Think about a gap year

Some people opt to take a break from studying while they decide what to do next. Depending on your circumstances, this could be for a few weeks or an entire year.

Whether you choose to travel abroad or stay local, a gap year can be an opportunity to gain skills and experience, and in many cases earn some money.

People use the time to volunteer, earn, take up an internship, learn a new skill, or see the world. You can plan your own gap year, or look into one of the many schemes available.

Some people opt to take a gap year as a break from studying. Credit: PA Images

However, there are pros and cons to taking time away from study - and it's not right for everyone.

The coronavirus pandemic might also impact some gap year plans - particularly abroad.

Before planning any trips, check the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) website ​for the latest travel advice about how coronavirus may affect your plans.

Consider your alternative options

If none of these feel right for you, there is help and advice on UCAS about the many other options available.

Whether it's distance learning, applying for an internship, or going straight into the world of work, there is plenty of information to help you navigate your next steps.

Useful links: