Career advice: how to run a successful clearing campaign

University clearing is set to be busier than ever this summer. A record 66,865 students were accepted via this route last year. With competition for students so fierce, the University of Sheffield’s head of admissions, Liz Carlile, offers some advice to those managing this crucial recruitment window.

Consensus and buy-in
This shouldn’t be hard because everyone knows that clearing and adjustment are a crucial part of the academic year for most universities, but it’s not always straightforward. Colleagues can have differing views about priorities in clearing – gaining students with top grades looking to adjust, getting in lots of students to fill spare space, not overstretching teaching capacity or building and available estate.

These sometimes conflicting views can make it difficult to develop a joined-up approach to a clearing campaign, so be clear about what you think your institution should be aiming to achieve in this period, and set rules and boundaries to ensure that you are still working within the principles of fair admissions.

Staff engagement
Start thinking about room bookings for next year’s activity even before this year’s clearing is under way. This may sound arduous, but I’ve come to realise that this constant need to plan for confirmation, adjustment and clearing activity is an opportunity to engage staff across the institution throughout the year. The pattern of planning sessions is so well established at the University of Sheffield that people now contact me if I’m a few weeks late in sending a reminder.

Don’t also be afraid to ask for help. In the past couple of years, we have involved staff who aren’t normally connected with student recruitment in our clearing helpline activity – lecturers, departmental administration team members and even our vice-president for education have all supported us. It can seem like asking a lot, but our experience is that colleagues see that it is of clear benefit to both applicant and university and also enjoy being part of the bigger picture.

A “wash-up” session in the weeks just after the main clearing period is also helpful. You might not feel that you have the time, but it’s worth it to pick up on all the little things that might get lost along the way as you start to plan for next year.

Your offering
Sounds simple, doesn’t it – you’re offering a place on a certain course.

But what are the current entry requirements for the course, where can applicants find more information, what about accommodation availability, how long do applicants have to make a decision, can they come and visit? Being clear about what you are offering to applicants is helpful to both you and to the applicant. They will be clear about what they’re getting, and you will be able to articulate it simply and effectively. It will help you to define your marketing campaigns, your social media engagement, your support staff requirements, your official communications and your legal compliance obligations.

In crude consumer protection regulation-speak, be clear about what you are “selling” so that you can be clear about who this is the right opportunity for, but just as importantly who it is not right for – it’s a busy time of the cycle, but we still have a responsibility to admit applicants who will flourish as part of our institution and are capable of succeeding on their course.

Helpline or online?
At Sheffield, we offer applicants the opportunity to contact us either by helpline or via an online application form. We offer both because we receive roughly 50 per cent of our applications via each format.

Some applicants want to speak to someone, but an increasing number are more comfortable with submitting an online request – and we are gradually tailoring our service to accommodate this. Using both routes also helps to manage peaks in demand while still giving a personal service.

Whatever your choice as to how applicants contact you, having queries, applications, decisions and documentation flowing through a central point has been crucial at Sheffield to ensure that applicants receive all the guidance and legal documentation they need.

Advice and guidance for applicants
Because it’s such a fast-paced part of the admissions cycle, the advice and guidance available to applicants must be clear and easily accessible.

Lots of universities now have dedicated clearing web pages that can steer interested applicants to a variety of information quickly and simply. Applicants still require access to the same course details, fee information, accommodation options and support services that they needed when applying earlier in the cycle, but we can help by picking out the key details.

Most institutions also have open day opportunities to visit campus, so having department staff or current students available to answer applicants’ questions is also common.

Likewise, not putting undue pressure on an applicant to accept a place before having had adequate time to research and consider is also good practice. Encouraging applicants to consider what you might have available during clearing and to research your university in advance is also a good way of highlighting your availability to schools and colleges.

In short, be clear about what you are offering, and start thinking now about lessons learned for next year.

Liz Carlile is head of admissions at the University of Sheffield.

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