TO the outside world, exam results season comes round every year - but for those going through it, it can be a stressful, time for decision-making. EMMA MACKINTOSH looks at the options available.

NEVER mind all the photographs we'll see in our newspapers this week of students celebrating or lamenting their A-level grades. Behind each smiling face is a family and a student whose life could change based on what grades they see printed on that slip of paper.

Those two years of sixth form or college seem to whizz past, but with it comes a barrage of new terminology - UCAS, clearing, grade offers, apprenticeships, bursaries... The list goes on.

So what happens after months of waiting if you did not get the grades you thought you would, or if you have no idea at all? Maybe you're thinking that more years of education and possible debts aren't for you, and you'd like to get stuck into a job if possible.

This week Careers Wales advisers will be available online and over the phone for anyone who is unsure or whose plans have now changed.

For those who know they'd like to go to university, the first port of call for anyone who narrowly missed their grades is a process known as clearing, which allows students to apply for unfilled university places.

Although you may have set your heart on studying a specific subject or combination of subjects, you may find you'll have to be flexible about choice of degree and where you study, but this can pay off in terms of securing a place for the next academic year.

Get in contact with those universities you did apply to, in order to see what they can offer you – it may well be that they can still find you a place, even if on an alternative course. Remember, every university wants to take on as many students as it can, and no institution likes to have surplus places.

If not, you may still be able to secure a place on another course through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) clearing system, or - if you'd like to - re-take your exams to improve your grades and reapply next year.

The UCAS clearing system, available right now, gives students who haven’t achieved the required grades the chance to apply for unfilled university courses.

Importantly, if you are offered a place, you can't accept it until after 5pm on Thursday, which gives you time to stop and think, said Ioan Evans, head of enquiries and admissions at the University of South Wales.

He said he would encourage students - rather than their parents - to get in touch if they have any queries.

Have a pen and paper handy as well as your UCAS number and do your research online about which course you'd like to study, using university websites, before you pick up the phone.

"If you haven't got your results the first thing to do is don't panic," he explained. "Too often we see students rushing into something without considering if it's what they really want.

"You do need a sense of urgency, but when you panic you can make the wrong choice. Take stock. While universities like ourselves have vacancies, do you want to do that course? If you drop a grade in maths and can't do engineering, you could be able to do computing.

"Clearing has changed quite dramatically," he said. "It used to take quite a long time but now it's two weeks at the most. The majority of institutions will be open this weekend, we are having a visit day on Saturday."

Even with your A-levels all done and dusted, you might decide that university isn't for you after all, and vocational qualifications could still be the best option.

Apprenticeships offer a combination of employment and training across a wide range of sectors.

Careers Wales runs an apprenticeship matching service at or, for work experience, Jobs Growth Wales has placements available to youngsters aged 16 to 24.

By taking a higher apprenticeship, young people can earn on average an additional £150,000 over the course of their lives as a result, according to Careers Wales.

If a degree is absolutely required for your chosen career, university may still be the better option but with employers increasingly looking for candidates with work ready skills, work experience is still essential to supplement any academic record.

Meanwhile, others will be busy getting excited at the prospect of accepting their best offer from their chosen university and may already be thinking about shopping for all their uni essentials.

The top 10 things to bring to university, as voted by University of Bradford students, is a doorstop; a laptop; their UCAS letter, passport or ID; the right size bedding as most university hall beds are three-quarter size; kitchenware; fancy dress outfits; sports equipment; a student rail card; stationery and a small whiteboard/pin board; and food or drink to share with your new housemates as an icebreaker.

On results day itself, mums are the first port of call for students sharing exam success or heartbreak, according to a survey of 1,003 youngsters commissioned by Leeds Metropolitan University.

The survey showed 61 per cent of students plan to tell their mum their results first.

And what about when you get to university - which Welsh institutions offer the best student satisfaction according to an annual survey of students?

The Open University and Bangor University came out on joint top with 91 per cent of students reporting that they were satisfied with their courses, followed by Cardiff University at 89 per cent; Swansea University 89 per cent; Cardiff Metropolitan 86 per cent; Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama 86 per cent; Aberystwyth University 83 per cent; Trinity St David 81 per cent; University of South Wales 80 per cent; and Glyndwr University 78 per cent.

To talk to someone before, on or or after results day, you can call the Exams Helpline on 0808 100 8000 or Careers Wales on 0800 028 48 44.