On the frontline for Clearing
Clearing, for those who aren’t familiar with it, is for applicants who have not yet secured a place at university, or who have a place but wish to apply to another university. This year, the University anticipated that more calls would be taken than usual so put a call out to staff for frontline call handlers. As I’d previously worked in a College admissions office and had been a frontline student recruitment officer at Edinburgh College of Art (in the days before it was part of the University), I felt I had relevant customer service experience and could help out.
Technical preparations and training
With most staff still working from home, the technology preparations to support this activity were a lot more complex than usual but no-one let this stand in their way. The Clearing Team were given access to a phone app, simply downloadable to our computers, so that we could receive calls, and we were provided with plenty of excellent training sessions. We received a very thorough script in the post, which covered every scenario that came my way on the day, along with sustenance in the form of Haribo and Freddo frog chocolate (definitely the way to win me over!).
We’ve been working remotely since mid-March so I think most people felt comfortable with the idea of taking calls from home, but the option was there for staff to use a socially-distanced campus location if preferred – definitely a good idea for those who may have had small children making demands on their time as they tried to handle a sensitive phone call.
I worked through the script during training sessions and read it over on my own in advance of A level results day, and attended a practice call session which involved staff calling in pretending to be applicants. I wanted to be familiar with the various scenarios so that I could provide the best possible service. With much change happening in Scotland for the SQA results, we knew that we’d likely get calls from Scottish applicants and overseas applicants, as well as those based in the rest of the UK with their A Level results.
On the day
I had been assigned the afternoon slot on A Level results day. In the morning, I kept an eye on the chat in our Clearing Team on Microsoft Teams, as it was helpful to see what kind of scenarios my colleagues were handling. They varied from applicants looking for a place, to parents and teachers – many very frustrated with the downgrading of teachers’ predicted grades. Hearing some of the more complicated scenarios was a little nerve-wracking and I looked over my script again. By the time I took on my afternoon slot, I think most of the more challenging calls had been dealt with and in the end all the calls I handled were relatively straight forward – although I did have to speak to a supervisor 3 times for clarification on certain details!
Of the clearing-related callers I spoke to, none met the entry requirements unfortunately, so I was never able to get as far as making a verbal offer. However there was a heart-warming moment when an applicant from China called – a decision on her offer hadn’t yet been come through on UCAS and she was nervously calling to ask when she would hear. But while on the call, she started screaming with happiness down the phone – her offer had just been confirmed!
This experience was a great insight into how different departments in the University can work together under pressure. Everything was thoroughly considered and planned out – from IT solutions to training. Many frontline call handling staff like myself hadn’t worked on Clearing before, so this was a super way to learn more about undergraduate entry to the University and to get to know colleagues you’d never worked with before. The team in Student Recruitment and Admissions (SRA) did a fabulous job at training us in advance and providing support throughout the event. Some staff had to deal with very difficult conversations; some got to deliver the good news that we could offer applicants a place.
I know that ‘unprecedented’ is rather over-used this year but the complex circumstances for Clearing in 2020 were really not like any previous year – yet the SRA team brought remote-working staff from different departments around the University together to help deliver what I hope was a smooth service for applicants. A comment from a colleague on the team chat summed it up: “Standing ovation to the SRA team. I had no idea what a massive effort this is, and now I just feel all the feels. Well done with all the enthusiasm I can muster”.