Set yourself on the right course from the start

Choosing a course is hard with all that’s going on, but it’s worth getting it right


This is a tricky time of year for Leaving Cert students. Christmas is over and we’re into the New Year. Mocks are looming and more people than you realise are panicking about the lack of study done so far. Now, in the middle of it all, you’re expected to apply to the CAO. The first deadline is January 20th. It can all seem quite overwhelming.

Of course there are students who are really organised. They may not all be gunning for a place in medicine or veterinary, but they have their goal and they’re working to achieve it. For them, the CAO application process will involve some research about the colleges that offer their chosen course and the variations on their preferred field of study, but mostly it will be about getting the application in on time and ensuring they’ve entered all the details correctly.

It is much more difficult to feel organised and in control if you don’t know what you’re working towards. Whether or not you know what you want after finishing school, you still need to apply to the CAO if you want a college place in Ireland. So what do you do if you really haven’t a clue?

Well, first off, remember you are not alone. Lots of people can’t decide, but the problem is that huge numbers of them just enter some CAO choices in a panic and hope that things will suddenly become clear once they get to college. That’s a terrible idea.

Believe it or not, about three in every 10 first year undergraduate students either drop out of their chosen college course, or fail their first year exams. Think about it: if 30 per cent of Leaving Cert students failed their exams or dropped out during the year, it would be declared a disaster. So why are students, who made it successfully through what many agree is the toughest exam you’re ever likely to sit, finding college so tough?

Quite simply, in most cases, they’re not choosing the right courses, in the right colleges, if indeed college is the right choice for them. While it is really tough to find the time to properly research colleges and courses when you’re expected to study for exams in June, it’s incredibly important to do so. The Leaving Cert is two or three weeks in a lifetime. Your CAO choices dictate your next three or four years and can indirectly influence the rest of your life. So where do you start?

Know yourself
Well, the first step is to take a really good, honest look at yourself. What do you like to do? What are you good at? Ask yourself very basic questions about which subjects you enjoy in school. What do you like outside of school? Do you enjoy sport or gaming? Are you an artist or a musician? What sort of personality do you have? Are you a social butterfly or do you prefer your own company?

Did you do any psychometric or aptitude testing in school? Ask your guidance counsellor for the results and use them as a guide. Use the experience of the people around you. Your parents, your teachers, your friends will all have ideas and opinions about what you’d be good at and what might suit you. Ask them and see what they come up with.

Remember to be honest with yourself. As you grow up, it’s very easy to assume the mantle of people’s expectations and forget what it is you really want. You’re on the cusp of adulthood now and the most important thing is what you want for yourself. Try to resist the temptation of opting for a course because it will impress friends and family. Ask yourself, could you see yourself working in your chosen area?

Know your course
Do you know what’s actually involved in the course that interests you? What exactly is psychology, for example? It sounds impressive but will you like studying it? You like children, but does that mean that you’ll enjoy training to be and working as a primary school teacher or a paediatric nurse? Again, do your research. You have to know what you’re getting into.

If you’re still unsure about what it is you want to do, opt for a broad course like arts or science with a view to specialising later on when you have a clearer idea about what to do. It’s a very good idea to go into the broader courses with some focus. If you do arts and you know you’re talented at languages, or you really enjoy history, perhaps use that as a starting point.

Know your college
When you’ve identified a field of study, you need to do your research on the courses and the colleges. Again, you need to know a bit about yourself. Will you live at home or will you move away? Would you rather a big city or a small town? How would you feel in an enormous lecture hall with hundreds of other students? Would you rather a small class where everybody knows your name? How important are extracurricular pursuits to you? If you think you’ve identified your ideal college, visit it. There’s nothing like walking around the campus to get a feel for a place. Could you see it as home for the next four years?

Remember, courses differ within colleges as well. There’s little point in choosing a business course with the aim of eventually working and travelling in Asia, if your chosen college is not one that offers Asian languages as part of its business degrees. Make sure you know what the course offers, when you’re required to specialise, what the exam set-up is and so-on. If the course has a huge workload and you want to throw yourself into college rugby or debating, you may want to reconsider.

What subjects does the course require? If you want to study classics in Trinity College Dublin, you’re going to have to do well in higher level Greek or Latin in the Leaving Cert. If you don’t have either language, you won’t qualify for a place even with 600 CAO points.

Talk to students who are doing the course you want. Do they enjoy it? What’s the workload like? Would they make the same choice again? What are they planning to do with their degree when they graduate? College open days are a really good way to do this sort of research.

Right now, the most important thing is to get that CAO application in. Do some initial research, knowing that you can, and probably will, change your mind.

This supplement should help you with that at least. However, and this is important, do the rest of that research throughout the year.

A bit here and there will add up and it could make the difference between having a stressful and miserable time, or one of the best years of your life. Dedicating some time to making the right decision now, will be hugely beneficial to your future.

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