Subscriber OnlyEducation

How the CAO system works: How do colleges decide the points needed for a Leaving Cert course?

Widely-held belief that CAO points are determined by colleges in advance and remain relatively constant is incorrect

Leaving Cert students receiving results on Friday will probably jump to an instant assumption of their success or failure based on their perception of whether they have secured sufficient CAO points to secure one of their nominated course choices.

There is a widely-held belief that CAO points are determined by colleges in advance and that they remain relatively constant over the years.

This, of course, is not the case, as CAO points requirements are determined by the number of places on offer in a given course and the points obtained by students seeking places on the specific programme.

Funded places

The CAO points requirement for each course can be significantly reduced if funding for additional places is provided in a given year through the Higher Education Authority following approval by the Government.


In 2020, 2,200 places were added on a one-off basis to the existing places on offer. In 2021, 3,300 places were added to the 2019 numbers, again on a one-off basis. In 2022, 1,050 places were permanently added to a range of degrees across the entire system. In 2023, it is proposed to add 400-plus places in a range of healthcare programmes, subject to Government approval.

Each additional HEA-funded place enables one more student into the lecture hall, thus reducing the points score requirement for that last place.

International market

There are a number of factors external to the number of places available and the demand domestically within Ireland for those places which determine an applicant’s chances of securing their top course choices.

The most significant of those for many years now has been the number of places set aside for international students who pay up to 10 times the price levied on those who secure CAO places for highly sought-after courses across a range of disciplines, but primarily in the medical and paramedical disciplines.

Previously colleges have claimed that the only way they could educate students to the required standards, given the current level of exchequer funding supplemented by the student registration charge, was to sell a significant number of the available places on the international market.

Given the projected ongoing exchequer surpluses currently being secured by the State, it is my understanding that discussions are under way to increase the level of funding in a number of disciplines to enable the faculties in question to transfer a significant proportion of the places in question from the international market into the CAO process.

If such a process was to occur this would have a significant effect on the CAO entry points requirements for those programmes.

EU applicants

At a time when Irish students may perceive a potential benefit in terms of additional places being offered in high points courses, the market for CAO places is rapidly growing beyond the traditional domestic student cohort due almost exclusively to the Brexit effect.

There has always been a market within continental Europe for students seeking to base their undergraduate studies in a university in an English-speaking country. Up until Brexit was implemented Ireland attracted a small proportion of such applicants.

Today, those continental citizens are deemed as international applicants in the UK, and this excludes the vast majority of them who cannot afford the £30,000-£40,000 fees involved in many courses on offer. A significant number have therefore applied, as is their right, as European Union citizens to the CAO, where their application must be transposed, based on an agreed formula relating to their domestic school leaving exam result, into CAO points.

Simply put, the CAO process is rapidly moving from being almost exclusively a domestic competition for places into one attracting a considerable number of applications from our fellow EU member states.


UK and Northern Ireland students can also continue to apply for places through the CAO due to a reciprocal arrangement between the Republic of Ireland and the UK which predates our entry to the European common market in 1973.

It is ironic that at a time when we as a State may be in a position to fund additional places in many of our most sought-after courses through the CAO process, the actual market for those places now covers both the UK and all our EU partners.

Previous offers

Although next Wednesday is titled as round-one offers of the CAO allocation of places process, it is in fact the third round of offers.

Round A took place on August 6th, mainly to students who deferred accepting their place in 2022, and to adult-education applicants over 23 years of age on January 1st last.

Round 0 took place on August 3rd, mainly to students who applied based on a Further Education QQI award through a FE/PLC programme, which they secured predominantly in the past academic year.

Hear and Dare programmes

Some students will get an offer of a college place on points that will be lower than those published by the CAO on first-round offer day.

This is because the CAO has been instructed to offer a place by a specific college based on a successful disability access route to education (Dare) or higher education access route (Hear) application, or on the basis of a scholarship programme.

First-round CAO offer process

Apart from international students who purchase places outside the CAO process and those who secure an offer of a place based on their Hear and/or Dare status the remaining applicants’ success or otherwise in getting an offer on a specific course will be decided when the admission officers representing all the colleges instruct the CAO offices in Galway how to proceed in relation to each specific course code.

They will know exactly how many places on each course are already spoken for through the processes above, and how many more can be offered to the remaining applicants.

Once the CAO knows the number of places for every course on offer, it enters that data into its computer system to determine what offers will be made to students online.

Until then, neither CAO officials nor college admissions officers know what points will be required to secure the last available place on offer in this round.

Tables of the points scores of the last person to secure an offer of a place through the mainstream application process, excluding all of the exceptions outlined above on each course this year, will be published in The Irish Times in the CAO First Round Offers education supplement next week.

If there are more applicants with the same points than there are remaining places on offer, the CAO computer will generate a random number for each applicant; those holding the highest numbers numerically will be offered the available places. When this occurs, an asterisk (*) appears beside the printed points score in the published charts.

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney is a guidance counsellor and education columnist. He contributes education articles to The Irish Times