Higher Options: be as well-prepared as possible

With each session only three hours long, it’s important to do your research beforehand

There are two ways to experience Higher Options.

You can do as I did: get the bus in with your friends, look at a few stalls and then leg it into town after half an hour and hang around Stephen’s Green instead.

Or, you can be like my swotty friends, who carefully planned what stalls they wanted to visit, which career talks they wanted to attend and which prospectuses they needed to pick up (this was back in the days of yore, when third-levels barely had any kind of online presence and a “virtual open day” was pure science fiction).

Anyway, don’t be like me. Ultimately, missing out on Higher Options meant that, when it came to CAO choices, I had significantly more work to do down the line. My smug classmates, meanwhile, had spoken to students on the courses that interested them, they’d heard from the lecturers, they knew what open days they would want to attend and they had picked up information about studying in the UK or other overseas colleges.


Each Higher Options session is only three hours long, so it makes sense to be as well-prepared as possible in order to make the most of this limited time.

This year, Worldskills Ireland takes place in the RDS at the same time as Higher Options, so students who are attending the morning Higher Options session are advised to use the afternoon to attend Worldskills, where they can learn about their apprenticeship, traineeship and other further education options. Or, if you’re attending the afternoon session of Higher Options, go to Worldskills in the morning.

“Guidance counsellors will be encouraging students to prepare beforehand, and we will have a preparation sheet for them,” says Janet Stafford, marketing partnerships manager at The Irish Times and the organiser of Higher Options.

“Most students can’t attend every open day, so this is the single biggest career event for students to be exposed to their higher and further education options.”

Alice O’Connor, a guidance counsellor at Stepaside Educate Together Secondary School, reminds students that they only have three hours at Higher Options, so they need to make the most of that limited time.

“In some ways, the three-hour window may help focus minds, but it’s a good idea to know who will be there and what are the key desks you want to visit,” O’Connor says.

“You can also ask about sports or academic scholarships to college. Be on time and perhaps have a notebook where you can write down your questions and also write down the answers.

“There will be talks on all sorts of topics, including how to apply to college through Hear [the higher education access route which supports students from more disadvantaged areas in accessing third-level] and Dare [the disability access route to education], general CAO talks, and talks on specific courses or colleges. You can’t make them all, so try to prioritise – and definitely be aware of the time.”

Lynda Young, senior manager for recruitment at TU Dublin, says that students will ideally arrive at Higher Options having done at least some preparation for the event.

“Have a look at [which organisations] are at the event. You won’t get to every stand but you can pick two or three that you feel you must visit to find out more.”

At the stands, there will be lecturers who can tell you more about their subject and give you a sense of whether it might be of interest to you. There will also be student ambassadors who can tip you off if the subject is less interesting than the lecturer makes it out to be, as well as what the quality of teaching is really like.

“Talk to the students about the course, and about what it’s like to go to that [third-level or ETB],” says Young.

“Be brave: you may feel too shy to approach the stand, but they really want you to come and talk to them.”

After this, Young says it’s a good idea to visit a few stalls that you hadn’t considered.

“This may [be] just to rule out a particular option – or it may be that you hear about a course that hadn’t crossed your mind before and you think it sounds interesting.”

Stafford agrees: “Every year, students come to Higher Options and find inspiration from seeing things they never considered before. Whatever courses they investigate, however, will set them on the path to putting in the work they need to get into them.”

The clue to Higher Options was once in the name – “higher”. But, these days, apprenticeship, traineeship and further education colleges (where you might study for a Post-Leaving Cert course) have greater representation at the event than ever before.

“It is worth taking the time to investigate all the different options – regardless of what you feel is expected of you,” says Young. “You are the person who will make your own way in the world and, if you are happy, you are more likely to succeed.

“With representation at Higher Options, and with the Worldskills event running at the same time, it’s worth asking about these options – even if you think there is no way you are doing an apprenticeship, why not just ask a little about it.”

There are apprenticeship options in a greater range of areas than ever before, with areas such as insurance, recruitment, cybersecurity and even auctioneering among the options open to students, alongside more traditional craft areas such as plumbing, carpentry and motor mechanics, where students are paid money to learn – taking out most of the stress of college finances.

“There are many apprenticeship and lifelong learning opportunities in third-level colleges now,” says Young.

“It’s also worth finding out about the level six and seven courses. You can start on a level six and progress up to a level eight. We have lecturers with PhDs at TU Dublin who started on a level six.”

You won’t get to everything, but perhaps make a note of what you missed and follow up on it again, perhaps at the same time as following up on information you did get.

“If you manage to get four or five things done, that’s great,” says O’Connor. “If you can, and if you have the time, prepare for the unexpected, be open-minded, and you may discover something you never knew was there.”

How to plan for Higher Options: Before, during and after

“There are three stages to participation in Higher Options – before, during and after the event,” says Janet Stafford, the organiser of Higher Options.

  • Read through the Higher Options worksheet for information on what you will find at the event.
  • Plan out which career talks you want to attend.
  • Choose which stands you’re interested in visiting and look at where they are on the floor plan.
  • Keep an eye on your timetable and try to make it to the talks you’re interested in.
  • Tick off the universities and college representatives you want to speak with on your list.
  • Be open to opportunities you may never have considered by speaking with representatives from colleges and career areas that “catch your eye”.
  • Look through any prospectuses, brochures, literature or college contacts you gathered.
  • Take time to focus your thoughts on what you found interesting and on some of the ideas that attending the event suggested to consider for future studies.
  • Discuss what you learned with your parents, friends, teachers and guidance counsellor to help you make some decisions around CAO and other options.
  • Finally, see who is speaking at irishtimes.com/careertalks.

The Gaeltacht cafe

This year, there is a new dedicated Gaeltacht area at Higher Options. For anyone considering doing Irish at college, or even a third-level course delivered through Irish, it’s worth bearing in mind that the Government has a plan to have 20 per cent of civil servants proficient in Irish by 2030, so there is likely to be good employment opportunities for those who have more than a cúpla focal.

“You don’t have to be a fluent Irish speaker to be there,” says Stafford. “We have partnered with Foras na Gaeilge for this, and there will be talks, a little cafe area, chances to converse in Irish and Irish-language organisations like TG4 and Raidió na Gaeltachta. We are encouraging all students, whether you’re in a Gaelscoil or not, to attend, as there are career opportunities for people in English-medium schools too.”