Thinking of college? Identify your interests before choosing a course

Considering what motivates you can help steer you towards a fulfilling career path

Life is the longest thing you’ll ever do — and, barring a wealthy benefactor or a lottery win — you’ll be spending a large chunk of it at work.

With this in mind, it’s important to try and find a career path that, at the very least, doesn’t fill your throat with dread every morning. Ideally, you’ll want a job where you’re not taking breaks to cry under your desk.

Don’t stress too much at this point about what “job” you’ll have: you will pursue many different paths throughout your career, regularly changing companies and roles, or perhaps being self-employed for some or all of your working life.

And, despite the heavy emphasis placed on going to college in Irish culture, there are so many other options; you’ve heard about post-Leaving Cert courses, apprenticeships and traineeships, but there will be multiple opportunities to upskill and retrain throughout your career. Sometimes, these will be short bursts of learning. Other times, you might do a one or two-year part-time postgraduate course. Or you might just keep on learning in one particular way you’ve always learned: via YouTube videos that provide you with the particular information you need at that particular point in time.


It can be tricky to wrap your head around all the different options. Like, what’s the difference between an apprenticeship and a traineeship? Should I go to university or a technological university, and does it matter? How do I transfer to a different course if I don’t like what I’m doing? And, if it doesn’t go to plan after the Leaving Cert, will my career hopes be shattered? (They absolutely won’t, as there are more entry routes to college than ever before, and you can study many high-points courses like medicine in European universities for a fraction of what it costs to be a full-time student in Ireland).

Your guidance counsellor can help you enormously with these questions. has proven to be an absolutely vital resource. And, of course, The Irish Times regularly features information and advice on all any education questions you may have.

So, for now, your main job is to figure out what interests you? Think about what makes it less painful to get out of bed in the morning. Maybe that’s studying maths or learning a language, maybe it’s sport, or maybe it’s simply interacting with other people and taking care of them. Can any of this help guide a career that doesn’t cause great pain every morning?

We caught up with experts on how to find a course that interests you.

  • Think about what you like: “At the young age of 17 or 18, most students will have not yet developed a passion for a particular field of study so it can be hard to know how to navigate course choice,” says Sarah Geraghty, director of student recruitment and outreach at the University of Galway.

“A good starting point is for students to ask themselves some basic questions about what they like; what subjects do they like in school, what topics are they interested in, how do they like to learn, what are the stories in the news that grab their interest?”

  • Do the research: It may sound obvious but, with so many academic, social and family pressures on today’s Leaving Cert students, and a dire lack of mental health supports, it can be hard to consider long-term career options.

“Students need to think about what they might want to do, but we get so many students who have never come to open day, or never talked to another student or academic about the courses they put down,” says Lynda Young, senior manager for recruitment at TU Dublin.

“Students spend so much time worrying about the Leaving Cert and their study, and are consumed by it so they don’t put the work into the CAO form.”

  • Think about every option: “Think of every option on your CAO form,” Young advises. “Can you see yourself in class for this subject? How will you get there every day? On a rainy morning in November, can you see yourself motivated enough to get out of bed, get on the bus and go to college? You won’t always get your first offer so think about each one.”
  • It’s not all academic: Extracurricular options can make all the difference, but location is the second major factor for choosing college, says Young, because it can be much harder to stay motivated on a long commute. Also, consider the size of the institution and whether you might prefer somewhere with smaller class sizes, or being one of 500 students in a large lecture theatre.

This also means that students really need to consider their PLC, apprenticeship and traineeship options, bearing in mind that these courses can be useful qualifications in their own right as well as pathways to higher education. With World Skills Ireland running alongside Higher Options at the RDS this year, it’s a great opportunity to explore every angle.

  • Avail of school supports: “Through the TY curriculum, CSPE and the career guidance programme in the school, students will be encouraged to think about the world of work and it will hopefully spark the imagination,” says Geraghty. “There will also be access to tools and supports such as personality tests that help students figure out their strengths, motivations, values and natural interests.”

Young says that the interest test on is widely used and that guidance counsellors find it can pique a student’s interest in different fields.

  • Get information and experience outside school: Besides the excellent resource that is, there are also opportunities for students to taste different fields outside the classroom.

“Most colleges will run outreach and civic engagement programmes such which secondary school students can sign up for,” says Geraghty.

“At University of Galway, we’ve been offering Taster Days to TY students for many years and we have a Youth Academy for high-ability students and feedback from participants and their parents has shown that participation has a significant positive impact in helping students choose courses and careers.”

  • Think broad: Despite work experience and extensive consideration, there will still be many students who are stumped about the further or higher education choices. With this in mind, Young advises students to consider broad courses where students can get a taste of different subjects in first year before specialising in later years. These include arts, business and science.
  • Go to everything you can: Whether it’s Higher Options, in-person or virtual open days, it makes sense to attend as much as you can, says Young.

“Sometimes this means going to all of them to rule them out, and decide if it is an environment you want to be in for a long time.”

  • Be strategic: Your top three CAO choices should be your dream courses, forget about the points, says Young. Your next four should be courses you would really like and feel you have a good shot at. Your last three are the bankers you will get the points for. Don’t forget the level six and seven courses.

“You have 20 opportunities on that form, so if you only fill in three spaces, you have wasted 17 opportunities.”

How to get it wrong

What to watch out for when choosing a third-level course:

“My perspective on this comes from working with first-year college students who are trying to change their college major,” says Marie McManamon, careers consultant, recruitment expert and founder of

“What is coming up in my practice year after year is:

  • Students frequently make college/course choices based on where their friends are planning to study so that they can be together.
  • They often don’t consider if the course they select includes their least favourite or worst subject or indeed a subject they have never studied before — which will put them at a disadvantage when getting to grips with college life.
  • They didn’t read the syllabus for the course they applied for but instead assumed they knew what was involved. But not every Business or Engineering or Science degree is the same — in fact they are intentionally different, as colleges have their own specialty areas based on lots of factors (eg, regional employment or labour market needs).
  • They need to look for information on what courses have high dropout rates; for example, ICT or Computer Science is universally high and it is important to understand what the modules will involve and figure out whether they are in line with their best subjects and aptitudes.
  • They need to consider PLC courses, tertiary degrees, apprenticeships and traineeships as pathways to careers.
  • Many degrees do not have a list of ‘the jobs I can do afterwards’, but they open pathways to postgraduate and professional studies and indeed, graduate programmes where entirely new skill sets can be tried and learned.
  • They can always change their minds, at CAO stage, at early first year stage etc.