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CAO selection: How to decide on the right choice

Choosing a course that matches your interests can make it easier to specialise as you progress through third level

Students are advised to consider their strengths and interests when selecting a third-level course. Photograph: iStock

On February 1st, students had a big choice to make. What courses would they put down on their Central Applications Office (CAO) form and in what order of preference?

In the past few weeks, however, it’s got more serious. With the Change of Mind facility opening, many students are only now finalising their choices — and this choice is happening at a time when they’re smack bang in the middle of preparing for the Leaving Cert exams.

“About 50 per cent of students just set up their CAO account by February 1st,” says Betty McLaughlin, former president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors. “These students didn’t enter their courses, but now they can go into their application, enter new courses, and rearrange their order of preference. At this stage, they have sat their mocks, and they will be more enlightened about their forecasted CAO points. It is a good exercise to look at your mock exam results, see where you did well and see where the knowledge gaps are. Students now are in a much better place to go in and make those changes, and at least 75 per cent of them will do so.”

Some courses, where entry is not dictated by CAO points alone — including medicine which requires students to sit the HPat, or art and architecture courses which require a portfolio, or music and drama courses which require an audition — cannot now be entered on to the CAO, but the vast majority of other courses can.


Of course, for many students who are already stressed about the Leaving Cert, it’s tough to also have to think about the course they will study for the next few years.

Depending on the date on which they finish their exams, however, they should have at least a week to make their final call — also fairly tricky at a time when most would prefer to put school and the exams behind them.

So, whenever the time comes, how do students choose a course they will enjoy? “Work to your strengths and interests” McLaughlin advises. “Make sure you know what subjects you like and would be good, and line up the courses that reflect your subject interests. Look at the modules on those courses.”

Head of careers at Maynooth University Brendan Baker agrees and says that if a student has identified an aptitude for languages, science, business or another area, this could help them not only to make their CAO choice but also to specialise as they go through their third-level course.

What if you’re still not sure? “It’s a good idea then to keep it broad,” McLaughlin advises. “Do an arts or science degree, because you can do a postgraduate to specialise afterwards. You can even do medicine postgraduates today.”

McLaughlin adds that students should have a look at the labour market, and the current graduate destinations of students who have completed these courses, as well as the careers of graduates from the course.

Baker says that parents tend to encourage students towards courses linked with job opportunities, but that this isn’t necessarily the best approach.

“Their child will be working for 40 or 50 years, and so the jobs that are in demand today will change over time; for instance, ten years ago, nobody knew what an app designer was,” he says.

“What’s more important is to identify skill sets and interests. Employers want to know what your skills are, and how you use them. These are more obvious in vocational areas, but somewhat harder to articulate in areas like arts and humanities. That is why we work with students to make them aware of their skills and strengths, including leadership, problem-solving and innovation, as these are what employers want.”

Baker says that parents and peers are the two groups most likely to influence student decisions.

“But sometimes students feel pushed into a course by their parents, who don’t always have an understanding of how things have changed since they sat the Leaving Cert. Third level is a journey of exploration, but if you are a parent who is funding that journey of exploration, it is understandable that you will want a landing zone in sight at the end of it. With this in mind, it really is about doing the research and having those open conversations with parents.”

McLaughlin says that it is a good idea to see the campus in person, if possible.

“I know students who visited the larger colleges and saw that it wasn’t for them, whereas they felt more comfortable in a smaller institution. The main reason that people drop out is that the course isn’t suitable, but the second reason is that they were in the wrong environment.”

At these final stages, with the finishing line in sight, students mustn’t make one of the more common errors: listing courses with high CAO points towards the top of their form, and courses with lower points further down. Students should always list their courses in order of genuine preference.

That said, it is also important to be realistic and to cover as many bases as possible. If you’re aiming for about 500 points, for instance, and your mocks suggest it is possible, but what you’d really love is a course that has required 600 points in previous years, it makes sense to put down that 600-point course, followed by courses of interest close to the 500-points mark, and then some lower-points courses that would also be of interest. Only put down courses you think you would actually enjoy studying. Don’t throw down a sixth or seventh preference on a course that you haven’t researched and may not like.

“Do cover yourself in terms of points in the application form,” says McLaughlin. “Look at PLC, apprenticeship and traineeship options. And don’t forget to fill out the level six and seven sections of your course; many of these courses offer a route into a level eight.”