Decision time nears for final CAO course selection

Final list of course choices has to be submitted to the CAO by 5pm on July 1st

Securing a degree at the end of three or four years of study will be a major achievement, but you will manage it only if you are determined and focused from day one. Photograph: Getty

Whether you are a current-year Leaving Cert student or sat your school-leaving exams at another time or in another jurisdiction, and have applied to the Central Applications Office in 2024, now is decision time.

Your final list of CAO course choices has to be submitted to the CAO by 5pm on July 1st.

Third-level study will require significant commitment in terms of both time and effort and understanding course requirements as well as course content should be a key consideration before you finalise your preferred selection.

A typical degree course will involve attending lectures and tutorials, completing assignments and sitting exams. In addition, some courses may expect students to take up internships or complete a period of work experience.


Securing a degree at the end of three or four years of study will be a major achievement, but you will manage it only if you are determined and focused from day one.

Every year, thousands of students apply to a particular college only because it is where their friends are planning to attend, while others will apply for courses without conducting any serious or detailed research.

Once the reality of what’s involved in completing the programme dawns, many end up dropping out of their courses before Christmas.

To avoid making these preventable mistakes, it is important for students to do some groundwork before applying to the CAO.

In most cases, college is a three- or four-year-long journey. Would you start a marathon on a whim? Absolutely not – such a task requires months of training and planning. Selecting a college course requires the same level of planning and commitment.

The good news is that it is not too late. Now is the time to act. Reflect on what you genuinely want to study in college and identify the appropriate course offerings over the coming weeks until deadline day.

By now you will no doubt be aware of the course options available to you depending on how you perform in the forthcoming written papers you will sit in June.

If not, Qualifax has details of every course that is on offer, and its advanced search facility will enable you to refine your search to the subjects that genuinely interest you.

The litmus test is what will motivate you to get out of bed on a cold morning next winter, when nobody will be checking whether you do so or not, to attend lectures, study the topics in the library, write the assignments that such research will generate, and then pass your first-year exams next May.

Select a suitable course

If you think you will not have enough CAO points to get a place on your preferred course, there are plenty of other opportunities worth considering. Look at options farther afield in Europe and elsewhere, where smaller college-age populations and more developed third-level sectors often mean lower points requirements.

You should also research local further education (FE) post-Leaving Certificate options, which may have reserved places on your preferred course, meaning you could secure a place on the programme in September 2025.

Even if you are perfectly happy with your original course choices, it is wise to review them. Courses are discontinued all the time, and colleges often add new courses to the CAO system. Dozens of courses on offer in May 2024 did not exist when the CAO originally released its handbook last summer. Explore them now.

Between now and July 1st, log on to your account on and see what courses you have listed, and in what order. For the courses you have listed, study the full content of each year’s lectures and how they might allow you to progress to employment or postgraduate opportunities on

Technological change is rapidly reshaping the nature of work, and a degree completed in 2029 or 2030 could open opportunities in the labour market that have not yet been envisaged. So, don’t worry about it now; just get your course choices right over the next few weeks.

What happens if you choose the wrong course?

If you end up accepting a course that is not right for you when the colleges offer their places in late August – be it because you do not like the curriculum, you did not research the content thoroughly or you realise that you have selected a course in which you have no interest – you may end up dropping out during the academic year or failing the exams.

If either happens and you decide to return to college the following year to study another course, you will have to pay another course registration fee in 2025.

You will also have to fork out the course fee of at least €8,000 that the Higher Education Authority (HEA) will pay the college on your behalf this year.

The HEA, on behalf of the State, will pay course fees only once for each year of an approved course.

If you repeat a year, you will be the one paying. This extra €8,000 would bring your total fee for your first year to at least €11,000. This is far beyond the means of many families, especially when you add the living costs of attending college.

Even if you choose a course at a private college this year, then leave it to follow one in a State-funded college next year, you must still pay the full fees. Fees paid to private colleges are tax deductible at 20 per cent on any charges over €3,000, and so are treated in the same way as State-funded places, even if you do not claim the tax relief.

Things to check

Make sure you meet all the entry requirements and have taken the required subjects at the appropriate level. An example of this is the higher-level maths requirement for level-eight engineering degrees. With this list in hand, put your courses in order of preference or priority.

The coming month will be one of the most intensive periods of engagement between colleges and prospective students. Colleges will facilitate individual interactions with staff via online communication or virtual or in-person open days.

You can use these forums to discuss any programme you are seriously considering. Contact the course director or programme office; you will find phone numbers and email addresses in the college prospectus or on the college website.

When you have completed this process, list your final course choices on your CAO record in the order you want them, allowing for all possible outcomes from your assessed grades.

You have up to 10 choices at both level-eight higher degrees and levels seven and six ordinary degrees and higher-certificate programmes.

Never disregard the value of levels seven and six courses: almost all these programmes allow you to progress to the level-eight higher degree with an additional year of study.

Do not finalise your choices without consulting the key adults in your life, such as your parents, your guardians and guidance counsellor.

Your guidance counsellor and teachers will continue to work with you in the weeks ahead to help finalise your course choices. Make sure to use their expertise before you submit your course selection.

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

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