Before choosing a course, look at your interests

Not sure what career you want? Here’s what you should do before you decide on a college course

Just as in the restaurant, students should consider that they like, what interests them, and what might be a turn-off. Photograph: iStockphoto

Just as in the restaurant, students should consider that they like, what interests them, and what might be a turn-off. Photograph: iStockphoto


When the restaurant menu is so vast, it can be hard to pick your dinner. But what flavours do you like? What textures turn you off? And what is your gut telling you?

When it comes to choosing a further- or higher-education course, the menu is also massive – so can a student get through the CAO and further education options?

Just as in the restaurant, students should consider that they like, what interests them, and what might be a turn-off. Looking at your favourite and least favourite subjects can be a useful guide. Students should also consider what, outside of school, motivates and interests them – and why.


Neil McCann, a guidance counsellor at St Vincent’s Secondary School in Glasnevin, Dublin, says students should consider what they will enjoy and what will challenge them. “Look back on what you have done in class. It’s no surprise that people tend to prefer subjects they’re better at, and this applies to third-level too. So, as they do their research, we advise them to think of what they are good at, what they enjoy and where this could lead them in the future.”

This is not as reductive as deciding, for instance, that a student likes maths and so wants to do a maths degree, or enjoys history and wants to do a history degree. “The more important question is what they like about a subject. Maths may be an obvious example of a subject that some students struggle with, but a lot of them also enjoy problem-solving, applying formulas and the black-and-white results of maths.”

Logical thinking

With this in mind, students might look at courses which will allow them to solve problems using logic and lead to a definite, scientific answer. “I have encountered students who are great at science or maths but struggle with a four- or five-page essay where there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer. It’s about trying to find what they enjoy and what best fits their skills.”

That said, there are many students who might equally enjoy English and maths, or history and physics. “And if they do struggle with one discipline or another, third-levels and colleges of further education often host academic writing or extra maths classes for first-year students,” McCann points out.

Similarly, students may like the research and writing required in subjects including history, geography and English, so a law degree could be a good fit. If they enjoy science, they may like testing ideas through experiments and so a science course – whether a general entry course allowing them to study a wide range of science subjects in first year before specialising down the line, or specialising in a particular area of science from the outset – could be worth considering.

Subject silos

Ultimately, subjects as silos are becoming less important, as employers look at the wider skill set a graduate has. “Some of the big accounting firms are looking to engineers because they have the solid maths ability as well as problem-solving skills. The skills a student develops will ultimately matter more than the title of their degree. If the aim was always to be a doctor, it’s great that they are focused, motivated and driven, but it is worth looking at a deeper level: is the desire to be a doctor based around a desire to help people and, if so, would social work, psychology or teaching be of interest? Students might ask why they are attracted to this career or course? They should talk to their teachers and career guidance counsellor and tease out the reasons why they are making these decisions,” McCann says.

Students should be aware that many courses have minimum-entry requirements: they can get a very high CAO points score but, for instance, many level 8 engineering courses require a minimum H4 in maths. “The college is effectively saying that, to do well in this course, you need to enjoy it and see yourself being an engineer, but you also need to have a certain level of maths,” McCann says.

What are your interests?

Understanding your favourite and least favourite subjects, as well as why you like or dislike them, is important, but it’s only one part of the puzzle.

Alice O’Connor, guidance counsellor at Stepaside Educate Together Secondary School in Co Dublin, says students also need to think beyond school subjects. “We do ask about subjects and what they enjoy the most and why. But we’re ultimately talking about maybe seven subjects in a whole world of things they could study, and you mightn’t be able to use this to figure out if they want to be a vet, or a data analyst. So we also look at a student’s interests and what motivates them.”

With 72 per cent of students now taking transition year, and the programme available in 92 per cent of schools, there are more chances than ever for young people to explore a wide range of interests and activities before making that all-important post-Leaving Cert choice.

“Many schools will do an interest assessment in TY and that may help students to figure out the tasks or content they like,” says O’Connor. “They will have done work experience and hopefully evaluated what they took from it. The TY programme also includes community action or volunteering, so they might find themselves teaching reading skills and literacy to inner-city kids, or helping older people to learn computer skills; from this, they may discover they enjoy teaching or perhaps that they’re particularly interested in how computers work.”

Guest speakers, as well as the people students meet along the way, can help them decide what courses or colleges might be of interest. “This could be a nurse visiting the school and the student feeling that their work is exciting. It could be that they’re in a community centre and meet an administrator in the office, a chef in the kitchen, a teacher working with adults and young people and another person organising activities – and one of these roles seems particularly appealing.”

Equally, a student may learn what they didn’t like, whether that’s working outdoors (ruling out, for instance, agricultural-based courses or outdoor activities), or working as part of a team (pointing them towards careers where they’d be less likely to work as part of a large group)

Values and interests

Values matter, too. “We suggest that, between transition and sixth year, students should be putting together a portfolio or profile based around their values and interests, and how they can tie in with a higher- or further-education course, or apprenticeship,” says O’Connor. “Is money their motivator? If so, they’re not going to become a millionaire through, for instance, primary teaching, but perhaps they’ll think about it and realise that, for them, job satisfaction matters more. Maybe it’s helping people, or working in a career that makes a difference to politics or the environment.”

There are other considerations besides course content, O’Connor points out. “Yes, the course is important but this will be their life for a few years, so they also need to consider the size of the campus and the activities on offer. A large campus like UCD could be a good fit for some, but others might prefer the intimacy of a place like IADT and its focus on creativity and arts.”

Hobbies can be a useful signpost to help young people figure out the first steps on their career path. If a student is interested in drama, it can be a challenging and highly competitive career path but, instead of necessarily studying drama at third-level, it could help them figure out a college with a really strong drama society where they can hone their skills at the same time as getting a degree in another area. An interest in photography could potentially point to visually-oriented courses, such as multimedia, art or design.

Some students may dream of being a professional sports player and while it might be a big aspiration, O’Connor says she would never knock it. “If they want to be a professional soccer player, the odds are against them but you have to acknowledge that they really want to do that, so we explore what makes them feel so passionately and whether we can apply that to something else they like. There may be a sports course, such as sports science or outdoor education, which could be a good opportunity. I love that teenagers come in and think anything is possible, because it is. I would never want to squash that.”