Brian Mooney: How many points will I need for my course?

New grading system means there is uncertainty over the points scores needed

Many parents and students are under the misapprehension that colleges set the points requirements for each course

Many parents and students are under the misapprehension that colleges set the points requirements for each course


The clear majority of questions we are receiving from students and parents to our Irish Times helpdesk ( are variations of one topic: will my CAO points be enough for my first choice course?

The answer is the same in all cases: nobody knows yet.

It will all become clear when the cut-off level for points is published by the CAO at 6am on Monday, August 21st. It will also appear in The Irish Times online and in a special supplement.

In a normal year, based on the pattern of applications published by the CAO in mid-July, it is possible to speculate at what points level any course may fill.

These figures showed that college applicants were being drawn towards third-level courses linked to most areas of the growing economy, with increases in demand for architecture, construction, law and business-related courses.

However, this year – with a totally new grading system and CAO points scoring structure – it is impossible to answer with any degree of accuracy what the cut off-points score will be.

Many parents and students are under the misapprehension that colleges set the points requirements for each course.

In fact, colleges can only set and publish minimum subject entry requirements for each programme offered in that institution. They also determine, in consultation with State bodies, the number of publicly funded places to be offered to all eligible EU students (inclusive of Irish applicants) on each programme.

Access programmes

They hive off a proportion of those places for those deemed eligible under access programmes for people with disabilities or from disadvantaged backgrounds. Many colleges publish the numbers of such places on their websites. The whole purpose of this exercise is to reduce the academic requirements for this cohort of applicants.

They may also hive off a proportion of places to be offered on reduced academic requirements to those who have successfully applied to a specific college for inclusion under the categorisation of elite sport or artistic performer.

They may even hold back a small number of places to allow for those students who will secure additional CAO points following the remarking of Leaving Cert scripts in September/October, whom they are obliged to offer places too at that stage.

Let us speculate, for example, that the number of publicly-funded places on a specific course is 100 and that 20 places are allocated to all the categories outlined above. That will leave 80 places to be programmed into the CAO computer, alongside that course code.

The CAO already has a list of each applicant’s course choices in order of preference.

Through the wonders of IT, the computer programmer, having entered in every applicants Leaving Cert results, or in the case of applicants from other EU countries their equivalent, removes all course for which the candidate has failed to meet a minimum subject entry requirement.

Highest points score

The IT system then allocates the places available to the 80 highest CAO points scores, starting with the student who has the highest points score.

The points score of the 80th successful applicant is identified by the IT system, and that points score will be published by the CAO next Monday.

Following the close of offers in round one a week later, if some of those 80 places have not been accepted the CAO will offer out the unfilled places in the second round of offers the following Thursday (August 31st).

Many colleges, similar to airlines, anticipate a proportion of non-acceptances. Therefore when they instruct the CAO to offer a set number of places they may, to use our example, increase the number from 80 to 90, anticipating 80 acceptances based on previous years’ experiences.

Where the level of acceptances is higher than anticipated, colleges must manage the additional numbers through a rejuggling of lecture theatre sizes to accommodate the additional students.

Where they do not secure sufficient acceptances they then offer further places through the CAO offices until they fill the programme.

What I can state with certainty is that once the offers are published at 6am my guidance counselling colleagues will be answering all your questions online in the Irish Times on our live blog.

Relax over the weekend

So, relax over the weekend and focus on the football in Croke Park, or the women’s World Cup in UCD, or whatever takes your fancy.

While writing this article I received a call on my mobile phone from a concerned parent in Mayo, to whom I had spoken over a year ago following an inquiry by her to my “Ask Brian” education column.

Her only concern now was whether I could source her a ticket for the match in Croke Park on Sunday. Unusually, words failed me!

This column will return on Tuesday, August 22nd, following the CAO offers.