Brian Mooney’s Q&A: Everything you need to know about the CAO

Advice on how to approach the CAO process and how to get your course choice right

As soon as your exams are over  you’ll have just over a week to finalise your list of course choices. Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images

As soon as your exams are over you’ll have just over a week to finalise your list of course choices. Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images


If you have decided to make specific changes to the courses, or the order in which you have listed them on your CAO application, you can do so online at now. If you are still mulling over what you wish to apply for, I would advise you to leave it until your exams are out of the way until you focus on reviewing your course choices – and get them right. Here’s some advice on how to handle this process.

Q. Why will it be a good time to reassess my CAO options?

A. When you made your initial CAO application you were probably focused on preparations for your Leaving Certificate or Post Leaving Cert (PLC) programme. As soon as your exams are over your mind will be free of those pressures, and you’ll have just over a week to finalise your list of course choices.

Many students use the initial application in January as a holding exercise, to secure access to a college place in September. By the end of June, you must make those final decisions and submit a definitive list of course options. Ask yourself which course or courses will build on your current interests and aptitudes and enhance your capacity to enter the labour market at the end of third level. You also need to ensure that based on the subject you will by then have taken in your Leaving Cert and as importantly, the level you take them at, you have met the minimum entry requirement for every course you list.

Q. How should I go about making these choices?

A. You need to be aware of all the courses on offer. The CAO handbook for 2017-18 was printed in the summer of 2016 and is based on information from the colleges that operate through the CAO system. Since then the colleges have withdrawn, amended or added many courses. The CAO website,, has an up-to-date list of these amendments. To examine the current list of courses on offer through the CAO, including programme details, check

A drop-down menu classifies every course under the following headings: administration and business; agriculture and horticulture; architecture; art and design; arts and social science; built environment; dentistry; education; engineering and technology; human medicine; law; nursing; other healthcare; pharmacy; physiotherapy; science; applied science; and veterinary medicine.

Explore your options within these classifications. There are also guides to different career areas in the following pages of this supplement that you should find useful.

No matter what points you get in your Leaving Cert on August 16th, or through your PLC course, there are courses on offer from colleges at higher-certificate and both ordinary- and honours-degree levels, to suit your circumstances.

Q. I know where to find information on all the courses; how do I apply it to myself?

A. Most students have been through this process with their school guidance counsellor over the past year. If you are still uncertain, follow these steps:

Take the interest inventory on and, and see if they highlight any areas of particular interest to you.

Reread the results of other interest inventory or differential aptitude tests you undertook in the past two or three years. They may point in the direction of one or more of the 17 course groupings listed.

Look at your results over the past few years, including the results of your Junior Certificate. Are you performing above your average in one or more subjects? These may be the ones to pursue on an undergraduate course.

Reflect on any work experience in transition year or the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme to see whether it enthused or discouraged your interest in a particular occupation or career path.

Reflect on the subjects you have just taken in your Leaving Cert or other examinations. Which ones did you enjoy studying most? Which did you most enjoy writing about in the exam hall over the past two weeks?

The answers to these questions may help you to narrow your course choices down to a relatively small number of options.

Q. Where can I find career-specific information to help me to finalise my choices?

A. One of the most helpful resources for exploring career options is the Careers Portal website ( This site also has an interest inventory, which will help match your courses to areas you are interested in. The interest-inventory results may well open your mind to possibilities you hadn’t considered. Many of us have preconceived notions, which are often inaccurate, of what particular occupations involve.

If you are interested in listening to people talking about what a particular job entails, the site has more than 100 employees of major Irish employers talking about the realities of their day-to-day work. With unemployment, currently at just over 6 per cent, access to a site where employers are promoting opportunities in their companies or industry is of benefit to those interested in the labour market, whether school-leavers looking down the line or adult CAO applicants considering a career change. Remember, features links to all colleges offering places, as well as the online application system to register the change-of-mind option.

Q. Must all applicants get involved in the change-of-mind process?

A. Yes, all applicants need to review their application before the CAO deadline of 5.15pm on July 1st. If having reviewed them you are happy with your initial choices and the order you have listed them in, you need take no further action.

Q. If I am happy with the choices I made in January, should I look at any new courses introduced by colleges in recent months?

A. If you’re comfortable with your initial choice of courses and their order, all you need to do is check your list against the latest published list of courses on offer from the CAO. Ensure that all your courses are still on offer and that there are no new ones that you might like to consider.

Make sure you still meet all the subject, and level of subject, entry requirements. If you are uncertain about these, go to the subject-choice module on the Qualifax website, where the entry requirements for all courses are outlined.

If, for example, you dropped from higher- to ordinary-level maths recently, you may have forgotten that a grade H5 at higher level is a minimum requirement for some choices. If some courses are no longer open to you, remove them now from your list.

After reviewing your choices, if you are happy with your application, you need take no further action. You do not need to communicate in any way with the CAO.

Q. I applied for the five level 8 medical-degree programmes and took my Hpat assessment. Do I need to do anything else?

A. You will get the result of your Hpat on Monday, June 26th, after the Leaving Cert is finished. This assessment is marked out of 300. Your performance in the Leaving Cert, up to a maximum of 550 points plus one extra point for every five you score over 550 – up to the maximum CAO score of 625 – will be added to your Hpat score, to give a possible maximum score of 865 points.

Applicants with the highest combined points will secure a place at one of the five colleges offering medical degrees.

I would advise anyone who has used up their first five level 8 choices to list undergraduate medical degrees to use options six to 10 to list five other degree programmes, which you may consider if you do not get a place in medicine.

Every year more than 1,000 CAO applicants with more than 500 points don’t get any offer because they didn’t list any course with fewer than 500 points.

Remember, any graduate with a 2:1 or better in a level 8 degree can apply for a postgraduate medical place. This may be an alternative route into medicine if you fail to secure a place this year.

Q. What if I want to change my order of preference or add new course choices to my existing CAO application?

A. Many students in the middle of sixth year are unclear about what they want to study at college and use the January application as a holding exercise.

This is the time to make your final choices, but bear in mind that you are not selecting an occupation for the rest of your life. You are just choosing areas of academic study that you would enjoy over the next three or four years.

It won’t be like school, with teachers supporting you if you lose interest in your course. Make sure, therefore, to check out the course content of every programme you list on and that you enjoy all the subject listed as being taught. If you do that, you are likely to continue turning up to lectures on dark, wet, cold winter mornings.

Remember, up to 40 per cent of all undergraduates take a postgrad course immediately after their undergrad study, to start the first step on their career ladder. Now, however, is not the time to contemplate the initial job you will secure after your college years, which may be five or six years away, depending on the course you study.

Q. Is it sufficient to simply record online the change I wish to make on my application record?

A. If you want to make any adjustment to either or both lists, you must resubmit the entire list in the order you now want. If you list only the extra course or courses, your original choices disappear from your application.

Finally, if you wish to change your application, or if you didn’t list any course on your initial application and are listing some courses for the first time, do it some days before the July 1st deadline, as there is no way of making any amendments after 5.15 pm on that date.

Q. I have not applied to the CAO but am considering applying for a college place. Is it too late?

A. It is too late to submit an application to the CAO, as the final deadline was May 1st for those seeking a first-year undergraduate place for the first time.

If, on the other hand, you are a registered college student and have failed your exams, or wish to change your course, you have until July 22nd to apply to the CAO.

For second-level or PLC students who have not yet applied for a CAO place, note that once the colleges know how many applicants they have for each course after the July 1st deadline, they will seek applications for available or vacant places, which will then be listed on the CAO website.

Any applicant, including new applicants, can register any such courses on their existing or new CAO application.