CAO 2018: Pause. Take a breath. Hold off. Then, consider your options

If you didn't get the place you wanted there are alternative routes to the career you want

While others will be heading off to third level, many will look to other options including taking a year out to travel the world. Photograph: iStock

While others will be heading off to third level, many will look to other options including taking a year out to travel the world. Photograph: iStock


Students who are disappointed with their CAO offer this morning can feel their world is caving in and their plans have been shot to pieces, says Neil McCann, guidance counsellor at St Vincent’s Secondary School in Glasnevin, Dublin 11. But, he points out, the CAO is not the be-all and end-all and there are other options.

“The focus does tend to be on the CAO,” he says. “If you miss out on the course you want, it can feel like the future is ruined. But that’s not the reality.”

If you are down in the dumps about the results, what should you do? “There isn’t a huge amount that you can do on the day. If you are upset, do talk about it with family, friends or the school guidance counsellor, who is generally there on results day or the few days after. The worst thing is to retreat into yourself and mull over how bad it went. Go ahead with your plans for the day, meeting friends or going out as you had planned. Tomorrow, you can begin a discussion about what the next step is.”

So, if you do still want to continue in education, what exactly are those options?

Repeating the Leaving Cert

For students who had a specific, long-held goal in mind – such as medicine or veterinary medicine – it can be particularly distressing to miss out, and especially so if they’ve missed out on their course by less than 10 or 20 points. “They had a goal, and they still have it,” says McCann. “It didn’t happen so they have to consider what is next. They have been focused for so long and, once they’re through the initial disappointment, they still want to do the course and so it can be an easier decision for them to repeat. That said, it can still feel very raw when you have invested so much time and energy.”

The decision on whether or not to repeat has to be weighed up carefully, says McCann. “Around 2,000 students opt to do it every year, but it’s a tough decision. You’ve come through a stressful year and you’re dealing with disappointment, so you have to ask yourself: do I have the will and resilience to go through the process again? If the answer is yes, repeating can work for people. They have been to the dance, they know the beats of sixth year and how to prioritise and, as long as they’ve met the minimum subject requirements, they may not need to take English, Irish, maths or a second language again – any six subjects will suffice and they may even consider taking on one new subject.”

Many repeat students will change to a new school for a fresh start and a more intense focus, with colleges of further education and places like the fee-paying Institute of Education specialising in repeat Leaving Cert classes.

Taking a lower-preference course

Guidance counsellors urge CAO applicants to fill out 10 options in the level 6/7 and level 8 sections of the form, says McCann. “With that in mind, there should hopefully be some offer that you are happy to take. If you’re offered a course that was one of your 10, it might not be your top choice, but there is a reason you put it in your form. Consider taking it and then, down the line, you may get one of your top choices in round two or three and can transfer to that course; that said, you’ll only get that offer if someone else turns down their place, so those numbers are never going to be very large and you may still miss out in round two.”

Students who have filled in the level 6/7 side of their CAO form will receive an offer if they meet the course’s points requirements. They may find this ordinary degree is exactly what they want, or they may be able to use their level 6/7 to enter directly into a linked level 8 higher degree course. Contact the admissions office of the relevant higher education institution for advice.

Further education

The door to higher education can be opened with a post-Leaving Cert (PLC) programme in one of the many local colleges of further education around Ireland.

“I’ve always encouraged students to have both a CAO and a further education plan,” says McCann. “For some, further education will be a fallback or plan B, but for others it is a very good first choice. Most students will have a fair idea, as they progress through school, roughly where the chips will fall when they get their exam results.”

Bernadette Moore, principal at Rathmines College of Further Education, says further education courses are a good qualification in their own right as well as a stepping stone to higher education. And some of those who go on to further education courses have chosen them over a place on a college course.

“We have around 700 students in a very mixed group. More and more, people are coming to us having been offered a place in third-level, but they’re deferring because they’re not quite sure if that college course is right for them. If, for instance, they’re interested in business and finance but haven’t had much exposure to it, they come to us for a one-year level 5 course which helps them see if it’s the right fit for them,” she says. “They’ve heard of friends or acquaintances that went to a college course and dropped out, so they’re being shrewd by getting their qualification with us at the end of one year and deciding from there.”

Others are disappointed they didn’t get the Leaving Cert results they hoped for, or want to get out and work with as little delay as possible, so a one-year level 5 or two-year level 6 might be exactly what they need. “Our fees are a lot lower than college and some of our students may be in part-time employment while getting the level 5 or 6 that works for their needs,” says Moore. “Some students will come in with the intention of spending a year here and find they like the college, the atmosphere, the small classes and the individual attention, so they decide to stay for a second year and do the level 6.”

A PLC course can still offer the chance to get a degree but it takes another year. “Most third-level courses will have a link to a PLC option in a college of further education, although there are some big exceptions like medicine,” says Neil McCann. “You can do courses in arts, business, computers, nursing and science, among others, which can be a way of accessing your desired third-level course; it just requires a bit of research.”

Students can find more information by asking the local college of further education about progression links between their chosen course and a higher education degree programme; they will have the information at hand when you make your initial inquiry. You’ll also find course-specific information on the very useful website, following the link to “PLC progression routes” under the courses tab.


Apprenticeships are undergoing a renaissance at the moment. In the immediate wake of the recession years, the number of people taking up a trade or apprenticeship plummeted. When the old training board Fás was abolished, its successor body Solas placed a renewed emphasis on apprenticeships. The Government has also set targets to expand the number of people taking up apprenticeships and there’s a special focus on encouraging women – who are hugely under-represented in the sector – to consider them.

It’s a tempting offer: learn on the job, go to college, get paid and come out with a level 6, 7 or 8 qualification which is highly mobile and can be used around the world. This is especially tempting for those who may be struggling to afford the often hefty costs of college, but it should be noted that the pay in the first year of an apprenticeship isn’t generally enough to live on.

The old familiars are still there. In construction, there are apprenticeships available in bricklaying, carpentry, stonecutting, plastering, plumbing and wood manufacturing. In the electrical area, aircraft mechanics is particularly popular, while there are also apprenticeships in refrigeration and air conditioning, electronic security systems, instrumentation and more. Under engineering’s banner, students can study polymer processing technology, industrial insulation, metal fabrication, pipefitting and more. The ICT apprenticeships include ICT associate professional network engineering and ICT associate professional software development. Students interested in motors can consider vehicle body repairs, construction plant fitting and perhaps the most recognised apprenticeship of all, motor mechanics.

There are also newer, innovative options outside the area of trades, with more offerings expected to come on stream in the coming years. These include commis chef and, in the area of finance, there’s accounting technician, insurance practice and international financial services associates and specialists.


Think apprenticeship light. Training courses are linked in with their local education and training boards and the course content is developed in conjunction with a specific local employer to train people for particular roles in a company, usually leading to a QQI level 5 award. Participants learn on the job and may be paid a small bursary. Some of the courses can lead to a level 6 or apprenticeship, or to a permanent job in a local industry.

Work or travel

A gap year to work or travel can be a good way of figuring out where you really want to go next. Education will still be there when you’re finished.

The Irish Times will publish ‘Smart Options’, a special supplement exploring further education options on August 23rd