CAO applications: ‘It’s not just that the goalposts have moved. . .’

Two expert guidance counsellors give 12 tips to consider when choosing a course


What course should I do? What interests me? What college would I like to go to? Should I look at further education?

At the best of times, filling out that CAO form requires a lot of thought. But during a pandemic that has closed schools – so students don’t get face-to-face meetings with guidance counsellors – and left most of the world in a state of stress and anxiety, it can be even harder to stay focused.

While most students will have met their guidance counsellor in recent months to go through the process of identifying suitable courses, and may have completed interest inventories in their career classes, others will remain unsure.

And there’s more to consider than just the course; it’s also important to consider what campus feels right for you. Big or small? In the suburbs or the city centre? What sort of sports facilities and student societies does it have? Most college open days will have taken place before the lockdown but, if not, there are virtual tour options available.

We asked two experts for their advice on how to identify the right course in the right place. Dr Stephen Ryan is schools liaison officer at the University of Limerick and he moonlights as a comedian. Beatrice Dooley is president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors.

1 Pandemic panic

Beatrice Dooley: It’s not just that the goalposts have moved; the entire football pitch has disappeared from beneath your feet. We cannot predict the future but whatever happens will be the same for all Leaving Cert students in the country.

Stephen Ryan: I can empathise with students because my own concentration levels haven’t been the best during the pandemic. Filling out your CAO now, despite it feeling different from other years, is essentially the same. The same advice applies, and that is to ensure you put down the courses you would like to do in the order of your preference. While it feels like there are a lot of things you cannot control at the minute, this is not one of them. You possibly now have more time than ever to research, reflect and ensure you choose the best course for you.

2 Know yourself

Beatrice Dooley: Look at previous exam results. Are you achieving particularly well in certain subjects? What subjects do you enjoy the most, and can this help you reveal your strengths? If you have any work experience to draw from – perhaps as part of Transition Year or the Leaving Cert Vocational Programme (LCVP) – consider what aspects you liked and disliked. Spend some time thinking about your future and researching your preferred courses. You need to inform yourself about the course itself, the college and the supports it offers, as well as your options after graduation.

Stephen Ryan: I’m always an advocate of guiding people towards what they feel they would love to do rather than what they feel they should do.

3 Think broad

Beatrice Dooley: If you’re not in the zone to make decisions on a lifelong career, that’s okay. Many people now change careers several times throughout their working lives, and many third-level courses offer a solid foundation with a variety of postgraduate course options.

Stephen Ryan: A lot of students go for common entry courses in a broad area that interests them. This can be an arts, science or engineering course, for example, with students choosing their specialist subjects after first year. A broad entry course takes the pressure off the CAO application – and there is that added pressure this year. I did history, politics, sociology and social studies at UL, and that general arts course gave me more options. We have a lot of general entry courses here at UL including a general arts course which gives you more options.

4 Research

Beatrice Dooley: Use online tools to explore different career paths, but consult with a few people to make sure you get a balanced overview. has comprehensive information about different careers and industries as well as interviews with professionals in different fields explaining their role. You can also look at and see any areas of particular interest to you.

5 Think of your goals

Stephen Ryan: What do you want out of a course – and of life? Do you want a job that will be safe and get you a mortgage? Do you want to be an entrepreneur? Different people want different things in life so there is no set pattern for what people should be doing.

6 Use your guidance counsellor

Stephen Ryan: Students are not in school so they may not be making as much use of their guidance counsellors. But they are a great resource for students: they know a lot of their students’ interests and can help guide them.

Beatrice Dooley: If you really don’t have any idea of what to do, make an appointment with your guidance counsellor by phone, Zoom or whatever online platform your school recommends. During this virtual meeting you can evaluate your options including non-CAO options such as Post Leaving Cert (PLC) courses, apprenticeships, traineeships or work experience which can serve as an alternative vocational route or a way into CAO courses at a later stage.

7 Someone you admire

Stephen Ryan: Look at someone you admire in an area you might like to get into. With LinkedIn, you can see what courses they studied and how it helped them to get where they are.

8 Look beyond the course

Stephen Ryan: There’s more to learn in college than what’s on your course. I perform comedy as an aside but I got into it through the UL Comedy Society. I got opportunities to perform at Forbidden Fruit and the Edinburgh Festival. There are loads of skills you can gain and friends you can make through college clubs and societies. People are changing careers so much these days and what employers really want are rounded people with transferable skills. I did a PhD in history; now I lecture in history and I do stand-up comedy, and both jobs involve writing and have a performance aspect.

9 Forget the CAO altogether

Beatrice Dooley: The CAO is not the only show in town. A survey of employers in January 2019 showed that graduates from apprenticeships and PLC courses are rated as highly as graduates from third-level colleges. You can research these on and use the links to apply for courses.

“Many further education colleges and PLC providers continue to accept applications until all places are filled and may not have a specific application closing date,” says Dooley.

PLC courses qualify you with a level five or six qualification, can serve as a “backdoor” into third-level courses, and suit students who are not in a position to embark on a three- or four-year programme, whether that’s for financial, personal, health, visa or other reasons. They’re also ideal for any student unsure if a course is right for them and wants to try a short course as a trial before committing to a longer programme.

Apprenticeships, meanwhile, have a strong emphasis on practical skills and suit hands-on learners. You get on-the-job training and earn as you learn, as you’re paid for the duration of the apprenticeship. There are over 40 apprenticeships available in areas including accounting, insurance, engineering, logistics, construction, electrical, engineering, ICT, hospitality and the motor industry. You’ll get more information on

Then there are traineeships, which combine learning in an education setting with workplace learning. They’re delivered by education and training boards (ETBs) in partnership with employers in areas that have skills shortages such as business, construction, finance and fashion. Information is available from your local ETB or on

10 Watch deadlines

Beatrice Dooley: Keep an eye on CAO deadlines. They may be different this year. Keep an eye on the CAO website and communications as they come in from the CAO and the colleges. Some deadlines have already passed – any course listed as “restricted” in the CAO handbook had a February 1st deadline.

11 All sixes and sevens

Beatrice Dooley: Some students tend to overlook level six and seven courses and thereby limit their options. Many level six and seven courses can be a better fit for your abilities and most offer the possibility of progression on to level seven or eight.

12 Don’t choose on points

Beatrice Dooley: A common pitfall is to limit the courses in your CAO application based on what points you think you will get. At this stage, it is your interests and aptitudes that should guide you as you enter your course choices.

Stephen Ryan: Your entire life does not depend on the CAO application and you have opportunities to change you mind. Yes, spend sufficient time evaluating your options but don’t put undue pressure on yourself to make the perfect decision.