CAO countdown: It's time to prepare for life after school

The first significant career choice you make will not necessarily be life-determining

Life is a journey of exploration and discovery. Any adult reflecting on their own career journey since leaving school realises that expecting a young person at age 18 or 19 to have decided on their occupation for life in 6th year is completely unrealistic.

When it comes to the final decision about what you will do after school, don’t be overwhelmed by the challenge of choosing the next steps.

Nobody, including myself at 64, knows what the next three to five years will bring. We all go through the same process to determine our future career path. We look at our life experiences, our interests and aptitudes, likes and dislikes, opportunities, and what our financial and personal circumstances offer us.

You will probably engage in this reflection and decision-making process at least 15-20 times between now and when you retire, which may be 70 years away.


Career choices will recur many times over your lifetime. The options at the end of second-level education are the first significant career choices you will make, but they are not life-determining.

Therefore, don’t get anxious or distressed by this decision-making process now, as you’ll face it again throughout your life. The decision about what you will do next September will simply determine what you will commit to for the next few years. It is perfectly normal to tell your guidance counsellor at this point that you have no idea now what you will do after the Leaving Cert.

Clues to your future

You can, however, take some steps towards discovering what might interest you. There are clues embedded in your life story to date which can help you determine what you do next. Your life experience advances daily as you express yourself in your personal, educational, sporting, musical, social and vocational life. To make sense of it, sit down and look at the jigsaw pieces of your life. The trick is to put the ones that you have generated to date together, to see if there is a pattern or theme within them.

We all have a wide range of interests, hobbies, skills, aptitudes and achievements, both academic and personal. Can you put the facts about yourself together to see what picture may emerge?

Ask yourself: what do you enjoy doing in your personal life? Are you an outdoor type who loves the freedom of being in the open air? Are you good with people and do you enjoy helping or caring for them?

Alternatively, you may enjoy making things or taking them apart to see how they work. Are you entrepreneurial, having bought and sold things among your friends and made a profit? Do you like routine and organising your room so it is neat and tidy, where you can find anything you want at a moment’s notice? The answers to these questions will give you clues to your future career journey.

Favourite subjects

Your time spent at school will reveal another set of clues going back to when you started primary as a four or five-year-old. What are your favourite subjects? Which subjects did you do well in whether in school exams or in the Junior Certificate? If you compiled any interest inventories to help choose your Leaving Cert subjects, they may also indicate career or course areas of interest.

You probably took aptitude tests either at the end of Junior Cert year or transition year. Did they indicate you were strong in numerical, linguistic, abstract, mechanical, organisational reasoning, etc? This is an important clue.


Genetics or family interests may also come into play. Is there a pattern in your family, on either side, which might point you in a direction?

Have you helped at home or in a family business or profession? Many people follow a family direction, such as politics, farming or business.

Go through the questions posed here, write down any relevant answers or information that arises. When you have finished your list of facts about yourself, look to see if there is a pattern to it. You may see a theme or possible area of interest emerge, which will inform your research in the months ahead.

Remember, you are not looking for any blinding flash of inspiration for your entire working life, but a strong indication of what might be the best next step in your life. If you get that right, it will consolidate the pattern and help you to take the next step in a few years’ time, after completing your initial choice. Remember, just one step at a time constitutes perfect career planning.

Your ultimate decision may be to apply to college for this September or to volunteer abroad for a year or to do something completely different. The choice is yours and only you can know what is right for you.

Online support

For an insight into the changing world of work and evolving roles, go to It has an excellent interest inventory and personality profiler which may help you clarify your emerging picture of yourself by taking one or both tests.

When you have narrowed down your choices, you can research courses in the Republic on, in Britain and Northern Ireland at, and in continental Europe at

Mapping your future

Match your future career plans with areas that interest you.

List your skills and interests.

List the subjects you perform best in.

Talk to your career guidance teacher.

Identify what subject fields are growing.

Review course pages on college websites.

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney is a guidance counsellor and education columnist. He contributes education articles to The Irish Times