CAO countdown: Research is key to picking the right course

It is vital for students to choose carefully in order to avoid possibility of dropping out

“The most important thing to consider is what subject matter you most enjoy engaging with in school.” Photograph: Eric Luke

“The most important thing to consider is what subject matter you most enjoy engaging with in school.” Photograph: Eric Luke


Between now and the final date for applicants to indicate their list of course preferences using the CAO application process, more than 80,000 hopefuls will attempt to manoeuvre through a maze of subject offerings. They will hope to select a course which will set them on a path towards a future career.

Through this series, I aim to help you find the most suitable courses which meet your aspirations.

The consequences of picking the wrong course are serious for the 6,000 or so students who fail to progress from first to second year of their courses.

Students may have left their course because they accepted an offer which they could not ultimately master or ended up hating.

Others left due to lack of sufficient finance, mainly driven by accommodation costs, or through illness sometimes brought on by the stress and anxiety of trying to master self-directed learning, a skill lacking among many school leavers.

So what’s the right course for you? The most important thing to consider is what subject matter you most enjoy engaging with in school. And also ask yourself what area you excel in. What course will get you out of bed on a cold, wet January morning next year? And for the next three to four years?

Having identified the key “subject content” words which most closely fit your interests, enter them into the advanced course search field on the Qualifax website (, filtering for things such as level of qualification, expected points score and location of colleges.

Click on every course that your search identifies and study every aspect of that programme carefully, especially the course content over the entire duration of the degree. Take careful notes of the differences between the programmes so you can reflect on them over the coming months.

Solid foundation

By this stage, you will have laid a solid foundation for research of your third-level options over the next six months until you must nail them down on July 1st at 5.15pm in your account on the CAO website (

Two other websites, and, also offer students ways of filtering a wide range of initial courses of interest down to a much shorter list of serious options.

So what’s the right college? For many 18- to 19-year-olds, it is the one where their friends are planning to go, with the course choice being a secondary consideration.

The peer group is by far the most powerful influence in determining the choices many young people make. Geography, transport links and demographic factors are also important in determining the level of demand for specific colleges and courses within those colleges.

The points required to secure a place for the same nursing degree in any of the major universities is much higher than in some rural institutes of technology for these reasons.

Parents and students tend to be most impressed with courses which require high points, but this can be misleading.

Like any organisation with an eye on marketing, colleges are skilled at giving punters what they want. That’s why 200 level-8 courses at the turn of the millennium have mushroomed to 973 smaller courses with higher points in 2017.

Simple advice

Knowing what they do about parents and students’ valuation of points, many colleges have subdivided the number of places on offer in a broad discipline. For example, a college may have 500 places available in one discipline.

Instead of offering these under a single course code, it subdivides the place into five or six course courses. This has the effect of driving up points required to gain entry.

Colleges are, in effect, manipulating points to market themselves and to attract higher points students. Students, encouraged by their parents who see points as a valuable currency, end up placing these programmes high up in their list of course choices.

Today I will give you one other simple piece of advice. The biggest difference between everything you have known about education for the past 15 years and what you are about to experience from September if you secure a college offer is that the motivation to secure the highest level of qualification you are capable of achieving is down to you and nobody else.

After September, if you skip class, don’t study and miss out on tutorials, nobody will call your parents, put you in detention or give you a good tongue-wagging. The only thing that will happen is that you will fail your exams and possibly drop out of college.

Next in series: How to apply for and secure CAO and PLC college places in 2017