CAO countdown: Start your research to avoid picking the wrong course

Thousands of students each year drop out of college after making decisions under exam pressure

Thousands of students drop out of college each year, having made the wrong course choice. Photo: iStock

Over the coming weeks and months, more than 80,000 potential college applicants will navigate their way through a maze of subject offerings to select courses that will set them on a path towards a future career.

The stakes are high. Thousands of students drop out of college each year. Why? Most say they had picked the wrong course.

Many school-leavers end up making their choices during the final terms of secondary school when they are under exam pressure. That is why it is so important to get these decisions right as early as possible.

The first deadline is looming. If you are interested in getting a place in September in an Irish university, institute of technology, teacher-training college or private college, offered through the CAO application process, go to by January 20th and make an application.


There is no need to panic – you don’t have to know what course you want to study yet.

While you may indicate the courses you wish to be considered for, you can return to your application in May or June to list or amend your course choices up until the July 1st final deadline.

So what’s the right course for you? The most important things to consider are what subjects you most enjoy at school and what areas do you excel in?

Think about 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 level of qualification, expected points score, location of colleges and so on.

Research the courses. Take careful notes of the differences between the programmes so you can reflect on them over the coming months.

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

Peer group

So what is the right college? For many school-leavers, it is the one your friends are planning to attend, with the course choice being a secondary consideration.

Your peer group can be the most powerful influence in determining the choices you make. Geography, transport links and demographic factors are hugely important in determining the level of demand for specific colleges and courses within those colleges. The points for a nursing degree in any of the major universities, for example, is much higher than those needed for a nursing place in IT Letterkenny.

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 is why the number of level-eight courses has mushroomed from about 200 almost two decades ago to more than 1,000 today.

Colleges in many cases have manipulated points to market themselves and to attract higher-points students by creating courses with low pupil numbers.

Some 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.

One other key factor to take into account is that in college, the motivation to secure the highest level of qualification you are capable of will be 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 danger is you will fail your exams and possibly drop out of college.

It’s yet another reminder of the importance of getting your course selection right in the first place.