CAO decision time: How to pick the right course

Here’s how to go about choosing the best course and the right college for you

What should you study at college?

Securing a degree at the end of three or four years of study is a major achievement, but you’ll manage it only if you have a genuine interest in the subject matter of the course itself, and you remain determined and focused on your studies from day one.

Unfortunately, thousands of current Leaving Cert students have applied through the CAO process, seeking places on courses and in colleges which their friends plan to attend, or have applied for courses without doing any detailed research first.

Many of these students will drop out of these courses by Christmas, once the reality of what’s involved in completing the programme dawns on them.

Would you start a marathon on a whim?

Absolutely not: such a task requires months of training and planning. Selecting a college course requires the same level of planning and commitment.

If you think you might be one of these people who has not really thought through the course choices you have already listed, you have just over a month to rectify the situation. The final date you must finalise your course choices is July 1st. Between now and then there is the small matter of the Leaving Cert to complete.

By now you are no doubt aware of the course options available to you depending on how you perform in the forthcoming exams. If not, Qualifax ( has the details of every course on offer, and its advanced search facility will enable you to refine your search to those subjects that genuinely interest you.

The litmus test is what will motivate you to get out of bed on a cold morning next winter, when nobody will be checking whether you do so or not, to attend lectures, study the topics in the library, write the assignments that such research will generate, and then pass your first-year exams either at Christmas or next May.

At this stage your course choice need not be directly linked with what job you will get when you leave college in three or four years’ time, as the nature of most occupations change constantly due to changes in technology, reflected in the day-to-day operation of the real economy.

Ensure you select a suitable course

Although your focus needs to be exclusively on your forthcoming exams in the weeks ahead, this does not prevent you reflecting on what it is that really motivates you when it comes to college faculties.

Is it scientific research? A fascination with technology? Business? Languages? Liberal arts? Whatever your favourite subject, it should inform your course choices for college. You can intensify this process once the final papers are out of the way in the third week of June, up until July 1st when you must finally decide.

If you think you will not have enough CAO points to get on to your first preference courses at your preferred college, look at other options farther afield, where smaller college populations may result in lower point requirements.

You should also research local Further Education (FE) Post Leaving Certificate (PLC) options, which in many cases have reserved places linked to your preferred course, meaning you could secure a place on this CAO programme in September 2019, if you secure sufficient distinctions in your FE course in the coming academic year.

Even if you are perfectly happy with your original CAO choices, it is wise to review them. Courses are discontinued all the time, and colleges often add new courses to the CAO system. Dozens of courses on offer now did not exist when the CAO printed its handbook last summer. Explore them now.

Between now and July 1st, log on to your account on and see what courses you have listed, and in what order.

For the courses you have listed, study the full content of each year's lectures and how they might allow you to progress to employment or postgraduate opportunities, on

Where will a degree in the subject you select now lead to?

Technological change is rapidly reshaping the nature of work, and a degree completed in 2021 or 2022 could well open opportunities in the labour market that have not yet been envisaged. So, don’t worry about it now; just get your course choices right over the next month.

What happens if I make that mistake?

The price of failing to research fully the content of every programme you plan to list on your CAO application now, before the change-of-mind window closes on July 1st, can be costly.

If you end up accepting a course that is not right for you, be it because you do not like the curriculum, you did not research the content thoroughly or you realise that you have selected a course you have no interest in, you may end up dropping out during the academic year or failing the exams.

If either of these events happen and you decide to return to college the following year to study another course, you will have to pay another registration fee of €3,000 in 2019. You will also have to fork out the course fee of at least €4,000 that the Department of Education through the Higher Education Authority (HEA) will pay the college on your behalf this year. The HEA, on behalf of the State, will pay course fees only once for each year of an approved course. If you end up repeating a year, you (or more likely your parents) will have to pay.

This extra €4,000 would bring your total fee for your first year to at least €7,000. This is far beyond the means of many families, especially when you factor in the living costs of attending college.

Even if you choose a course at a private college this year, then leave it to follow one in a State-funded college next year, you still must pay the full fees. Fees paid to private colleges are tax deductible at 20 per cent on any charges over €3,000, and so are treated in the same way as State-funded places, even if you do not claim the tax relief.

Things to check

If, after detailed research, you have identified a list of courses that seem to fit your interests, make sure that you’re able to secure a place on all of them, and, of course, that you earn sufficient points in your Leaving Cert.

Make sure that you meet all the entry requirements and have taken the required subjects at the appropriate level. (An example of this is the higher-level maths requirement for level 8 engineering degrees.) With this list in hand, put them in an order of preference or priority.

The coming month will be one of the most intensive periods of engagement between colleges and prospective students. Colleges will facilitate individual visits so that you can discuss any programme you are seriously considering. Contact the course director or programme office. (You’ll find phone numbers and email addresses in the college prospectus or on the college website.) If you have not already done so, visit both the college and the department, to get a feel for the course and the surroundings.

When you have completed this process – again, make sure it’s before July 1st – list your final course choices on your CAO record in the order you want them, allowing for all possible Leaving Cert results.

You have up to 10 choices at both level 8 higher degrees and level 7 and 6 ordinary degrees and higher certificate programmes. Never disregard the level 7 and 6 courses out of academic snobbery: almost all these programmes allow you to progress to the level 8 higher degree with an additional year of study.

Do not finalise your choices without consulting the key adults in your life, such as your parents and guidance counsellor. If the school year has finished by the time you have finalised your course choices, your guidance counsellor will probably be happy to meet you or to discuss your choices by phone.

Whatever you do, once you have completed your research and made your final list of choices, don’t be tempted to revisit this process from some far-off internet cafe in a beach resort.

Mature students and deferrals

If you are a mature applicant, have already completed your Leaving Cert or have requested a deferral of your place, you may receive an offer of a CAO place any time after July 4th. If you get any offer from the CAO and do not accept the place within a week, your offer lapses and you cannot retrieve it.