CAO decision time: What should you study at college?

Students have until July 1st to submit their final third level course options to the CAO

Selecting a college course requires a considerable  level of planning and commitment. Too many students end up dropping out of courses for which they are unsuitable.

Selecting a college course requires a considerable level of planning and commitment. Too many students end up dropping out of courses for which they are unsuitable.


With all the uncertainty that Leaving Cert students have been living with over the past three months it is only now that they can turn their minds to the final list of CAO course choices, which they will have to submit to the CAO by 5.15 pm on 1st July next.

Securing a degree at the end of three or four years of study will be a major achievement, but you’ll only manage it if you’re determined and focused on its course content from day one.

Unfortunately, thousands of current Leaving Cert students have applied to the CAO to go to a college purely because their friends plan to attend, while others will have applied for courses without conducting any detailed research.

Many of these students will drop out of their courses before Christmas 2020, 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, you have just over a month to rectify the situation. By now you are no doubt aware of the course options available to you depending on how you perform in the forthcoming grade assessments, undertaken by your teachers.

If not, Qualifax has 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.

Litmus test

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 next May. All of the above is of course contingent on how colleges organise the delivery of their programmes in a post covid19 world.

At this stage choosing a course should have very little to do with what job you will get when you leave college in three to four years’ time.

Ensure you select a suitable course

If you think you will not have enough CAO points, following your teachers assessment of your performance over the past two years, to get on to your preferred course at your preferred college, look at other options farther afield, where smaller college-age populations result in lower point requirements.

You should also research local further education (FE) Post Leaving Certificate options, which may have reserved places on your preferred course, meaning you could secure a place on the programme in September 2021.

Even if you are perfectly happy with your original course 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 in May 2020 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 2025 or 2026 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 few weeks.

What happens if I make that mistake?

If you end up in August when the colleges offer their places, 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 happens 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 2021. You will also have to fork out the course fee of at least €5,000 that the Department of Education will pay the college on your behalf this year.

The Higher Education Authority, 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 be the one paying. This extra €5,000 would bring your total fee for your first year to at least €8,000. 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

Make sure 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 interactions with staff, via online communications or virtual open days.

You can use these forums to discuss any programme you are seriously considering. Contact the course director or programme office. You will find phone numbers and email addresses in the college prospectus or on the college website.

When you have completed this process list your final course choices on your CAO record in the order you want them, allowing for all possible outcomes from your assessed grades.

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. Although you can no longer communicate with your teachers, your Guidance Counsellor will continue to communicate with you online to help you finalise your course choices. Make sure to use their expertise before you finally submit your course lists.