CAO is not the only game in town

There are plenty of alternatives available to those who will not register for third level


So you didn’t get the course you want. Or you’ve got the course you thought you wanted, but now you’ve changed your mind.

Perhaps you don’t really want to go to college in a time of such uncertainty and would rather hold off and see if you can ride out the pandemic – particularly given the social side of third level will be restricted for at least a semester or even the full year. Maybe you never really wanted to go to college in the first place.

Whatever your story, third level isn’t the only game in town – and never has been. We spoke to some experts about the alternatives to college.

Róisín O’Donohue is a member of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors and a graduate of DCU’s MSc in guidance counselling. She is also a guidance counsellor at Belvedere College.

“The options for the class of 2020 are very different,” she says. “The advice differs because there is more uncertainty than there has been in the past and that is unsettling – for students, parents, teachers and indeed guidance counsellors. There are different challenges for students who miss out this year and, while the Government made the best decision they could in the circumstances, it was a change that students didn’t expect.”

Defer your course and work for the year instead may be an option for some. Photograph: iStock
Defer your course and work for the year instead may be an option for some. Photograph: iStock

Taking a year out

“Taking a ‘gap year’ to travel between school and college hasn’t really been a trend in Ireland, and is more associated with UK students; Irish students have generally tended to do it after college,” says O’Donohue. “But the pandemic has certainly put a pin in it.

There’s also more uncertainty about work as many of the jobs traditionally taken by students and young people – such as bars and restaurants, tourist and service industry jobs – might not be there anymore. “It’s difficult to predict,” says O’Donohue. “Businesses have been really hard hit by the pandemic. It’s still worth popping into places and asking about work, and hopefully we will see these jobs open up again as the economy recovers.”

Internships might be an option for students taking a year out. “This is generally short-term unpaid work experience. Companies might still be interested in taking them on, so look at these as a way of helping to bolster your CV until a more full-time job comes along.”


Students can normally defer at the discretion of the third-level institution they are applying for. Sometimes it’s to take a year out to work and save money in order to be able to defer college. Students sometimes opt to defer because they need a break from study after the stress of the exams. This year, there’s a new reason: if college isn’t going to be as much fun this year, is it worth deferring?

“There is no guarantee that students will be able to defer,” says O’Donohue. “If they do want to do this, they should contact the admissions office upon receiving a CAO offer instead of accepting it. The college will ask them for the reasons they want to defer, and there could be a limit on how many they will allow. They generally look for valid reasons such as illness or personal and financial circumstances: I’m not sure if college being perhaps less fun this year will be taken as a valid reason.”

If a student’s deferral application is allowed, students still have to make a CAO application the following year. But – and this is crucial – they should only put down the course that has been held for them, because if they add any other course to their form, they are putting themselves back into the points race. If they are refused a deferral and decide to decline the place anyway, they can use their CAO from this year by ticking a box that they are applying using their points from 2020. But beware: points could go up or down next year.”

Some students may repeat the Leaving Cert. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Some students may repeat the Leaving Cert. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Repeat the Leaving Cert

Traditionally, students who have their hearts set on a particular course – but who miss out on points – consider signing up to repeat sixth year, whether in their own school or in a specialised grinds school like the Institute of Education in Dublin 2.

This year, students who don’t get the calculated grades they hoped for can opt to sit the written exams which begin on November 16th. Students will also be able to combine their calculated grades with the grades they get in the written exams, based on whichever grade for any given subject is higher. So, is there any point in repeating this year?

“The drawback to waiting for the written exam is that it puts a delay on starting college. Nobody knows what the points will be for 2021 and whether a larger than usual number of students will turn down college places this year and perhaps seek a deferral or reapply next year. We don’t know if students will be generally happy with the calculated grades system. We don’t know if students will delay their application by a year or not and that will be telling for the points that we might see in 2021. We won’t really have an indication of any of this until a week after the results.”

Yvonne O’Toole, principal of the Institute of Education, which runs a repeat Leaving Cert year, says there are still good reasons for some students to repeat sixth year. “We don’t know how the points process will work or how the Department of Education will work out the standardisation process. We’ll be fully open and students can get the entire timetable livestreamed and recorded – and they know that, no matter what happens, they will have a stabilised education for a year.”

Talk to your parents and your school’s guidance counsellor and explore the options available to you. Photograph: iStock
Talk to your parents and your school’s guidance counsellor and explore the options available to you. Photograph: iStock

Further education and training

The days of post-Leaving Cert courses being a fallback are over. “More and more, students are choosing the PLC as a foundation year, an alternative gap year or a transition into college,” says O’Donohue. “Many of these are now pre-university courses, and there is a whole range of them that act as a solid base for students who want to move into that degree, whether in arts, science, law, engineering, nursing or another area.”

PLCs were also traditionally a stepping stone to higher education but they can be a chance for students to really suss out what they’re interested in – or an end qualification in their own right, helping prepare graduates . And there’s a body of evidence that students who do a foundation PLC year ultimately settle in better in college, both academically, socially and personally.

Apprenticeships are also an increasingly popular option, allowing students to earn and learn at the same time. Most of these courses span from levels six to eight on the national framework of qualifications, with a level eight having the exact same status as an undergraduate degree from a third level like TU Dublin, IT Limerick or Trinity College. The range of apprenticeships is impressive, with options such as aircraft mechanics, pipefitting, plumbing, plastering, carpentry and motor mechanics sitting alongside newer courses developed after 2016 such as accounting technician, auctioneering, software developer and supply chain manager. Classes usually take place in classrooms or online while students also learn on the job.

Traineeships, meanwhile, are shorter courses focused on developing particular skills that are needed by employers, so they have high employability.

Stephen Goulding is the principal at Kerry College of Further Education, Ireland’s “first fully-integrated college of further education and training”. What exactly does this mean?

“We offer employment [traineeship], progression [primarily PLC courses] and apprenticeships, all run from the same building,” he explains. “We use these terms to give the learner a clearer sense of their pathways. Our courses, across all four of our Kerry campuses, have minimal costs and the apprenticeships are paid. For students who might not be sure of what they want to do, they can try a year of further education without having to commit to perhaps three or four years of higher education.”

All Kerry College’s courses, as with all further education courses nationwide, will combine onsite and blended learning. “And we want to give all our students the maximum quality educational experience possible.”

* For more information on the courses and opportunities provided by further education visit