CAO Q&A: Everything you need to know about the change of mind process

Brian Mooney on how to approach the CAO process and get your course choice right

Now that the Leaving Cert has been cancelled and you have no further contact with your teachers in school (due to Department of Education guidelines) it is now time to review your course choices - and get them right. Here’s some advice on how to handle the Central Applications Office (CAO) process.

Q. Why is now a good time to reassess my CAO options?

A. When you made your initial CAO application you were probably focused on preparations for your mocks or Post Leaving Cert (PLC) programme. Your mind is now free of those pressures, and you have just over a month to finalise your list of course choices.

Many applicants use the initial CAO application in January as a holding exercise, to secure access to a college place in September. It will soon be time for you to submit a definitive list of options. Ask yourself which course or courses will build on your interests and aptitudes and enhance your capacity to enter the labour market at the end of third level.


Q. How should I go about making these choices?

A. You need to be aware of the courses on offer. The CAO handbook for 2020-21 was printed in the summer of 2019 and is based on information from the colleges that operate through the CAO system. Since then, the colleges have withdrawn, amended or added many courses. The CAO website,, has an up-to-date list of these amendments. To examine the current list of courses on offer through the CAO, including programme details, check

A drop-down menu classifies every course under the following headings: administration and business; agriculture and horticulture; architecture; art and design; arts and social science; built environment; dentistry; education; engineering and technology; human medicine; law; nursing; other healthcare; pharmacy; physiotherapy; science; applied science; and veterinary medicine.

Explore your options within these classifications. No matter what points you get following the grade assessment process now taking place in your school, or through your PLC course, there are courses on offer from colleges at higher certificate and both ordinary and honours degree levels, to suit your circumstances.

Q. I know where to find information on all the courses; how do I apply it to myself?

A. Most students have been through this process with their school guidance counsellor over the past year. If you are still uncertain, follow these steps:

* Take the interest assessment test on and and see if they highlight any areas of particular interest to you.

* Reread the results of other interest inventory or differential aptitude tests you undertook in the past two or three years. They may point in the direction of one or more of the 17 course groupings listed.

* Look at your results over the past few years, including the results of your Junior Certificate. Are you performing above your average in one or more subjects? These may be the ones to pursue on an undergraduate course.

* Reflect on any work experience in transition year or the Leaving Certificate Vocational Programme (LCVP) to see whether it enthused or discouraged your interest in an occupation or career path.

* Reflect on the subjects you have studied for the past two years. Which ones did you enjoy studying most? The answers to all these questions may help you to narrow your course choices down to a relatively small number of options.

Q. Where can I find career-specific information to help me to finalise my choices?

A. One of the most helpful resources for exploring career options is the Careers Portal website ( This site also has an 'interest inventory' which will help match your courses to areas you are interested in. The interest inventory results may well open your mind to possibilities you hadn't considered. Many of us have preconceived notions, which are often inaccurate, of what particular occupations involve.

If you are interested in listening to people talk about what a particular job really entails, the site has more than 100 employees of major Irish employers talking about the realities of their day-to-day work. Having access to a site where employers are promoting opportunities in their companies or industry is of benefit to those interested in the labour market, whether school leavers looking down the line or adult CAO applicants considering a career change. Remember, features links to all colleges offering places, as well as the online application system to register the change-of-mind option.

Q. Must all applicants get involved in the change-of-mind process?

A. Yes, all applicants need to review their application before the CAO deadline of 5.15pm on July 1st.

Q. What if I am happy with the choices I made in January?

A. If you're comfortable with your initial choice of courses and their order, all you need to do is check your list against the latest published list of courses on offer from the CAO. Ensure that all your courses are still on offer and that there are no new ones that you might like to consider. Make sure you still meet all the subject, levels and entry requirements. If you are uncertain about these, go to the subject-choice module on the Qualifax website, where the entry requirements for all courses are outlined.

If, for example, you have informed your school that you wish to drop from higher to ordinary level maths, you may have forgotten that a grade H4 at higher level is a minimum requirement for some choices. If some courses are no longer open to you, remove them now from your CAO course list.

After reviewing your choices, if you are happy with your application, you need take no further action. You do not need to communicate in any way with the CAO.

Q. I applied for the five Level 8 medical-degree programmes and took my Hpat assessment. Do I need to do anything else?

A. You will have the result of your Hpat test by now or be about to receive it. This assessment is marked out of 300. Your assessed grades converted into CAO points, up to a maximum of 550 points, plus one extra point for every five you score over 550 - up to the maximum CAO score of 625 - will be added to your Hpat score, to give a possible maximum score of 865 points.

Applicants with the highest combined points will secure a place at one of the five colleges offering medical degrees. I would advise anyone who has used up their first five Level 8 choices to list undergraduate medical degrees to use options six to 10 to list five other degree programmes, which you may consider if you do not get a place in medicine.

Every year more than 1,000 CAO applicants with more than 500 points don’t get any offer because they didn’t list any course with fewer than 500 points.

Remember, any graduate with a 2:1 or better in a Level 8 degree can apply for a postgraduate medical place by taking the Gamsat (Graduate Medical School Admissions Test) test. This may be an alternative route into medicine if you fail to secure a place this year.

Q. What if I want to change my order of preference or add new course choices to my existing CAO application?

A. Many students in the middle of sixth year are unclear about what they want to study at college and use the January application as a holding exercise. Now is the time to make your final choices but bear in mind that you are not selecting an occupation for the rest of your life. You are just choosing areas of academic study that you would enjoy over the next three or four years.

Remember, up to 40 per cent of all undergraduates take a postgrad course immediately after their undergrad studies, to move onto the first step on their career ladder. Now, however, is not the time to contemplate that step, which may be five or six years away, depending on the course you study.

Q. Is it enough to simply record online the change I wish to make on my application record?

A. If you want to make any adjustment to either or both lists, you must re-submit the entire list in the order you now want. If you list only the extra course or courses, your original choices disappear from your application.

Finally, if you wish to change your application, or if you didn’t list any course on your January application and are listing some courses for the first time, do it some days before the July 1st deadline.

Q. Is it too late to apply for a college place through the CAO in the coming academic year?

A. It is too late to apply to the CAO, as the final deadline was May 1st for those seeking a first-year undergraduate place for the first time.

* If you are a registered college student and fail your exams in June, or wish to change your course, you have until July 22nd to apply to the CAO.

* For second-level or PLC students who have not yet applied for a CAO place, note that once the colleges know how many applicants they have for each course after the July 1st deadline, they will seek applications for available or vacant places, which will then be listed on the CAO website.

* Such vacant places are normally offered immediately after the CAO first round offers in August. Any applicant, including new applicants, can register any such courses on their existing or new CAO application.

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney is a guidance counsellor and education columnist. He contributes education articles to The Irish Times