CAO trends: Slight recovery for arts as science drops

Students were not sure what to expect as new grading and points system kicked in

Ciara O’Brien (18), from  Rathfarnham, and  Elizabeth Bolger (18), from Rathmines,  after they collected their Leaving Cert results from Loreto on the Green. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Ciara O’Brien (18), from Rathfarnham, and Elizabeth Bolger (18), from Rathmines, after they collected their Leaving Cert results from Loreto on the Green. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins


It’s been a nervous week for the class of 2017. Students had been warned: the new grading and CAO points means that points from 2016 or previous years are no guide as to what to expect today.

Most have chosen to ignore the advice and, over the past week, they’ve still looked to the points scores of 2016 as a guide.

So, did last year’s CAO points really prove irrelevant? Are the points from 2016 to 2017 really that different? Which courses have proven particularly popular, and where is demand down?


For the past decade, interest in arts and humanities courses has been waning. They remained the most popular in the State, and arts at UCD never lost its position as the biggest university course, but the points requirements seemed to be in precipitous decline.

Today’s figures reverse that trend, with the number of first-preference applications for arts jumping by a small but significant 2.4 per cent. However, this does not seem to have had a major impact on CAO points for related courses, possibly because of changes to the grading and points systems.

At UCD, points for arts have risen from 320 in 2016 – one of its lowest levels in years – to 326 this year. Arts at UCC has fallen from 355 to 346 and all joint honours arts courses at DCU are down. Philosophy at Trinity is down, classics drops from 430 to just 388 and English studies falls by 30 points to 485. Arts at NUI Galway stays steady at 300 points. At Maynooth University, arts is down three points to 427.

At UCC, social science drops from 425 to 403 points; at UCD it is down from 415 to 401; at Maynooth University it goes from 375 to 366; and WIT’s social science degree falls from 280 to 271. This may be influenced by a series of negative news reports about the resourcing of Tusla.

Undergraduate journalism remains relatively popular despite a challenging media environment. Journalism at DCU is down from 420 to 410 points and communication studies – which arguably provides a broader and more relevant skill set for working in modern media – is down 25 points to 420. Journalism at DIT is down 13 points to 367. But Griffith College and the University of Limerick see points rise for journalism courses, from 225 to 234 and from 410 to 420, respectively.


The interest in arts courses is mirrored by a slight decline in demand for science courses, with a 1.8 per cent drop in the number of first-preference applications. Since the start of the recession, demand for science courses rose massively as students listened to messaging that this was where future jobs would be found. Over the past three years, however, this has been slowing down, with the pattern of growth interrupted in 2015 and again this year.

But has this been reflected in the CAO points? In most cases, general entry science courses have seen points either stay steady or drop slightly, with UCD’s general-entry course falling from 515 to 510. At Maynooth University, it’s down from 390 to 366. Science at NUI Galway stays steady at 300. DCU’s science course falls by just two points, to 478. Science at Trinity is down from 505 to 499. GMIT bucks the trend with points for its science course rising from 300 to 325.

However, more specialised science courses, especially in physics, seem to be gaining in popularity. This suggests that not all students are on board with the heavily sold idea that general-entry courses are the way forward and that many of them – most likely students who already have a strong interest in science subjects – have a fairly clear idea of what areas appeal to them. UCC, which does not have a general-entry science course, has seen points rise for its course in biological & chemical sciences (from 480 to 489); chemical sciences (from 460 to 477); and physics & astrophysics (from 525 to 531). Marine science at NUI Galway is up five points to 410. At DCU, physics with astronomy is up from 415 to 444. Theoretical physics at Trinity is up from 555 to 566.

Engineering and technology

There has been a 4 per cent drop in the number of first-preference applications for engineering courses. Common-entry engineering at CIT is down from 410 to 392. Common-entry engineering is down at UCC (from 490 to 454), DIT (from 380 to 371), Trinity College (from 500 to 470), UCD (515 to 499), and NUI Galway (445 to 401), although points are up at Maynooth University (from 325 to 364) and UL (from 430 to 443). Most of the specialised engineering courses have also seen points drop, although points for courses in biomedical technology – which is widely touted as a growth area – fell in some colleges and rose in others.

Data science, a new course at DCU, launches with a points requirement of 454. This is a prime example of a course – and a career – that didn’t exist 10 years ago, but it is proving popular.


This year has seen a 1.2 per cent rise in the number of applications for business courses. And yet, following a trend seen across many courses, points are down for the main commerce degrees, with commerce points falling at UCC (460 to 455), business studies at DCU (470 to 466), global business at DCU (here, points are down for courses with French, Spanish and German) and Griffith College (280 to 226). Commerce at UCD is up from 500 to 505 and at NUI Galway from 400 to 407. However, commerce degrees with a language fell across the board, which will be a concern to policy-makers who have been trying to encourage more students to study a European language.

Construction and architecture

Students continue to follow economic trends with their course choices and, for the third year in a row, points have risen for construction and architecture courses. First-preference applications for are up by 5.6 per cent for architecture and by 4.6 per cent for built environment courses. Quantity surveying and construction economics at DIT rises from 350 to 370 points. Construction management and engineering at UL is up from 365 to 372. Architecture rises at DIT (from 605 to 635) but falls at UCD from 515 to 492 and at CIT/ UCC from 450 to 444, although points at UL stay steady at 420.

Medicine and health sciences

Interest in dentistry is up, with applications rising by 13.9 per cent, while human medicine applications are up by 0.6 per cent. Physiotherapy falls by 0.3 per cent and veterinary medicine applications dropped by 1.3 per cent. Medicine at Trinity only rose by 2 points to 732, at RCSI by 4 points to 729 and at UCC by 4 points to 730. To varying degrees, points have fallen for all general courses and this may be due to an increased allocation of places across the institutions. Despite the rise in demand, points for dentistry fell at UCC and only rose slightly at Trinity.


This year has seen a whopping 22.2 per cent increase in applications for agriculture courses. And yet agricultural science, by far the biggest agriculture course in the country, falls from 460 to 455 points. It’s also down at WIT, from 400 to 389 points. Again, this is due to the weighting system given to the new grade bands.


Demand for law courses is up by 5.6 per cent. Points for some law courses have gone up, including DCU (from 450 to 455), DIT (425 to 434), Griffith (240 to 245) and, perhaps most notably, at UL (460 to 473). This may be linked to perceived economic recovery and increased conveyancing work. But points have fallen slightly in UCD and Maynooth.


There has been a marginal fall in points for education courses this year, due to a 2.9 per cent drop in applications. Points for primary teaching are down at DCU and Maynooth University.

Changes to the points system - what do you need to know?

The class of 2017 were the first to face a new grading system, which replaced the old 14-point grading system (A1s, B2s, C3s and so on) with just eight grade bands ranging from 1 through to 8 at both ordinary and higher level. This has meant that students now get the same CAO points – 77 – for 71 per cent and 79 per cent, whereas previously they would have earned 75 and 80 points.

One of the stated incentives for the change was to take the heat out of the points race, so that fewer students miss out on a course by just five points, or because of random selection. On today’s evidence, it does appear to have had some effect, with points down for over 50 per cent of courses. This will be a welcome relief to students who feared the new system might work against them.

Although points have fallen for a majority of courses, the difference from last year isn’t huge, and the rises and falls are within what might be expected in any normal year. Indeed, despite a rise in first preferences in a number of areas including arts, architecture and dentistry, points have not increased by as much as might have been expected in previous years – and have fallen in many instances.