CAO Watch: Research key to picking suitable course

Do not be fooled by the lure of high points or that slick advertising, writes Brian Mooney

For the next weeks and months, more than 80,000 students will attempt to manoeuvre their way through a maze of subject offerings, college advertising and parental expectations to select a course which will set them on a path towards a future career.

In this series of CAO Watch, I will attempt to help you find the correct course for you. Thousands of students who end up on the wrong course drop out of college, having tried to make sense of the almost one thousand programmes on offer. The causes of students selecting the wrong course is explored in a new report by Dr Niamh Moore Cherry Why Students Leave: Student Non-completion in Higher Education in Ireland, available in the 2016 edition of Education Matters yearbook.

The main reason offered by students was choosing the wrong course. Many students ended up making their choices during the final terms of secondary school when they were under pressure with exams. That is why it is so important to get these decisions right.

Your first step is to register your intention to seek a CAO college place immediately. If you are interested in getting a place in an Irish university, institute of technology, teacher-training college or private college, offered through the CAO application process, go to by January 20th and make an application.


There is no need to panic: you don’t have to know what course you want to study yet. While you may indicate the courses you wish to be considered for next September, you have the freedom to return to your application in May or June to list or amend your course choices up until the July 1st final deadline.

So what’s the right course for you? The most important thing to consider is what subject matter you most enjoy engaging with in school – what areas do you excel in? What course will get you out of bed on a cold, wet January morning next year and for the next three to four years?

Having identified the key “subject content” words which most closely fit your interests, enter them into the advanced course search field on the qualifax website (, filtering for level of qualification, expected points score, location of colleges etc.

Click on every course that your search identifies and study every aspect of that programme carefully, especially the course content over the entire duration of the degree. Take careful notes of the differences between the programmes so you can reflect on them over the coming months.

By this stage, you will have laid a solid foundation for research of your third-level options over the next six months until you must nail them down on July 1st at 5.15pm in your account on the CAO website,

Peer group

So, what’s the right college? For many 18-19 year olds, it is the one where their friends are planning to go, with the course choice being a secondary consideration. The peer group is by far the most powerful influence is determining the choices many young people make. Geography, transport links and demographic factors are hugely important in determining the level of demand for specific colleges and courses within those colleges.

The points required to secure a place for the same nursing degree in any of the major universities is much higher than in IT Letterkenny for these reasons.

Parents and students tend to be most impressed with courses which require high points, but this can be misleading. Like any organisation with an eye on marketing, colleges are skilled at giving punters what they want. That’s why 200 level-8 courses in 2000 have mushroomed to 940 smaller courses with higher points in 2015.

Confused? Knowing what they do about parents and students’ valuation of points, many colleges have subdivided the number of places on offer in a broad discipline. For example, a college may have 500 places available in one discipline.

Instead of offering these under a single course code, it subdivides the place places into five or six course courses. This has the effect of driving up points required to gain entry. Colleges are, in effect, manipulating points to market themselves and to attract higher points students. Students, encouraged by their parents who see points as a valuable currency, end up placing these programmes high up in their list of course choices.

Today I will give you one other simple piece of advice. The biggest difference between everything you have known of education for the past 15 years and what you are about to experience from September, is that the motivation to secure the highest level of qualification you are capable of achieving is down to you and nobody else.

After September, if you skip class, don’t study and miss out on tutorials, nobody will call your parents, put you in detention or give you a good tongue-wagging. The only thing that will happen is that you will fail your exams and possibly drop out of college.

Tomorrow: How to apply for and secure CAO and PLC college places in 2016.