Know thyself. Before you choose a college or further education course, you need to understand yourself, your interests and what drives you.
Higher Options, taking place in October, comes along a good time, says John McGinnity, admissions officer at Maynooth University.
“It is when sixth years are thinking about the transition from secondary school,” he says. “They know that, this time next year, they will have moved on. So it brings a sense that they almost need to treat [their CAO or further education] choices as almost an eighth subject.”
“We all have a mix of competencies, personality types, motivations and values, so these will give you an indication of the kind of area you would be most interested in and the job that would most satisfy you. This does require self-reflection. It may be that these tests indicate strong spatial reasoning, which could point towards product design or mechanical engineering. Or they may show you are strong in social skills so that could influence your choice too.”
Students can take these results to their guidance counsellor, although the guidance counsellor will probably do their own tests with them, including the differential aptitude test which gives you a percentile score in verbal and mechanical reasoning, among other attributes – all of which can point towards the vocational areas that might interest you.
Brendan Baker, head of the careers service at Maynooth University, urges students not to leave everything to the last minute.
“Look at the module descriptions for the courses that you might be interested in,” he urges. “A lot of students may not initially like their degree but they persevere and find elements that they like – this is what the module descriptor can be really helpful. On a business course, accounting might not be what rocks your boat, but human resources or organisational psychology could be.
“For parents, don’t focus as much on the vocational title as much as the broad area of study or work, because a good science or arts degree will enable you to do all sorts of things.”
McGinnity says that course choices and institution choice need to be considered side by side. “Some students might really want to do psychology so it will be their first choice across five different institutions. Primary education is another example of where they are prepared to move location. For others, they might really want to go to Maynooth and so they might apply for five or six different courses here.”
To what extent does Baker think students should take their school subjects into account? “To the extent that this is what you like to study or what you have the aptitude for. But, at Maynooth for instance, you can do a major with a Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) course and a minor with a humanities subject, or vice versa.”
Indeed, many third-levels these days allow students to study a subject outside their specialist area. This means, for instance, that an architecture student at UCD who loves film and film-making could potentially do a film studies module, as well as getting involved in the college’s film society.
“Maths or English might not be a particular student’s strongest subject but most colleges will have a maths support centre or a writing support centre,” says Baker. “All the universities provide support to play to a student’s strengths and their weaknesses.”
Baker says that students should also – tied in with the module descriptors – consider what they are interested in, what they think they have an aptitude for and what they would like to work at.
“Most employers are agnostic about the degree: they want work ethic and work experience, because they know that whoever they employ will have to take part in lifelong learning. Nearly half of jobs these days are for any discipline. So it’s fine not to have a clue at this age what you want to do, because you can do a broad course and then do a postgraduate or conversion course.”
McGinnity comes back to the importance of self-reflection and advises students not to be too heavily influenced by others – especially if the advice isn’t sitting well with them.
“There can be a danger of people being almost expected to do a particular course, and it can be hard to remain to yourself when others around you are telling you what to do. Often people will do a course that they didn’t really want and then do a postgraduate conversion course, but others will realise it isn’t for them and reapply through the CAO.
“It is important to put down your courses in a genuine order of preference. While they should look at points and what is attainable, those points have varied so much in the last few years that it’s hard to know what they will be like for 2022. When teachers are not assessing their own students, how will it affect grades? We’ll have to see.”
The extracurricular side of college has become less of a nice-to-have and more of a must-have.
First and foremost, it’s a place to meet new friends, explore your interests and develop new ones. But it’s also important to employers, who want well-rounded graduates. If they’ve got two similar CVs in front of them, they’re going to gravitate towards the graduate who has developed their skills (such as teamwork, problem-solving, research, communications) through getting involved in college life.
The extracurricular side of college life might mean that someone interested in a career in journalism does a non-journalism course – whether by choice or because they don’t get the points for a journalism course – but gets involved in the college’s student newspapers. Or, if you’re interested in drama but your parents aren’t wild about you studying a drama course because it’s such a precarious career, you can get involved in your college drama society – that’s where Chris O’Dowd got his start, hanging around the UCD Drama Society.
"It is really critical to think of the holistic aspect of going to third level," says Ronan Kennedy, an independent career coach. "It is important that you enjoy the course but the clubs and societies are a big part of the experience and help to round you out as an adult. It's a great time to develop your personality, find out more about yourself and meet people from different walks of life. If the clubs and societies are important or there's one you specialise in – where you want to play to or participate to to a high standard – find out more about them."
How I chose my course
I always knew that I wanted to study medicine. In school, my favourite subjects were all science-based, and most of my family work in healthcare which may have subconsciously influenced my decision.
I decided to put physiotherapy down on my CAO as a second choice because I thought it perfectly tied together my interest in medical science with sport.
I got 601 points in my Leaving Cert but didn't achieve high enough points in the HPAT exam and subsequently missed out on a place in medicine by two points. I accepted my offer to study physiotherapy in UCD and, while in first year, I repeated the HPAT and got offered a place to study medicine in NUI Galway.
I completed pre-med in NUIG but I was commuting up and down to Dublin twice a week for hockey training, which was stressful and time-consuming. So I decided to sit the HPAT for a third time in the hopes of being able to return to Dublin – where I’m from and where my training was based.
When choosing a college, the extracurricular activities were really important to me. At the time I was on the under-21 Irish hockey squad, so finding a university that would allow me to balance my academics with my passion for hockey was essential. That’s why I put UCD medicine as my first CAO choice for the three years I applied.
I will hopefully be graduating from UCD in 2024 as a doctor, which is both exciting and terrifying at the same time. I would love to work abroad, particularly in Australia for a few years.
I’m very grateful that I stuck with it and was successful in the end. To anyone who doesn’t get their course the first time: don’t panic, there’s so many different ways to get in other than the conventional route.
– Katherine Egan is a medicine student in UCD.