Choosing a course? Do your homework first

Open days give you a great chance to gauge how good a fit your course and college choice will be

When exploring college options, be aware that the content of the course is only a small part of what you will experience when you arrive on registration day. Photograph: iStock

When exploring college options, be aware that the content of the course is only a small part of what you will experience when you arrive on registration day. Photograph: iStock


The realisation that they are reaching the end of the secondary school cycle is often crystallised for sixth-year students when they find themselves walking the corridors or sitting in a lecture theatre in one of Ireland’s third-level institutions during an “open day”.

That students get to physically experience the college environment – even if just for a few hours – can often help them realise the importance of maximising their performance in the Leaving Cert, as they begin the process of deciding on the next step on their life-long career journey.

It can also bring a greater focus to their interactions with their school guidance counsellor as they work together to identify the most suitable course option to pursue once they finish school.

The key to successfully making the transition to higher or further education is to concentrate on the suitability of the curriculum content, college facilities, availability of accommodation or suitable public transport links, rather than the occupational area or specific job they hope to progress to following graduation.

That task can become the focus of attention in four or five years’ time, when college life is coming to an end and the needs of the labour market in 2024 are clear.


With all this in mind, students who are planning to attend a series of open days in the coming months should undertake some basic research about the college and its course offerings prior to each event. Doing so hugely increases the benefit of taking time out of their studies to experience what college life is really like.

After all, depending on the decision students will make by the close of the CAO course selection process on July 1st, 2019, and the course option they eventually secure at offer stage next August, prospective college students are committing several years of their life to this next stage of study and learning.

Prospective third-level or further-education students will already have been given a copy of the 2019-20 CAO handbook and have been online to explore college courses in Ireland (see Anybody who is not based in a second-level school or college of further education can secure a copy from the Central Applications Office in Galway (

Other options

Of course, Leaving Cert students are not only considering courses offered through the CAO process. Thousands of students will opt to study at their local further education (FE) college, where they can secure level 5 and 6 QQI awards. These will facilitate their entry to direct employment opportunities or into CAO courses which reserve a percentage of their first-year undergraduate places for FE graduates. All FE colleges also organise open days, often holding several such events throughout the academic year.

Several thousand Irish students will apply for courses in Northern Ireland (particularly true for those who live near the border), Scotland (where Irish students pay no fees) or, in some cases, England, notwithstanding the £9,000 (€12,500) yearly fees. Most of these applications are through the UK Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (

The British minister for higher education recently guaranteed the same terms and conditions in September 2019 for entry to UK/Northern Ireland universities for Irish residents, even though Britain will by then have left the EU.

Given our right as EU citizens to study in any EU country, thousands of Irish students have chosen to study at one of the more than 1,000 courses taught through English in continental European universities.

These EU colleges also host open days which Irish students can attend. Travelling abroad can be expensive but there are career events in Ireland where prospective students can meet university representatives and Irish students attending those colleges.

You can find out more about these events (on the evenings of October 22nd, 23rd, and 24th, in Cork, Galway, and Dublin) and studying in Europe from the European Universities Central Application Support Service ( Other sixth-year students may even consider studying farther afield, such as in the US or Australia.

A community

When exploring college options, be aware that the content of the course is only a small part of what you will experience when you arrive on registration day. You will be entering a community that will help shape you for the rest of your life.

In our personal relationships we take our time getting to know other people and every aspect of their personality before we commit to them. Selecting a course that will commit you to living within that community for at least three years should be considered just as carefully.

The only way to evaluate whether a college is right for you is to explore all aspects of its life as fully as you can on its open day and see whether it feels right. This is more than an intellectual exercise.

As a guidance counsellor, I have dealt with many students whose minds were full of facts and figures about dozens of courses but could not differentiate between the choices. They were lost in a sea of data, with no guiding compass to make the right choice.

Would you commit yourself to a relationship with someone based on reading a fact sheet about their life so far? Visiting a college open day is like a first date. It is dressed in its finest attire, full of presentations, smiling student ambassadors, friendly lecturers and goodie bags, all designed to present the college in its best light.

It can be hard to see the true nature of a college’s life from such an experience. But, as on a first date, you can see through a certain amount of the perfect presentation that every college puts on during open days, to the reality that lies behind it.

If you are particularly impressed with a college or course after an open day, try to go back on an ordinary day and wander around, to see if day-to-day life gels with its open-day presentation.