After Christmas – and particularly coming into April – the demands of the Leaving Cert have a sneaky habit of creeping up on you, leaving you with a little less time for considering courses and career options. So, it makes sense to use your time wisely: open days are a good opportunity to find out as much as you possibly can about the courses that interest you.
But how should you go about it? Once you’ve identified the courses that catch your eye, open days are usually structured to allow you to talk to tutors, lecturers and, ideally, other students on the course. Here’s some of the questions you should ask yourself – and them.
1 What do you like?
"I start by sitting down with my students, asking them to look at the subjects they're currently doing and what they enjoy the most," says Betty McLaughlin, a former president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors and a guidance counsellor in Mullingar, Co Westmeath. "If they're doing six subjects and can pick two that they like, it can give them a steer as to what areas they may be interested in or have the aptitude for."
Of course, the subjects that students are taking in school may not directly correspond with a college course: there’s no sociology or psychology on the Leaving Cert curriculum, for instance, and while engineering is available as a Leaving Cert subject, a majority of students don’t sit the subject.
“Take engineering or science as an example,” says McLaughlin. “You need to be a problem-solver, analytical and mathematical. If you’re doing honours maths and you’re good at it – perhaps alongside physics or chemistry – it could indicate that engineering or science is a good fit for you.”
2 What have you done?
In March 2020, schools closed as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and this meant that students may have missed out on any work experience scheduled from mid-March onwards. That said, quite a few may have done work experience in the preceding months, and it may have given them an indication of what they are – and are not – interested in.
3 What might fit you?
Psychometric interest tests are not the be-all and end-all, but they can give you a useful steer towards the areas that interest you.
"There are useful psychometric interest tests available on Qualifax.ie," says McLaughlin. "It can help you to understand if you're geared more towards practical areas or whether you might prefer to work with people."
You’re not locked into the results of any of these tests: if the results absolutely jar with your instincts and gut feeling, they don’t have to be a deciding factor.
4 What if you're not sure?
A lucky few will already know the courses and career areas of most interest to them, but many won't have a clue. This is where broad, general entry courses in areas such as arts, business, engineering or science can be useful, particularly if you've already identified the general area of study that might interest you.
And, luckily, many third-levels offer broad, general entry routes to these areas, where students can sample a range of different subjects before deciding what to specialise in down the line.
“I often try to gear students towards these general entry courses,” says McLaughlin. “They can get a broad taste of each module by the end of first or second year and it makes them better informed about what really interests them. But, that said, there are also specialised courses – such as politics with philosophy and economics, or genetics, or chemical engineering – that they can enter from first year, and some students will be sure from the outset that this is the right call for them.”
5 What are the modules like?
This may be the single most important question a prospective student can ask themselves. Because, sure, the subject as a whole might seem interesting from a distance, but it's only when you get up close and look at exactly what you'll be studying that you can get a real feel for whether you'd enjoy it.
A module is a self-contained unit of study within a programme. University College Dublin's history programme, for instance, includes modules on Nazi Germany, Islam and Christianity in the middle ages, or as in UCD's history course, Living Loving and Dying in 19th Century Ireland. At University of Limerick, the common entry biological and biological sciences course includes, in year one, modules on general chemistry, laboratory calculations and biology for biosciences, among others.
“Go through the modules, be aware of what you will be studying and ask: will this excite me?” McLaughlin suggests. “Will I be sure I can do well in this course? Will it fulfil me?”
6 What commitment does it require?
It's a good idea to find out how many hours of "contact time" – the hours you'll spend in lectures and tutorials – as well as the suggested amount of time you will have to study and work on assignments.
“This is because you want to know how much is required of you and whether it will leave time for you to get involved in other aspects of college life, such as clubs and societies,” says McLaughlin.
7 Will I get the points and meet minimum requirements?
"I always do a points forecast to help students get a sense of how they might do on their best day over their six best subjects," says McLaughlin. "A lot of the students have a fair idea of what they are capable of, and [school exams and mocks] can help them. The CAO Change of Mind system is available until July 1st. You do need to be realistic about what you will get, and while your dream college might be, say, UCD, you might also be able to do the course in another college with fewer points."
While students have traditionally been able to get a rough idea of what points for any given course might be like, based on points in previous years, the huge surge in CAO points over the past two years – caused by grade inflation – make it difficult to know what points will be like in 2022.
McLaughlin, however, says that there likely won’t be accredited grades in 2022 and that it is possible that the points in 2019 may be a better guide to possible CAO points next year. But nobody can be fully sure.
8 Is there work experience?
A growing number of colleges and courses offer a semester or a year of paid work experience to students – experience which can be very helpful upon graduation. "This can also help the student to get into a company when they finish up," says McLaughlin. "There may also be opportunities to study or work abroad. It's definitely worth inquiring about this in relation to the courses that interest you."
9 Why this college?
While the course details should be critical to a student's decision, don't neglect whether the college – and town or city that it's in – is the right place for you. Affordable student accommodation is in short supply and the Union of Students in Ireland, as well as individual lecturers and local students' unions, have been highlighting stories of students commuting for four hours or more each day. For many students, the cost of living away from home is prohibitive and this means that they might want to look, if possible, at courses within a reasonable commutable distance.
10 Why this course?
"Some courses are more or less the same wherever you do them," McLaughlin says. "Nursing is monitored by [the regulatory body] the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Ireland while the Teaching Council sets down what teachers need to know. This means that modules will be broadly similar. With this in mind, the differences may be around work experience or studying abroad."
It could also mean that, for some students and their families who are considering the family finances, it makes sense to study in a more local college.
11 What other entry routes exist?
Go beyond the level-eight courses. Look at what's available in level-seven courses and whether you can move from that level seven into a level eight. Post Leaving Cert (PLC) courses can also provide progression pathways into third-level.
12 Where will it take me?
Although employers will increasingly take graduates from any discipline, McLaughlin advises students to see where graduates of the courses go on to work. This may be available online while college admission or careers offices will have tracked graduate destinations too.