Choosing your Leaving Cert subjects


At this time of year, thousands of students are choosing their Leaving Cert subjects. This is a key decision which could shape your exam results – and even your future career, writes BRIAN MOONEY.

How should I go about making my Leaving Certificate subjects choices?

The subjects you select for your Leaving Certificate will open up a variety of academic and career options. But remember that opting out of certain subjects will close off a range of college courses. Bear this in mind before selecting your seven or eight Leaving subjects.

Qualifax at is a useful resource, providing a central source of information that includes a list of CAO courses. Qualifax features a subject choice option on its home page. If you select any subject, plus a level (foundation, ordinary, higher), you will get a full list of CAO courses, and the subjects and grades you will need.

How will my eventual Leaving Certificate result be calculated?

Your best six grades – achieved in one sitting of the Leaving – will be used to calculate your CAO points score for entry to college. Try to take as many higher-level courses as you can to maximise your CAO score. If you are a high achiever, the best option may still be to take six higher-level and one ordinary-level paper. But this is a decision that should be taken in consultation with your guidance counsellor and parents or guardians.

How can I maximise my CAO points score if I take fewer than six higher-level papers?

You can only achieve this by taking an extra subject either in or outside school. Be careful before considering this option, as there is no such thing as an easy higher-level paper. Every Leaving Cert subject requires considerable time and effort. Studying seven or eight Leaving Cert subjects is a major undertaking. If the additional subject is being studied outside school, you will have to factor in time spent travelling to classes. This will eat into the time available to you to work on the seven subjects you are studying in school.

What should I do if my school cannot offer me all the subjects I want?

If there are timetable restrictions in your school, which make it impossible for you to take a subject you enjoy, consider taking it outside school – provided you factor in an appropriate amount of study time to cover all your other subjects. Alternatively, you might consider changing schools at the beginning of fifth year to ensure you get your choices.

Should I continue to study Irish at higher level?

Be sensible. Study Irish at the highest level you are capable of achieving. One word of warning – if you do not study higher-level Irish, achieving a minimum of a grade C, you will be precluded from studying to be a primary school teacher in any of the Irish training colleges.

Should I continue to study higher-level maths?

If you are capable of taking higher- level maths, I would encourage you to do so. It will pay huge dividends throughout your working life. If you do not secure a minimum of a C3 in higher-level maths, you could be ineligible for many third- level courses in engineering, computers, science, information and computer technology and most degrees that include maths as a core subject.

I am interested in engineering, science and technology, but I am an ordinary- level maths student. What should I do?

If you are interested in such CAO courses, you can take a two-year higher certificate programme, which will require a minimum of a D3 in ordinary-level maths. Provided you secure a minimum of 60 per cent in your various examinations, you can then progress on to Ordinary degree level and from there to an Honours degree. This entire process may add only one or two years to your studies.

What happens if I do not take a continental language?

The colleges of the National University of Ireland require a pass in a third language (in addition to Irish and English) for entry into most of their courses. These colleges are NUI Maynooth, UCD, NUI Galway and UCC and a range of associated constituent colleges, all of which are listed on the NUI website at A third language is also a requirement for entry into the cadetship in the Defence Forces.

But the NUI colleges have dropped the third language requirement for many of their engineering, science, agricultural and food science programmes. It is also not required for entry to the nursing programmes.

Trinity accepts Irish as fulfilling their second language requirement.

UL and DCU, plus all the institutes of technology, do not require a third language for entry purposes to most of their courses, apart from those which involve the study of such a language.

What’s the easiest subject in the Leaving Certificate and what’s the hardest?

Some subjects may appear to have a very high success rate, but this is usually a reflection of several factors. These include: the academic ability of the type of students who select the subject in the first place; if it is a subject that attracts students with particular aptitudes, for example . music and art; language subjects taken by those for whom it is their mother tongue.

Another feature of the figures is that girls outperform boys in virtually every subject. All subjects at Leaving Certificate level require a full two-year commitment. There are no short cuts to success.

What combinations of subjects should I aim for?

You should attempt to select a balanced range of subjects, which will keep your college and career options open.

Most students study Irish (unless exempted), English and maths. A large majority of students also study a continental language, or for those students coming originally from outside the EU, a native language.

My advice is that you should spread your final three choices, across the entire spectrum of business, scientific, liberal arts and practical subjects. You should also be mindful of the results of any previous examination and aptitudes tests results when making these choices.

Will the subjects I choose for Leaving Cert influence my choice of career?

Yes. Bear in mind that your chosen subjects will have long-term consequences on the careers open to you. Be careful. Opting out of science subject or continental languages could have serious consequences and lock you out of some third-level courses.

If a student is making his or her subject choices has not yet decided what career they wish to follow after school, I would advise them to keep all their options open by taking a science subject and a continental language from among their four optional subjects.

How important is maths?

A pass in ordinary-level maths is essential for entry to the majority of courses following the Leaving Certificate, so the 5,000 students who fail to secure a grade D at ordinary level are in a particularly difficult situation.

A further 5,000 students now choose foundation level maths each year. There are a growing number of colleges and courses that will offer places to students who secure a minimum of a grade A or B in foundation level maths. Whatever you do over the next two years, don’t neglect your studies in this subject.



Higher-level Irish is taken by less than one-third of students – the majority of whom are female. It is essential for entry to primary school teacher-training. A large number of students seem to have a mental block when it comes to studying Irish. For those who do not, Irish is an attractive higher-level subject.


A good higher-level subject for the average student – provided they are prepared to read extensively. Good written expression is required.


Fewer than 20 per cent of Leaving Certificate students take this subject at higher level, with many students falling back to ordinary level when the pressure builds up in sixth year.

It is a relatively straightforward subject for those who are good at maths, but many tend to avoid it as they perceive it to be very time consuming. If you are capable of studying this subject at higher level, there are tremendous career opportunities .


The balance of the course has moved away from what was a political emphasis to include both social and cultural history in this relatively new curriculum.

The identification of evidence and primary sources is central to studying history. Students can now secure up to 20 per cent of the overall marks by pre-submitting a research paper on a selected topic from a range set out by the State Examinations Commission.

Essay-writing is central to the programme. Students have to present three essays in their higher Leaving Certificate paper, plus a documents question. A good subject for those also taking higher-level English .

Ordinary- level students should benefit from the opportunity to prepare a research question under the revised curriculum.


This subject is still hugely popular with students and is regarded as one of the “easier” honours.

Students have the opportunity to do a geographic investigation, which is allocated 20 per cent of their overall marks and is submitted by the end of April. Both science and pharmacy at TCD accept geography as a science subject for entry requirements.


The three main elements of the study of modern languages are comprehension, oral and written presentation. Be mindful of the aural and oral requirements. There is a strong emphasis on your ability to comprehend and converse in the language studied. One-third of the final marks are for aural and oral work – you need to immerse yourself in the spoken, written world of its users.


A very suitable subject for the student taking higher-level maths and physics, where the curriculum allows such students to complete the programme as an additional afterschool subject, taken in one or two periods per week, over the two years of the Leaving Certificate.


Physics has a strong maths element and requires good knowledge of the various formulas. It develops students’ understanding of many of the ordinary things that surround us such as heat, light, electricity and magnetism. Students must maintain a laboratory book as there are 27 mandatory experiments of which four are offered on the Leaving Certificate paper, with three to be presented.


Students taking chemistry have to learn the chemical components of a series of prescribed experiments. They will be required to present the elements of four such experiments in their examination. Higher-level chemistry is a requirement for those taking medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, and human nutrition and dietetics at DIT.


As with the other science subjects students undertake mandatory experiments, the details of which they record in their laboratory book. Biology is often perceived as an easier subject than physics and chemistry, but this is not so, as shown by the high failure rates at ordinary level. Higher level biology is a requirement for genetics at UCC and human health and disease in Trinity.

Social and Scientific

A combination of cooking, home economics some biology and a bit of business. A very interesting subject, but not the easy honours that some imagine. Twenty per cent of the marks are awarded for a coursework journal completed within normal class time and pre-submitted in October of sixth year.

The study of food science is a central part of this subject. Students also have the option of studying one of social studies, textiles or home design.


It is a very interesting subject, but requires constant attention to the business pages of the quality newspapers. The subject looks at how organisations are formed, financed and run. It also explores the services that support businesses such as insurance, banking, transport, marketing and public service bodies such as the IDA, Fáilte Ireland etc.


Economics has a mathematical slant and contains a lot of graphic and theoretical work. It explores the inner working of companies, and how they measure their success and progress. At a macro level it examines international trade, the role of government and the EU in controlling the economy, competition and markets. A good subject for the analytical student.


Students who enjoy the book-keeping part of Junior Certificate business should consider taking accounting. At Leaving Certificate level, analysis and interpretation of accounts is the core activity. For those with strong numeracy and reasoning skills this can be a very enjoyable and successful subject.


Students are introduced to the dialogue between science and religion in the exploration of meaning and values in our societies. The programme introduces students to both philosophy and psychology. Twenty per cent of the marks are awarded for the student’s journal, which is pre-submitted prior to the examination.


Not subjects to be dipped into for the first time at this level. Most students taking either option will be following on from Junior Certificate level. At Leaving Certificate level, art includes a lot of work on the history and appreciation of art alongside the normal design and craftwork.


These practical subjects, where available, give students hands-on experience working with tools, machinery and materials such as plastics, wood and metal. Students who enjoy working with their hands get to design and make products. Students also have to undertake theoretical and background work for their final examinations.


Technology was introduced as a Leaving Certificate subject for the first time in a number of pilot schools in September 2007 and will be first examined in June. This subject gives students a basic understanding of the principles of engineering, design, and project management. If you enjoyed the technology programme at Junior Certificate level, and enjoy hands-on activity, you may develop an interest in a career in engineering or technology if you decide to study this programme.