Open days are not just a chance for students to explore their college or post-Leaving Cert (PLC) course options. These days, parents are just as likely to go along so they can see the lay of the land, and colleges are laying on the red carpet for them. Not all students want to be seen with their mam or dad, of course – and parents should respect their child’s boundaries – but how can a parent make the best of an open day without being in the way?
John Power, outreach officer at Waterford Institute of Technology, organises the institute's open days and visits schools to talk to students and parents. "A few years ago, we changed the format of our open days," he says.
“On Friday, November 22nd, over 4,500 students will visit the campus in their school groups; it’s an upbeat, fun and interactive day where students can meet support staff, lecturers and current students. Then, on Saturday, we’re expecting about 2,000 people through our doors, and this day is more focused on students who come with their parents. Sometimes, students come on the Friday and then come back with their parents the next day.”
WIT runs talks for parents on the open day, as most third levels now do. “We spend time talking to parents about the CAO process, because they don’t always understand it, particularly since it has moved online,” says Power.
“We talk about common-entry courses and how a student can start off with a broad area of study (such as arts, business or science) before specialising down the line. We explain the difference between level six, seven and eight courses and progression routes from PLCs or other college courses, as well as entry requirements for select courses.
"We have a finance team which can talk to them about fees, grants and money matters, which is particularly important for planning as the cost of college and student accommodation has increased. And we advise on how, after open days, a parent can stay connected by talking to the guidance counsellor where possible, as well as teachers and family members.”
Parents are usually concerned about the job prospects on a given course, but Power emphasises how important it is that people study something that they love and will be interested in. “It’s not always about the degree; transferable skills and work experience – particularly how work ready they are – is what matters to an employer. We have work experience on most of our programmes.”
Power says that it’s important for parents to have honest expectations about where their adult child will study: is the young person a homebird, or do they want to take off and see the world.
“There should be a back-up plan in case things don’t want out as planned. There is a national trend which is seeing more and more students apply for level eight courses, but there are good options at levels six and seven with good progression routes, while PLC courses might be discussed too, especially if the student is not mature enough or ready to attend third level straight out of school.”
Accommodation is another hot topic that needs to be considered. A young person from Donegal might wish to go to Dublin but the high cost of rent and living could, for some families, make it financially impossible.
“We tell parents that, as early as spring before the Leaving Cert, people are already booking their accommodation,” says Power. “While there is less pressure in Waterford, in most places parents need to have that deposit ready as places can disappear fast.”
Ailbe Murphy, career adviser with Studyclix.ie and at Jesus and Mary Secondary School in Enniscrone, Co Sligo, says that it's important to include parents on this journey.
“They can support and advise students along the way, as in many cases it will be them financing it. Parents can help students to compare colleges and similar courses and to be realistic about the costs involved. The more knowledge parents have, the more they are equipped to guide their son/daughter through the process. Parents should show an interest and keep up to date on application deadlines to assist students in their Leaving Certificate year.”
But might 16 to 18-year-old students not be mortified to be seen out and about with their parents? Ciara Fanning, president of the Irish Second-Level Students Union (ISSU), didn't bring her parents to any of the four open days she attended, although many of her friends did.
“I felt that I would have a clearer head if I went by myself rather than explain the third-level system to my parents,” she says. “My friends found it helpful to bring them because it meant they didn’t have to explain everything when they went home.”
Chloe Griffin, ISSU deputy president, brought her mother to some of the open days. "There's no embarrassment factor: plenty of people bring the parents," she says. "You can't get away from the fact that parents are a big factor in deciding what course to do. People can bring the parents and set ground rules. Mam came to the talks but, at the stands, I asked the questions."
Power says that there is a risk of hand-holding but that, ultimately, students don’t make the decision alone. “Students tend to separate from their parents on the day and meet up later. The parent often focuses on employability and career while the student might focus on the campus feel and the clubs and societies they can get involved in.”
Andre Blakeney, a past pupil at Jesus and Mary and now a commerce student in UCD, brought his mother to the open day. "One parent is preferred," he says. "My mother is an academic herself and she knows a lot about courses and how they are taught and examined. She was able to provide useful insight into the value of courses and could see through the marketing speak."
Lucy Hamilton, another past pupil at Jesus and Mary, is now studying pharmacy at the University of Brighton. She says that parents should have the option of attending open days. "They bring up practical questions with regards to the logistics of sending a student to college, although I never brought mine to open day – after all, they're not going to college with us."
A parent’s checklist
“Ask about work experience, study abroad opportunities and employability and careers.
“Find out about accommodation options and costs.
“Find out about the modules on the courses and what students can expect to learn; this can be crucial in understanding whether the course is right.
“Attend relevant talks.
“Let your child take the lead.
“Encourage your child to find about clubs and societies, especially ones that might interest them. Students who get involved in college life don’t just improve their employability; they’re also much happier and secure.
“Force your priorities on them. They may be more interested in clubs and societies than courses: this is an important part of any college experience.
“Ignore any extra costs that may come with a course, including with overseas trips or field work.
“Force your decisions on a child. If they don’t want to do medicine, or they’re dead set on history of art, it’s better that they find a course that they will like rather than one they’ll be miserable in and likely drop out of.
“Crowd them out. You’re not there for quality time so let them go off with their friends – or by themselves, if they prefer – and meet up later."