Didn’t get your first preference? Consider these options

There are plenty of opportunities available to you – even if you didn’t get the points you needed

If you didn’t do as well as you’d hoped in your Leaving Certificate but still want to get to third-level education, there are more options out there than you might think.

Repeating the Leaving will probably be the default option if you remain determined to get on a particular or high-points course, but if you are still open-minded about your future career goals and are willing to do a bit more research, you can find a route to a college and a course that will meet your needs.

Vacant Places list

The CAO’s Vacant Places (also called “Available Places”) is a regularly updated list of places that remain unfilled after all first and second round of offers have been made and there is no one left on the waiting list for them. Published on the CAO’s website, they start becoming available after the first round of CAO offers are issued, and it operates on a weekly schedule of applications, offers and acceptances.


If you are an existing CAO applicant there is no charge for checking this list and adding any of these places to your Level 7/6 or Level 8 wishlist, but if you are a new applicant, then you’ll need to pay a €40 fee. Either way, you must make sure that any applications arrive at the CAO (by post or online) before 11am on a Monday to be considered for offers made on the following Thursday.

You’ll have a week to consider any CAO offer; any offer not taken up before the round two deadline of September 7th will continue to be offered over the following few weeks until October 19th.

If you are thinking about appealing your Leaving Cert results in the hope that your result is improved and could win you a higher-ranking offer, the SEC (State Examination Commission) will publish the results of those appeals in mid-October.

Last year a total of 5,465 candidates made applications for upgrades against 9,500 grades leading to 1,698 upgrades, which represents 0.43 per cent of all grades awarded. By far the most appeals were seen in higher level English and biology.

If it turns out your result is improved and would have entitled you to a higher-ranking offer when the first or second rounds of CAO offers were made, then the CAO will make revised offers to you shortly afterwards.

However, it maybe already be midway through the first semester by the time you get a revised offer, so if you wish to accept you might have to defer the place until next year.

PLC courses

PLC (Post-Leaving Cert) courses are well worth considering as an alternative to repeating the Leaving Cert.

A PLC course can be taken over one or two years and lead to FET (QQI) Level 5 and Level 6 awards. Many of these courses can link to NFQ Level 8 and Level 7 courses in the CAO, which you can apply for in January next year using your FET (QQI) award as your entry qualification.

If you check out the Careersportal.ie website, you can use the "Progression Routes" search tool to find CAO courses that accept PLC students with QQI Level 5 or 6 awards as an entry requirement.

For example, if you want to study Media Studies in DCU, but think you may not get enough points (385 in 2016), you could do a one-year post-Leaving Cert (PLC) course in Film and Television Production (5M515) in Ballyfermot College of Further Education, Dublin.

Under the Higher Education Links Scheme (HELS), these courses will reserve a limited number of places for students who gain access via the PLC or FET route.

Some PLC programmes also offer direct entry to excellent employment opportunities, so check out the courses available in your locality on Qualifax.ie.

Although colleges or institutes of further education have been accepting students on PLC (Post-Leaving Cert) courses since January, thousands of places may be freed up after August 21st as students who had applied to both the CAO and their local PLC college will have opted to accept their CAO offer.

PLC courses are generally based on continuous assessment and not a final examination, and usually include a mandatory work placement in the area the students are studying so they can see what life is like in that career area.

Depending on the points you achieved this year, you can also consider doing courses leading to an Advanced or Higher certificate (level 6) or an Ordinary Bachelor degree (level 7), many of which can allow you to progress upwards to an Hons degree (level 8).

Independent/ private third-level colleges

The high level of name recognition enjoyed by institutions like the Dublin Business School, and Griffith College (which has campuses in Dublin, Limerick and Galway) shows how the private college sector has come on in the past few years.

Most private colleges tend to concentrate on areas related to business and humanities but some have built niche areas in discipline such as teaching, music, psychology, fashion, media and computers.

More and more students are considering courses in these colleges for high-ranking CAO choices as well as lower-points alternatives to the university and institute of technology sector, and many of the institutions will have places available if you lose out in the second round of CAO offers.

The snag for many students will be, of course, is the fees, which can be as low as €4,000 but are more likely to be closer to €6,000-€7,000 per year, and that you won’t be eligible for the student maintenance grant.

However, the fact that these fees are tax deductible (at a rate of 20 per cent) and the student contribution charge for public institutions has risen in recent years to its current level of €3,000 (not to mention a host of extra fees that some universities may add on top of that), means that the difference in costs between attending a publicly funded and a private third-level institution is getting smaller.

You could also argue that the fact that most of the biggest private colleges are in Dublin means that many prospective students will probably live at home anyway.

Entry to most reputable private institutions is through the CAO, although some may offer direct entry. The fact that a course is not available through the CAO doesn’t imply that their providers work to a different or lower standard than publicly funded colleges, but you should at least check whether the qualifications have QQI accreditation. If they don’t, there is a risk that they won’t be recognised by many employers or seen as worthwhile.

You could also check that the college you apply to is affiliated with the Higher Education Colleges Association (HECA), which represents private institutions and also ensures standards within the sector. It only accepts members that are QQI accredited.

UK ‘clearing’

The UK has traditionally been the location of choice for most Irish students who head outside the jurisdiction.

The idea of studying in the UK may not seem as attractive to some students as it did before the Brexit referendum result and the ensuing chaos, but it remains a solid option. Several thousand typically apply for courses in Northern Ireland (particularly those living near the Border), Scotland (where Irish students pay no fees) and England, despite the £9,000-plus (€10,200) yearly fees.

The first thing to do is to check the UK equivalent of the CAO’s Available Places process, which is popularly known as “clearing”. It’s run by UCAS, the centralised agency processing applications for colleges in Northern Ireland, England and Wales and, like the CAO scheme, you don’t need to have previously applied to the UCAS system to be eligible to apply for places under the clearing process.

You should start by researching the available courses on Ucas. com. Students can search by keyword, course, institution and even county or area, and you can also see their entry requirements. Some will show Irish Leaving Cert requirements, but if you can't find them, admissions officers can provide this information over the phone. While you're speaking to them, ask them what your chances of acceptance would be.

Some colleges will accept lower grades than advertised during the clearing process and some will not, so it’s vital to actually ring and speak to someone in the college.

You must fill out a UCAS application form on Ucas.com including a personal statement and a reference completed by a teacher or other independent person who can comment objectively on the your ability to succeed in your chosen subject area.

Once a “clearing” number is received and a decision is made on the preferred course from these informal offers, a student should enter the details of this course alone into the clearing section of the UCAS application.

Studying in Europe

There is increasing evidence to show that, thanks to Brexit and the uncertainty surrounding fees, students determined to study abroad are eschewing the traditional option of the UK in favour of countries further afield.

Careers counsellors report that more students are looking at study options for courses taught through English in countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland and Germany.

The advantages can be many: cheaper accommodation, exposure to other cultures and foreign languages and the opportunity to study in a European institution ranked more highly than those in Ireland.

You can take your State-awarded grant with you and may work at a part-time job. About 1,500 third-level students from Ireland in receipt of State-funded grants are studying in colleges abroad.

Universities all over Europe offer courses through English, even in countries where English is not the main language. Many of these courses have lower entry requirements than Irish courses, and low fees. In some cases, such as Germany, Scandinavia, Sweden and Finland no fees apply at all, while in Austria, Switzterland and Belgium fees are usually less than €1,000 a year.

In the Netherlands, fees of €2,006 apply (where more than 40 per cent of these programmes are offered), but students can get a loan to cover this, paying it back over 35 years.

Europe also offers top-quality universities with many, such as Utrecht and Leiden (the Netherlands), Gottingen (Germany) and Lund (Sweden), which rank higher than Irish universities.

Securing a place in college is said to be easier than through the CAO, with lower barriers to entry, underpinned by a belief that third level should be accessible to everyone, regardless of academic achievements.

Good resources to look up include Studyineurope.eu or Eunicas.ie. Eunicas is an independent application support service set up for Irish or UK students who are unable to access their preferred course at home, as well as those who actively want to study abroad.