Everything you need to know about the CAO process in 2020

Tens of thousands of CAO applicants will receive offers of places on courses in round one

Each applicant has an individual CAO application number enabling them to access their own CAO file. Photograph: Getty

Each applicant has an individual CAO application number enabling them to access their own CAO file. Photograph: Getty


It is worth bearing in mind that this is not an exact science. Points for all programmes increase and decrease annually as the demand among applicants and the number of places offered by each college changes from year-to-year.

This year of course, we have the added complication of the coronavirus pandemic which is likely to have some impact on course choice and, by implication, the points that are allocated to third level courses.

Round One offers

The CAO will place all offers live on cao.ie on Friday. Each applicant has an individual CAO application number enabling them to access their own CAO file. Applicants offered a place in this round will have a week to accept this place. Successful applicants are strongly advised to print off a receipt of their acceptance before ending their online session with CAO.

Who will decide who gets the places on offer?

The registrars of each college represented by the college admissions officer communicate directly to the CAO, which applicants are to be offered places on each programme.

This process is finalised once the results of the Leaving Cert Assessed Grades, and other second level terminal exams such as the International Baccalaureate (IB) and A levels in Northern Ireland and the UK, are communicated to the CAO offices, and through them to all the colleges who offer their 1st year undergraduate places through the CAO application process, in relation to any individual who has listed one of that colleges courses on their application list.

It is the job of the admissions officers at this stage to know how many of the places on offer on each course are still available to be filled. They will know exactly how many places on each course are already accounted for through other entry routes (outlined below) and how many places they can now offer to the main body of applicants.

Once this information has been communicated to the CAO officials, their computer system will then be programmed to offer those places to applicants according to the rules governing the allocation of places.

The computer will firstly exclude any applicant who fails to meet the general entry requirements for that college. It will then proceed to exclude any applicant who fails to meet the specific entry requirements for the course in question.

All remaining applicants for the course will then be placed in order of merit based on the results of their specific terminal exam results and allocated based on those scores. The score of the person who secures the last available place on each course generates the published CAO points requirement for that programme.

Until the computer has generated the list of successful applicants, neither CAO officials nor college admissions officers know the points required to secure the last available places on offer in this round.

The course entry points requirements will be published in table-form in The Irish Times, in the First Round Offers education supplement.

If there are more applicants with the same points than there are remaining places on offer, the CAO computer will generate a random number for each of these applicants; those holding the highest numbers numerically will be offered the available places. When this occurs, an asterisk (*) appears beside the printed points score in the published charts.

Points for all programmes increase and decrease annually as the demand among applicants and the number of places offered by each college changes from year to year.

Why are all places in each programme not available not available in round one?

Confusing as it may seem, round one is actually the third round of offers that the CAO has made in the past six weeks. During that time the CAO offered places and received acceptances from more than 8,000 of this year’s CAO applicants.

These include mature applicants (aged over 23), those who deferred a place in 2019 and reapplied for it this year, and those who sought a place on the basis of a QQI award through a PLC programme taken during the past academic year.

Those with awards other than the Irish Leaving Cert, mainly school-leavers who have taken Northern Ireland or UK-based A-levels, and other EU end-of-school exams will also have been offered places.

Colleges now also offer a growing number of places to international applicants from outside the EU at full fees to generate additional funding for courses.

Places awarded to applicants outside the standard allocation process.

Some students will receive an offer of a college place on lower points than those published in round one, even though they have secured lower CAO points than the last successful applicant.

This is because the CAO has been instructed by that colleges admissions officer to offer a place on a specific programme based on a successful Disability Access Route to Education (Dare) or Higher Education Access Route (Hear) application, or on the basis of a sport, music or other scholarship programme, often in a designated sport.

Deferring a place

The deferment process is clearly laid out in the CAO handbook.

It has been clear for many months now, since colleges indicated that many programmes will be offered mainly online at least in relation to lectures, that substantially more students than normal may seek to use this deferral mechanism in the hope that a more traditional college experience may be on offer in 2021.

If this were to occur in the coming days in relation to this round of offers it is worth remembering that colleges reserve the right to turn down requests on the basis that they do not want to allocate a disproportionately high number of the 2021 places to 2020 applicants.

With that health warning in place if you wish to defer an offer of a place, you do not accept your offer. Instead, you must email or write to the admissions office of the appropriate college immediately. You must give your name as it appears on your CAO application, quote your CAO application number and the course code of the offer you wish to defer, and set out the reason(s) for the request.

Applicants must mark “DEFERRED ENTRY” clearly on the envelope or in the subject line of the email. You can also check the website of the relevant college to see if they have a deferral policy available online that you can refer to.

The letter or email must arrive in the admissions office of the institution at least two days before the reply date shown on the offer notice.

The college will communicate their decision to you directly. If the deferral is not granted, you may then accept the offer for the current year, providing you accept the offer by the reply date. You must send all communications about deferrals to the appropriate admissions office and not to CAO.

Taking up a deferral

To take up a deferred place you must:

1. Re-apply through CAO in the succeeding year and pay the appropriate application fee. You must complete the application form in full and follow all of the instructions carefully.

2. Place the deferred course as your first and only preference on the application form. Indicate your deferral by ticking the Deferred Applicant indicator box in the Course Choices section on your application.

It is important to read the letter granting you the deferred place for further instructions. You will breach the conditions of your deferred place if you enter more than the single deferred course code on your application.

In that event, you will forfeit the guaranteed place and enter the competition for places in the normal way. When reapplying in the succeeding year, you must complete an application fully. In other words, you must include again any personal information and documentation you provided with the original application (unless instructed otherwise by the institution offering the place).

What happens if subsequent to this round of offers I am offered one of my higher course choices from my application list?

You can choose to stick with the course you accepted in round one. You alternatively have the freedom to accept the new offer. If you choose to accept the new offer, any registration fees you paid to the first college will simply be transferred to the second one.

What if you change your mind and want a place on a course you have not applied for?

This can only happen if vacancies for the course are advertised on cao.ie. This happens if the original list of qualified applicants to the CAO is exhausted, or if a college has offered a new course since July 1st. Always check you meet the minimum entry requirements before you place any course with vacant places on your existing list of choices.

What if I have not received an offer of my desired course and now wish to appeal one or more of my assessed grades?

The unit in the Department of Education (DES) which managed the Assessed Grades process this year will automatically notify the CAO in mid-September in the event of a successful appeal of any of your results.

This will only happen if an administrative error is found , as no re-examination of the grades awarded by teachers and finalised within the DES itself is allowed under the agreement hammered out between the Department of Education, School Management bodies and the teaching unions, when the decision to postpone the Leaving Cert and choose the assessed grades model was adopted early this year.

If an administrative error is uncovered in the appeals process, you will then be contacted regarding any new offer for a course that this upgrade may entitle you to. If you want to accept a new place but do not want to start this year, you can accept the place as a deferred entry for next year.