Fourteen top tips for choosing your college course
Four career experts offer advice on what to consider when deciding on your course
Remember that third level is not like most schools, and the onus is on you to be self-motivated and self-aware. Photograph: iStock
Picking a college course can feel like the biggest decision a student has ever made. At this point, many will have a clear idea of what they want to do, but others are still holding off until the end of June to make their final call. So what should they consider?
Diarmuid O’Dowd (DOD) is a guidance counsellor at Moyle Park in Clondalkin. Anne Ryan (AR) is a career guidance counsellor at St Conleth’s College in Dublin 4 and she also offers private career guidance (AnneRyanCareers.ie). Fergal Scully (FS) is a guidance counsellor at Rathmines College. Bernadette Walsh (BW) is a guidance counsellor with CareersPortal.ie.
1. Know thyself: Do a psychometric assessment, which measures skills, aptitudes, interests, values and personality traits. Once you have identified a shortlist of 10 courses that are right for you, construct a table next to each course and write down the Leaving Cert entry criteria to see if you have the necessary requirements. This can help you to figure out what college courses will be a good match for you. CareersPortal offers a self-assessment test. (AR, BW)
2. Follow your heart: Don’t choose a course based on what people have told you, or on labour market trends. Ask yourself: what are your favourite subjects, hobbies and interests? What would you love to know more about? If you don’t choose a course which interests you it will make it difficult to motivate yourself and less likely to achieve your best results. Remember that third level is not like most schools, and the onus is on you to be self-motivated and self-aware. Can you see yourself being interested in these subjects? (DOD, FS)
3. Dig deeper: Don’t judge a course by its title. Many students find themselves on courses that are completely different to how they imagined, based either on their impression of the course title or the flashy pictures in the prospectus. This often contributes to first-year dropouts. (FS)
4. Research is key: Study every aspect of the programme. Research course content over the duration of the degree, looking at the modules covered in each course and identifying the ones which are more interesting or relevant to your career aspiration. Failure to do so may result in you discovering midway through first year that you have made the wrong choice. Changing courses or repeating first year can be stressful but also expensive so research and research well. These days it is simple to look up the third-level institutions’ web pages for a complete breakdown of each module and its learning outcomes. (AR, DOD)
5. Visit the campus: You may have missed the open day, but there’s still time to visit the college you intend applying for (perhaps even after your Leaving Cert but before the CAO Change of Mind deadline). This can help you get a sense of the place you may be spending four or more years of your life in. It will help you decide things like: can I handle the commute? What are the facilities like? And do you like the ambience of the place. (FS)
6. Don’t aim too low: Many students get caught up in the points race and assume that the course with the highest points is the best choice in that field. Points are often based on the demand for the course, but this doesn’t mean that a similar course in another institution won’t give you the same breath of knowledge and opportunities to excel within that area. (DOD)
7. The finer details: Find out how each module is assessed. Is it exams, coursework, presentations or a combination of all three? Do you gain work experience? Can you pick up some broader skills like spreadsheets or word processing? Consider the award you will be receiving upon completing the course and find out if it is recognised in the field you hope to get into. Will you need further study to get a good job once the course is complete? Can you commit to a four-year degree, or might you prefer a shorter one-year course and getting a job as soon as possible? (AR, FS)
8. Think broader: If you feel you won’t be offered a place on your preferred course in a certain university, maybe consider post-Leaving Certificate courses within the field. You can then decide whether or not this is the career path for you and progress on to the preferred course the following year. Apprenticeships combine learning in your place of work with learning in an education or training centre, giving the apprentice a chance to earn and learn. FetchCourses.ie includes a range of part and full-time courses from levels three to six, including the PLC options. (DOD)
9. Think abroad: If you don’t get the points for a course in Ireland, you may still be eligible to study abroad. You can apply to study in Europe through Eunicas. com ">Eunicas.comor in the UK through Ucas. com">Ucas.com. (BW)
10. Extracurricular: Maybe you want to be part of the college sporting life or would like to gain some experience that is not part of your course curriculum. Many students get involved with new sports, hobbies or political activism for the first time in college. Being involved can really make it easier to make friends.
Top recruiters are often more interested in what extracurricular activities applicants took part in during their studies. Getting involved in clubs and societies provides excellent opportunities to practice and display many of the soft skills – such as being able to communicate effectively, show initiative and be creative – that are highly sought. Be especially mindful of this if you live close to where you will study, because the temptation to head home between lectures and not get involved in college life could cost you an interview down the line. (FS, DOD)
11. Learn from other people’s mistakes: Each year a new report is released highlighting the number of students who drop out of third-level courses, or don’t progress from first year. The main reasons given always include choosing the wrong course and not having done sufficient research on the course content. (BW)
12. It’s not forever: Try to avoid thinking about this as a decision you must stick to for the rest of your life. Framing this decision in this way makes what should be an exciting time a daunting and debilitating one for many and it can become impossible to actually make a choice.
Instead frame this decision as your best next step. Try to find something that you feel interested or comfortable in studying as this will make all the work needed that much easier. These days it is becoming more and more common to change into different career areas as you move on with your life and many will find themselves working in areas totally unrelated to their primary qualification.
Many students having finished their degree will go on to do post-grad conversion courses or a short PLC course to gain more general employment skills to add on to their degree to get that job. Although this choice is an important one, it is definitely not a life or death decision especially now that careers are so much more flexible. (FS)
13. It’s good to talk: Do speak to people about your possible choices. Speak to your guidance counsellor who can help you sift through all the options out there, point out any pitfalls and encourage you to go for it. Talk to people who work in your chosen field. The LinkedIn website can be a great help for finding people like this. If possible talk to someone who is teaching on the course who can explain exactly how it all works. (FS)
14. Stay calm.
Questions to ask yourself to avoid choosing the wrong course
· Is this course for me?
Does is match your interests, aptitude, personality and relate to careers that you are most excited by?
· What is the duration and level?
Is it a CAO, PLC, FETCH course, apprenticeship or traineeship?
· What do I know about the course?
Modules, work placement, time commitment, assessment methods . . .
· What do I like and dislike about this course?
What are the pros and cons?
· Have I looked for support when exploring my options?
Speak to your guidance counsellor and parents, visit the college and speak directly to staff involved in the course and former students.