Higher Options: How to make the most of it

Advice on how to prepare - how to use your time wisely, and what you should do afterwards

Irish Times journalists Kitty Holland talks to students at the Higher Options expo.  Photograph: Éanna Ó Caollaí/The Irish Times

Irish Times journalists Kitty Holland talks to students at the Higher Options expo. Photograph: Éanna Ó Caollaí/The Irish Times


Day off school? Don’t mind if I do.

Let’s face it: for many students, Higher Options is a welcome respite, where they can hop off the Leaving Cert juggernaut, take a nice bus trip to Dublin and have a break from the usual routine of studying. It’s a chance to catch some interesting talks and imagine an exciting college future, with a whole new set of friends – and free from the control of parents and teachers.

It’s also a very busy day, packed with interesting talks and stands from third-level colleges in Ireland and beyond. Even the most disciplined students can be overwhelmed. So how can you make the most of the day? We asked two career guidance teachers – Róisín O’Donohoe of Belvedere College and Neil McCann of St Vincent’s Secondary School – for advice on how to prepare for the day, how to use your time wisely, and what you should do afterwards.


– I wish I had been more prepared when I attended Higher Options, with a clear list of the questions I wanted answers to (RO’D)

– Our students go to Higher Options in sixth year and we spend time in TY and fifth year exploring where their career interests and aptitudes lie. They start to narrow down what kind of general courses and jobs might interest them. Going into the expo, they should have a clear focus on what colleges they want to talk to, what course areas they are looking at, and what are the differences and parallels between them. (RO’D)

– There is no substitute for doing your research. Sometimes students put off going to careersportal.ie and qualifax.ie until later in the day, but the earlier they can engage, the better. (RO’D)

– Planning beforehand is key to getting the most out of the day. Students should go online and download a map of the layout as well as a list of talks that are on throughout the day, and plan accordingly. (RO’D)

– Many of the questions they might want to ask, particularly about last year’s CAO points or current entry requirements, are readily available online (RO’D)

– Bring an empty schoolbag. You will gather a lot of reading material and will need somewhere to keep them. (RO’D)

– It’s important for students to have a conversation early on with their parent(s) or guardian(s). Is living away from home an option? Is going to England on the cards? (NMcC)

– I would encourage students to have a list of courses or colleges they definitely want to talk about. There are over 170 institutions there from Ireland and abroad, and the biggest danger is that the student goes in, grabs the prospectuses, leaves, and then throws the brochures into the recycling without ever opening them. (NMcC)

– Although it’s a good idea to plan ahead, you have to allow some time to wander and perhaps be surprised by a talk or college. Dublin students planning on going away for college might, for instance, spend a lot of time talking to UK colleges and neglect to visit the UCC or NUI Galway stands. (NMcC)


– I always encourage my sixth years to have a hardback careers notebook throughout sixth year, and they can take this to Higher Options and write down any information they get. (NMcC)

– Many guidance counsellors will give the students a worksheet to fill in during the exhibition, in order to help focus their attention. (NMcC)

– If some research has been done, the student may have identified some areas they are interested in. If they’re interested in law, they can study it in a number of colleges, so they want to find out the difference between the courses. Ask questions about the modules, especially what you will be doing in first year, the class sizes, and what makes each course stand out. Is it all lecture-based? How many tutorials are there? Is there continuous assessment? Is the workload hard and how many hours a week will they be in class? (NMcC)

– If you’re interested in a particular course or college, find out when the open day or departmental evening is on. Sign up to their social media accounts to keep track. (NMcC)

– If a student is interested in a particular area but not sure if they’ll get the points, they should ask about pathways into the course, such as through a PLC. (RO’D)

– Find out if the course is a good fit for you. What type of students do well in this course? Do I need certain skills or work experience? Do I need to be good at maths? (RO’D)

– Student accommodation is in short supply at the moment and it’s likely to still be a problem in the next few years. It’s no harm asking the reps about the options for on-campus accommodation and whether there are supports to help students find a home in the local area. (RO’D)

– Societies and clubs should not be an afterthought. Sometimes there is little difference between individual courses and what helps students decide are the clubs and societies on campus. Ask what is available and how to get involved. What societies are active? Students can pick up a huge amount of skills and knowledge through clubs and societies; it can be a vital part of the college experience and will also be of interest to employers. (RO’D)


– Higher Options is part of the research experience, but make sure to sit down with someone at home, make note of the open days and pop it into the planner. Do your best to visit the campus so you can get a feel for the atmosphere. Walk around, meet students and talk to them. (RO’D)

– Book an appointment with your guidance counsellor and discuss your next steps. (RO’D)

Use qualifax.ie and careersportal.ie to do more research about courses that appealed to you. (NMcC)

– It’s always useful to talk to people who have done the course or are on the career path you’re interested in. This is easier if you have a family member in that career area or if you’ve got connections, but it isn’t possible for every student. Ask around as much as you can, or check out careersportal.ie for videos from people working in various sectors. (NMcC)

– See if it is possible to get some work experience in areas that interest you. Ask parents, friends of parents, aunts, uncles, teachers or any contact who might be able to help you. (NMcC)

– It’s natural to worry about whether you’ve made the right choice. This can lead to a last-minute CAO change. But the student should ask themselves: have I researched this course? Am I happy with it? If the answers are yes, then you can know is that, as a 17- or 18-year-old at this time, you have made what you think is the right option right now. Ultimately, everyone is taking somewhat of a leap of faith and you will be constantly learning and making changes throughout your life: this is not your end point. (NMcC)