For hundreds of thousands of students, over several decades, the Higher Options fair has been the start of their journey into adult life. It's here that you'll find, under one roof, hundreds of third-level and further-education options, both in Ireland and abroad. It's here you'll have the chance to talk to college and further-education students about their experiences, lecturers and tutors about their modules, and club and society members about the extracurricular side of life beyond school.
You’ll also find a whole host of people working in further and higher education who can answer any concerns about finances, disabilities and different learning styles, and how you might fit in.
Sure, there will be open days on campuses across Ireland in the coming year, but this is the only chance you’ll have to talk to so many people from so many institutions all on one day.
So how can you make the most of this opportunity and not – as this journalist did – squander it by arriving unprepared?
We spoke to three experts, all with different perspectives, on how students can prepare for the expo, what to do at it and how to follow up afterwards.
Laura Walshe is a guidance counsellor and the founder of FindYourPath.ie; she works with clients who are long-term unemployed, early school-leavers and students currently in school.
Jane Downes is author of The Career Book and runs Clearview Coaching, a career consultancy, and works primarily with people who are looking to change career, as well as those who realise early on in their college career that they have made the wrong decision. Colette O'Beirne, senior student recruitment officer at Dublin City University, works with secondary school students to help them make the best choices for themselves.
Nikki Gallagher, director of communications at Solas, the further education and training agency, has her finger on the pulse when it comes to Post-Leaving Cert, apprenticeship and traineeship courses.
Before the expo
Do your research
Planning comes easier to some students than others, but all should try to do at least some research in advance of the Higher Options event. “Do your detective work online,” says Downes. “See the line-up of who is attending. Set mini-goals for yourself and who you want to talk to. This is not just about being handed a shiny prospectus; it’s your chance to talk about the course, the modules and what you will be studying.”
Prepare some questions
What’s most relevant to you? Sometimes the questions will be around what you learn on various modules or what career outcomes to expect. But, Downes advises, it’s also a good idea to ask about deadlines for applications where they may be a portfolio or some form of assessment for entry (outside the standard CAO application process). “Another great question is to ask about open days or how you can visit the college to find out more. Ask for First Destination Return statistics, which will tell you where the cohort from this course have gone on to, whether that’s work, overseas, or looking for work. This will give you a good idea of what you can do with the course after graduation.”
“I would love for students to take control of their own future and make the best of the day,” says DCU’s Colette O’Beirne. “Otherwise, in a few years’ time, they may wonder why they didn’t better prepare for the day.”
Talk to your family
“It’s important for students to have a conversation with their parents or guardians about what is feasible,” says O’Beirne. “If they’re not from Dublin, will they be able to afford to go to Dublin? If they want to go abroad to study, is this a possibility? If you don’t have this conversation, you may be wasting your time at the RDS, so make sure you know what your options are.”
Students should also consider the time it would take to travel to college and whether they can – or want to – move out of home.
Make a list
On the day, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information in the hall, so it’s vital to be as prepared as possible. As well as the more familiar third-levels such as UCD and IT Tralee, there will be stands from Solas, the further education and training agency, offering information and advice on PLC courses, traineeships and apprenticeships. There will be stands from UK and European colleges offering information on studying abroad. And there will be a variety of careers and information talks throughout the day.
With all this in mind, Walshe advises students to make a list in advance of the event. “Think of the main colleges or courses you would like to go to, and then narrow it down to the top five in the event that time if tight. If you do have more time, you can visit those stands as well.”
At the expo
“It’s so important to plan, get there on time, and try to make the most of the day,” says Walshe. “If you’re going with groups of friends or other students, you can find yourself spending the whole day with them instead of looking at the stalls and getting information and advice. So make sure to take some time by yourself.”
“A lot of students won’t know what they want to do, so this is the chance to ask questions,” says O’Beirne. “Don’t be afraid to approach someone at the expo: that’s what they’re there for. This is where you can find information on entry requirements. If possible, students will have spoken to their guidance counsellor in advance.
Practicalities and difficulties
Concerned about finances? Susi, which processes and administers student grants, will have a stand where students can find out more about their eligibility for financial support.
“As well as Susi grants, students from designated disadvantaged or Deis schools can get additional supports to help them,” says Walshe. “And not a lot know that there are various local partnerships around the country which may provide additional funding for students from their area who are attending third-level, and this might, for instance, cover transport costs. Students can be eligible for Susi, access supports and local partnership supports.”
O’Beirne, meanwhile, is the chair of DCU’s sanctuary committee, with the university committed to welcoming and supporting asylum seekers and refugees, and she says that students from non-traditional backgrounds or students with learning difficulties or on the autistic spectrum will be very welcome and supported through all their choices at Higher Options (while DCU has emerged as a leader in supporting students with autism, students with disabilities, students with disadvantaged backgrounds and refugee and asylum seeker students, most further- and higher-education institutes have made great strides in including students who face a few more challenges).
Consider PLCs, apprenticeships and traineeships
A recent survey of employers found that 86 per cent were happy with the quality of higher-education graduates and a further 84 per cent were happy with further-education graduates. Employers rated further-education graduates better when it came to teamwork and enterprise skills. Solas, with a remit to respond to the needs of employers, designs PLCs, apprenticeships and traineeships that have a strong chance of leading to a job after graduation.
But still, there remain many schools in Ireland where students are not hearing about the alternatives to the CAO.
“PLC courses provide vocationally-based training in wide range of areas, including health, childcare, animal care, education, science, arts and more,” says Nikki Gallagher of Solas. “They usually take place in colleges of further education, so they can be a good option for students who want to stay local. More and more, they include a substantial work experience component. Some of them offer the best and most relevant training you can get in the area, such as animal care, which you can’t do at third-level, or animation, which provides training and experience that is highly regarded within the industry. And many of the courses offer an access route to third-level education, with lots of links in particular between the PLCs and the institutes of technology or technological universities.”
PLC courses, in particular, can be a bridge between school and college, giving students a chance to get a taste of a course over a year before they make the transition to college.
Apprenticeships, meanwhile, are usually between two and four years in duration and lead to QQI level 6 to 8 awards. “There are apprenticeships in crafts such as motor mechanics, plumbing and carpentry, but students will also find options such as auctioneering, insurance practitioner, lab technician, commis chef and cyber security. Students combine classroom learning with on-the-job training – and they get paid while they’re at it,” says Gallagher.
Finally, traineeships are shorter courses, usually between six and nine months long, leading to a QQI award (usually level 5) that gears them up to go straight into the workplace. “Office administration, forklift, bartending and digital journalism are just some of the options,” says Gallagher.
“It’s great that there will be a presence from Solas,” says Walshe. “Apprenticeships, in particular, are rising in demand and are a good choice for young people who are practical or like hands-on subjects.”
Compare and contrast
Telling one course from another isn’t always straightforward. “There may be a psychology course in DCU and another in UCD that looks similar,” says Walshe. “I’d advise students to go to the two providers – and ask the exact same set of questions. Does the programme have a work placement? Where have previous graduates gone on to? Does it offer Erasmus? What sort of career options are on offer? Higher Options is for colleges to sell their course, and students should look at it like that.”
Think beyond academia
Employers are increasingly differentiating between the thousands of graduates with a first-class honours or 2.1 degree by looking at their extracurricular activities in college, including involvement in clubs, societies and volunteering. “There will be student ambassadors from all the various campuses who can talk to you about what it’s really like to be a student there, including the sort of restaurant, sports, society and library facilities,” O’Beirne advises. “Ask what facilities are available on campus.”
Besides the boost that getting involved makes to your CV by helping you to develop transferable skills, students who get involved in clubs, societies, the student paper or the students’ union generally tend to make more friends, have a better college experience and be less likely to drop out.
And if, for instance, they’re interested in drama, music or journalism but don’t necessarily want to study it in college, getting involved in a society can be almost a parallel qualification, while students with particular sporting interests or talents may be able to open a door to a professional or semi-professional athletic career through a college sports club – and some who are good enough may even be eligible for scholarships.
Bring a notebook:
“There will be a lot of information, so it’s useful to be able to write it down,” says O’Beirne.
After the event
There’s a danger that students will pick up the prospectus, bring it home and bin it.
“Immediately after, take note of what stood out, what impressed you and where you have more questions,” Downes advises. “If you can, make an appointment with a career guidance professional to debrief on it.”
What did you learn?
Consider what you have learned about yourself, Walshe says. “What did you learn about yourself? What do you not want to do? What will you look up now?”
Connect with the college
“Every institution has social media sites which are designed to give potential students the relevant information they need,” O’Beirne says. “Sign up. Student blogs are a good way of getting more information, and they may also contain information on expert speakers providing guest talks.”
Reach out to alumni
Not everyone has all the professional connections to easily make contact with graduates of a particular course, but O’Beirne says there is no harm to ask parents or teachers to connect them with someone in a particular profession – or even to reach out and ask to talk to the lecturers. This can be nerve-wracking but the vast majority of people are willing to help.
It isn’t always possible for students to attend open days, particularly if they’re far from where they live (making Higher Options so important) but ideally, when the choices are narrowing down, students would arrange a campus tour. Most colleges will facilitate those students who couldn’t make the open day but want to have a peek around campus.
Don’t put pressure on yourself
PLCs and broad-entry college courses, such as arts or science, can be a good option for students who haven’t figured out what they want to do. “Nobody has it all figured out; that peer who knows where they’re going may end up in a course they don’t like,” says Walshe.