Higher Options: Prepare in advance and use your time wisely

Event has the potential to be the most valuable six hours you will spend this year

Representatives from the CAO, universities, colleges, further education institutions, Solas and educational bodies will be available to discuss career choice with secondary school students at this year's virtual Higher Options expo.

The conference is the starting point for many students as they begin to plan the next phase of their educational journey.

It brings together representatives of institutions and organisations offering students information on almost every conceivable educational progression opportunity available in Ireland and abroad.

Given the ongoing need to avoid unnecessary gatherings of large groups of people, the event will take place solely online. On the days of the live event (October 13th and 14th from 1pm to 6pm) each student with a valid ticket can log in from any device at home or at school.


Representatives from the CAO, universities, colleges, further education institutions and educational bodies will be available in the virtual exhibition hall, to speak with the students via group chat.

This is not a group activity and it is recommended that schools allocate students time to participate individually during class hours. Alternatively, some schools may allow students to participate from home.

Talks will be delivered by specialist speakers over the course of the two-day event.

Students are encouraged to consult the timetable in advance as they prepare for the event. Each student will have their own interests and can attend the wide range of talks accordingly.

What is especially notable about Higher Options this year is that all talks and exhibitor material will be available on demand for 30 days after the event is over. Only ticket holders will be able to access the platform post-event.

This will allow students to review the extensive material either in class with guidance counsellors or at home, and particularly to review the information they have gathered in their individual virtual backpack.

Information is available at irishtimes.com/higheroptions or higheroptions.vfairs.com.


The benefit to school-leavers of this unique event depends entirely on each student’s level of preparation prior to it.

This preparation will have been ongoing over the previous two years through career exploration activities undertaken in transition year and fifth year.

The Institute of Guidance Counsellors provides students attending the event, through their guidance counsellors in schools, a comprehensive preparation document to enable them to plan their engagements throughout the day.

By working through this document, students maximise the benefits of attending the conference. Careful planning and an understanding of what they need to accomplish at Higher Options will hugely enhance the long-term value of attending.

Guidance counsellors will provide students with details of various talks at the event, covering every conceivable topic relevant to progression to higher or further education, both in Ireland and abroad.

There will also be extensive coverage of opportunities on offer through apprenticeships both in the traditional construction trades, where there are huge deficits of qualified trades people, and in the many new apprenticeships co-ordinated by Solas.

Given the hundreds of exhibitors and the thousands of courses and other options on offer, attendees should draw up a list of colleges or other exhibitors they want to interact with online.

They should also compose a series of written questions they wish to tease out with the representatives on the online stands.

Each college will, of course, present the most positive picture possible of the benefits of the various options their organisation offers. All students can do is engage systematically with each one and after the event sift the information received to enable them to move their career-planning process on to the next stage.

Stand holders will not expect students to make a final decision concerning their future career options based only on attending a talk online or following a visit to the online forum on offer at Higher Options.

But, for those who plan their activities in advance, these interactions will help set the agenda for each student in the months and years ahead.


If they have done their homework, many students will have developed very clear course preferences by the time they log on to the Higher Options event.

Some might learn they are not likely to secure the high points required for their preferred course or are not taking the subjects necessary to meet the minimum requirements for entry.

This is where the Higher Options event can be of real value. Rather than feeling downcast and abandoning dreams of their preferred career, they will have the opportunity to interact online with other stand holders, where they will learn about other options that might enable them to achieve their dream course by another route.

There are hundreds of high-points CAO programmes across all disciplines which are also accessible through further education (FE) one-year level 5 programmes. Many of these FE colleges will be present electronically at Higher Options this year, so seek them out and find out which courses in the CAO their courses link to.

Alternatively, while CAO points requirements are very high for many programmes in Ireland, European universities have a very different admissions system. They often simply require two H5s and four passes to gain entry to many courses which require more than 500 points in Ireland.

Again, these colleges will be electronically present at Higher Options from their institutions all over Europe. The courses are taught through English and fees are modest to non-existent.

Open days

Once a student’s interest has been heightened by an interaction at Higher Options, consolidated and strengthened perhaps by a close reading of the literature published by the college, the next step should be to find out when the college is planning its 2021-2022 virtual or – possibly in the coming months – on-campus open days.

No Leaving Cert student should seriously consider deciding at this stage without engaging with the institution in question and soaking in the atmosphere of the place at some stage before course choices are finalised next June.

Remember, choosing a course commits you to far more than just a set of lectures and exams over several years.

Choosing a course or college is like committing to a long-term relationship and it commits you to a lifestyle and a range of social and extracurricular activities offered by the institution in question.

Every student is different in both personality and interests. Some will revel in the cut-and-thrust of very large colleges, while others may prefer smaller institutions where everyone gets to know each other very quickly.

Students who select their course choices based solely on the details of the course itself without considering the context within which it is delivered can often find very quickly that they have made a bad choice.

Take your opportunity

Having attended the physical Higher Options event for more than 20 years, it has become clear to me that many students attended without having given any serious thought to why they are there.

They drifted around the complex for a few hours, became bored and drifted up Anglesea Road with a plastic bag full of prospectuses, which is sometimes dumped as it becomes too heavy to carry.

They returned to their schools the following day having received absolutely no benefit from their attendance at the event.

Given that the event is a totally virtual event this year, such aimless attendance is not an option, so when you log on to the event on either day, make full use of the opportunities it offers.

Months of hard work have gone into bringing colleges together electronically from the four corners of the world. Having experienced this format in 2020, I would question the wisdom of ever returning to a physical event.

When you sit down at your PC in school or at home, this experience has the potential to be the most valuable six hours you will spend this year, in exploring your future options.

Use it wisely and build on it in the weeks and months ahead.

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney is a guidance counsellor and education columnist. He contributes education articles to The Irish Times