How to get 625 points in the Leaving Cert
Secrets of the students: Leaving Cert high achievers spill the beans about how they did so well and how they tackled each subject for the big exam. Sixth years, listen up
Illustration: Stuart Kinlough/Ikon Images via Getty
How do they do it? Every year, the Leaving Cert results coverage comes with stories of students who received six A1s or more. This year, 162 students got six higher-level A1 grades, 50 got seven A1s, 13 got eight A1s, and one student got nine A1s.
Of course, many of these students will have taken extra classes or grinds, and international evidence shows well-educated parents are more likely to have well-educated children. The annual Irish Times Feeder School lists also consistently show a relatively lower level of third-level progression among students from socio-economically disadvantaged areas.
Nonetheless, it’s no mean feat to get that A1, and it can’t be achieved without hard work and sacrifice. Are these students unusually gifted or lucky, or is there a knack to getting to an A1?
We spoke to some top-performing students and asked what tips they would give this year’s Leaving Cert students, and how they got through the challenge of what is, arguably, the most difficult set of exams they will ever sit.
Creagh was always drawn to business and computers. His Leaving Cert results – six A1s, a B2 and a B3 – gave him 625 CAO points. This was more than enough to get the course he wanted, business information systems at University College Cork, which required 435 points.
Did he waste those extra points? “I was told I should have chosen medicine or actuarial studies because I had the points. But that would have been a terrible idea. There is no point choosing a course you don’t like.”
He describes his reaction to getting his results as “over-the-top delight”. He’s clearly bright, but how did he get such good results?
I suspected I would get more than enough points. But I wanted a challenge. I wanted to push myself forward, and to see if I could get a scholarship.
Typically I’d go home, grab some food and get straight to work. At the start of sixth year, I only did a few hours of study per night, including homework. Then, coming up to the oral exams, I really launched into it. I’d work until about 9pm and then take a few hours to wind down, usually by playing guitar.
I never studied over weekends in fifth year, except for a little bit around summer exams. That changed in sixth year, when I didn’t take a day off. That said, I always went out if there was something on.
I did work hard, but I always left room for a social life. I was very involved in sports, particularly soccer, GAA and hurling, although sixth-year study gradually swallowed up my time.
I’ve always been logically minded, with a natural talent for maths. When I do something new, it usually clicks with me pretty quickly. Project Maths was new for me, so there was some adjustment. For revision, my main approach involved going through the chapters in the book and looking at sample answers; I would then answer the question without looking at the answer unless I got stuck.
I made notes for some questions, particularly those on statistics and probability.
I chose this subject because it is based around numbers and I found it really interesting when I did it for the Junior Cert. I also had it in the back of my mind that I might consider accounting as a career. It’s a black-and-white subject that follows a clear pattern; you’re either right or wrong.
For this subject, it’s all about practise. I looked at as many questions as possible on the past papers. Accounting is split into three sections, and, despite a few curveballs, there tends to be a certain predictability to the paper. I focused on topics that hadn’t come up for a few years.
It is about knowing what you’re doing, but there is potential for error. It’s easy to forget to do certain parts of the questions or to leave certain things out. You’ll know at the end if the figures don’t add up. When I did questions on past papers, I always timed myself to get used to being in an exam situation.
Exam papers, exam papers, exam papers. I even repeated the same questions a few times over the years because the same topics tend to come up again and again, albeit phrased differently.
My study involved a mix of open and closed books. I read the notes and the textbook and then I’d try to do a whole question. If I didn’t know the answer, I would leave it blank and move on. I’d look up exam solutions and check what the answer was and then I’d come back to the same question and try it again later.
It took me a while to get into this study groove, and as I moved through fifth and sixth year, I saw my results improving.
There are some topics I found more challenging than others. Electricity was a bit difficult, but I didn’t really cover it, as you don’t need to tackle every topic. If you do decide to focus less on a topic, it is worth having some basic familiarity to be able to tackle some of the short questions.
This seemed like a good option to take along with maths and physics. It is essentially the mathematics of physics. In physics, you might learn a lot of theory about what happens when two balls hit off each other, but the applied maths will show how far or fast the two balls will travel.
My approach involved doing old exam questions, occasionally checking in on a website that had all the past papers and worked solutions on it. I really tried to be organised: I did the questions on refill pads If I worked out a solution, I would then add it to other solutions on that topic.
Design and communication graphics
This is a course that involves a lot of work with computers, and 40 per cent of the marks are awarded for a project that involves a programme called SolidWorks. My main tip is to start early, because a lot of people run out of time by January, when the project is due. Look at examples from previous students and find a layout that will work for your project.
Do as many exam papers as you can. A lot of the first half of sixth year gets consumed by the project, so try and work away at the drawing and the exam papers as you go along, otherwise you risk forgetting.
I got an A1 in German, which was much better than my B2 in honours Irish. I did a German exchange to Cologne during transition year, and I really connected with the language. I spent two weeks in a German school and then did two weeks of work experience with a roofer.
During that time my German got better and better, and I learned a lot of new vocabulary. The summer before sixth year I went back to Germany again, having become good friends with my exchange partner.
In choosing what language to take, I was influenced by the fact my brothers had studied German. The structure of the language is quite logical, which also appealed to me.
I did a lot of practice for the oral exam and found that helped me with the written language as well. I think this approach is important for learning any language. I made a lot of notes and focused on questions the examiner might ask. Our teacher also did some extra sessions after school.
I read old exam papers and different comprehensions, picking up as much new vocabulary as I could, reciting it a few times to commit to memory.
In conversation with Peter McGuire
When newspapers publish study guides, aspiring or current medical students tend to feature prominently. There’s a good reason for this: the CAO points for medicine remain among the highest of all courses, and medical students not only have to work particularly hard but also have to figure out a study plan that will deliver the best results.
Aisling Dunne, who studied at Coláiste Iognáid in Galway, knows how this pressure sets in. She is now in her second year of NUI Galway’s medicine course, which includes a year of pre-med. She secured six A1s, a B1 and a B3: 625 Leaving Cert points. She is adamant that much of her success is down to the support of her school, but what did she do to maximise her success?
Our school really encouraged us to keep up hobbies and extracurricular activities right through fifth and sixth year. I played hockey and found sport and exercise focused my concentration when I was studying and was a major stress reliever. Stress will get in the way of effectively absorbing information. I also kept up piano classes outside school and made sure I was kept busy aside from study.
In fifth year, I just kept up to date with my homework and studied for Christmas and summer exams. In sixth year I’d come home around 6pm – I usually had some extracurricular activity on – and would have my dinner before homework and study from about 7pm until 10pm, with breaks. Weekends got a lot more intense towards the end of sixth year, but I made sure to take some time off too. Planning and scheduling became very important.
Four hours is enough. It’s more efficient. When people say they put in five hours, they don’t: they procrastinate for an hour.
I put in the greatest effort for English and maths, and probably less effort for French and Irish, because your competency in languages really builds over time.
I tried to understand the information in every subject rather than just rote learn and regurgitate answers. And I understood what the examiners were looking for and what they wanted us to say.
Our teacher encouraged us to find our own style of writing, our own voice. Everyone played to their own strengths. I had written several short stories and was able to use the structure of one of these for the exam, but I had to adapt it.
For English, especially paper one, it’s important to look at the marking scheme, and practise writing accordingly. In paper two, it does help to know your quotes and get into the practice of writing essays.
Most importantly: be engaged with the material. We were encouraged to choose poets we liked, or find something about the play or novel we could connect with.
I went to a Gaelscoil and was in the Irish stream until Junior Cert. But the basic principle holds: speak as much of the language as you can, especially as the oral exam accounts for 40 per cent of the overall mark. It is important for getting a good result. Our school had lots of conversation classes, and we spoke to each other as much as we could. Practise with your classmates, and with anybody who can speak to you as Gaeilge, and go to Irish college if you can. This is how you build up your vocabulary.
Be aware of intonations, sounds and dialects when you’re listening to aural comprehensions.
We did a lot of grammar, which was really helpful, and we also learned lots of seanfhocail (sayings).
I chose French because my family went on holidays to France when I was young and the country was more familiar to me.
In fifth and sixth year, we did a lot of work on grammar and built our vocabulary around that grammar.
We used to do a written question every two nights for homework. I mainly focused on homework rather than study, although as the big exam got closer, I did a lot of reading comprehensions from past papers.
As with Irish, practise speaking as much as you can. Our teacher organised extra conversation classes and I had an opportunity to go to France during transition year, which gave me a chance to learn more.
I always liked maths, and it helped that our honours maths class had a competitive atmosphere. We were one of the first years to sit the Project Maths exam. A lot the class were unsure of the new syllabus, and a lot of my year were doing honours maths because of the 25 bonus points. Once you got your head around Project Maths, it started to make sense. I liked the parts where the focus is more on maths than on writing. Ultimately, for Project Maths you need to really understand the ideas a lot more. You also need to figure out exactly what the examiners are looking for. It helps to look at the marking schemes.
If you keep up to date with your homework, it is a big help. For your own study, it is important to try as many questions as you can, then go back and look at the marking scheme. If you don’t succeed, try it again, and if you don’t understand, ask your teacher or some of your classmates.
We related biology to the world around us; for example, our teacher took us on a field trip to a bog. Biology is all around us, and it’s good to connect it with our own bodies and health, or the natural world. This means that, rather than focus only on learning things off by heart, we tried to really understand it: that is the foundation for answering questions.
The textbook was my main anchor. But we sometimes looked at YouTube videos and cartoons to deepen our understanding.
I learned a lot of the diagrams and practised drawing them. Then I’d check the marking schemes. I did questions from past papers with the book open, and also did questions with the book closed.
I made out my own notes on topics in a style that suited me, using different colours to highlight key words and ideas.
I chose this subject because it appealed to me, but also because it was useful for medicine. Again, I made my own notes in a style that appealed to me. We had a test once a week and did every exam question from past papers twice. We did so much that we really came to know the course.
Break the material down into the various topics. If you know your experiments and understand the organic chemistry, you are halfway there.
In conversation with Peter McGuire
When we last encountered Andre McLeod, he was preparing for his HPat medical school entry examination.
He was a student in Limerick Tutorial College, and it was his second time doing the Leaving Cert, having narrowly missed out on a place in medicine last year. He was nervous but optimistic, and it turned out he had reason to be: in 2014 he knocked the Leaving Cert challenge out of the park. He got six A1s and has since started his medical training in UCC.
“It was a huge relief to get the results,” he says. “It was a shock too. I had been working so hard, I expected to do well, but I really didn’t expect to do that well. I’m delighted that I made the choice to repeat. It was well worth it.”
So how did he do it?
I knew what I wanted out of the year, so I was very focused. I hit the ground running, which is definitely the best way. Ironically, as the end of the year drew close, I found it harder and harder to focus, so I was very glad to have put so much work in early on.
When it came to actual study hours, I guess I was doing about four or five hours a day before Christmas. Later on, that rose to seven or eight per day. Because I was a repeat student, I didn’t have to do any of the filler subjects like religion so I could just use that extra time to study.
It would definitely have been harder to have this level of focus if it had been my first time doing the Leaving. You have to know what you’re aiming for as a repeat student.
It wasn’t constant. I went out at weekends; there were a lot of 18th and 19th birthday parties. In the evenings I’d play a bit of Xbox to relax, but I never got distracted from why I was doing it all. I’m delighted. It was all completely worth it.
Maths and sciences would be my strongest areas. I put a lot of time into studying maths. It’s worth it for the bonus points. The key for me was exam questions. I did all the exam questions I could find. There are lots of sample papers at this stage, and by the time I’d finished all of them I could practise them all over again. It was like having a new set of questions.
I’d sit down, and try to do a question under exam conditions: within the time limits and so on. If there was anything I couldn’t do, I’d bring it to my teacher and ask where I was going wrong. You definitely need a good relationship with your teacher for this approach.
Basically, having done all the questions like that, when it came to the exam there was nothing on the paper I hadn’t seen before. I had practised so much, there was nothing I couldn’t do. You don’t have a choice of questions in Project Maths, so you need to be really familiar with the questions. Project Maths is all about understanding the maths. Practising the exam questions really helps with that.
You just have to learn your stuff in geography. It’s such a massive course that it helps to be very systematic about everything.
The best advice I got when it came to geography was to get to know the exam and marking schemes; this gives you an idea of how to maximise your marks. You have to make it easy for an examiner to give you marks. If you know how many points of information you should put into an essay, you can get your marks without wasting time. Examiners hate waffle.
When it came to the topics, I got sample essays and distilled them down to the important points. That way, when I was doing exam questions I could just write the important points and then add the filler. You need to be efficient. The geography course is so massive, you can’t cover everything.
Business My least favourite subject. I just found it really boring. I learned everything off by heart and practised exam papers as much as possible. I found it a real challenge.
I didn’t think the exam had gone well on the day, and I was really disappointed, so it was a massive shock that I got an A.
It helped that we did exam questions in class. The marking schemes change quite a lot in business, but exam technique is really important. You need to present your work in the correct way.
Examiners really want to give you marks, so if you know how to lay out a business question and present everything clearly, you make that job really easy for them.
There’s so much in biology that, honestly, there’s nothing for it but to learn a topic and do an exam question.
I found that using notes that distilled the course down to exactly what you need to know helped. There’s a lot of padding in biology textbooks, so if you can get rid of that and slim the whole thing down, it helps.
Again, I found using past exam questions as a guide to what to study really helped. I’d do questions and ask my teacher if there was something I couldn’t answer. If you just focus on learning the course, I think your exam technique suffers. The Leaving Cert isn’t just about what you know, it’s also about how you approach an exam. Biology isn’t a tight exam time-wise, but I still stuck to the time limits laid down.
I learned from last year that you need to be really, really precise in the chemistry exam. If you spell a word in the wrong way, it can cost you. There’s more learning in chemistry than in exams such as physics. There are a lot of small things you need to know and have clear in your head.
I’m not somebody who can look at a book and just absorb the information. I have to practise, take notes, do things. Again, exam papers were a really useful resource and I actually found mnemonics really useful for remembering what I needed in chemistry.
Physics is a lot more like maths than any of the other subjects. If I put in the effort to understand a concept, it definitely paid off. It’s time-consuming, but time well spent.
Exam questions are important again, and I practised writing out experiments over and over again. You can control that part of the exam.
I guess with physics, it’s important to start early. If you put the time into understanding everything, and practising the experiments, you can do really well. If you don’t have the time to do that, and you’re panicking, then it can all go wrong. Slow and steady progress is best.
In conversation with Gráinne Faller