How to make the most of Higher Options

There’s more to visiting Ireland’s education expo than a day off school or getting freebies – it’s a great opportunity to learn more about what university you might end up attending

Higher Options 2018 will take place at the RDS Simmonscourt, Dublin, on September 12th, 13th and 14th. Photograph: Eric Luke

Higher Options 2018 will take place at the RDS Simmonscourt, Dublin, on September 12th, 13th and 14th. Photograph: Eric Luke


You’ve been back in school a few weeks. Summer is over and the depressing reality of the Leaving Cert is ahead of you. On top of that, you’re going to have to start thinking about what college or further education course appeals to you. Or, as some people will misleadingly tell you, what you want to do with the rest of your life (in fact, it’s just one of many decisions you will make in your career).

Higher Options is a break away from the day-to-day of learning, and a chance to start thinking about your future. For this journalist, it was a missed opportunity: I went to the conference, half-heartedly visited a few stalls and then hopped on the bus to hang around in the park all day.

Not preparing for the event, not using it properly, and not following up on what I had seen there was a big mistake. I’d missed the chance to ask the right questions of the right people when I had them all in the same building and, as a result, I had to spend a lot more time over the next year doing my course research.

Don’t be like me. Don’t waste the day and pay for it over the next year. I can’t even remember what we did in the park.

We spoke to some experts about how to make the most of this all-important annual conference. Ronan Kennedy is an independent careers coach. Ailbe Murphy is career guidance adviser with popular website and works as a career guidance counsellor at Jesus and Mary Secondary School in Enniscrone, Co Sligo. Betty McLaughlin is a guidance counsellor at Coláiste Mhuire CBS Mullingar and a former president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors. Finally, Sarah Geraghty, student recruitment and outreach manager at NUI Galway, has the all-important perspective from the third-level sector on how to use the day well.

What to do before Higher Options

Ronan Kennedy: “Do as much research as you can before the event. Go online, read about the courses and colleges, talk to people, watch videos – whatever will give you information. This way, instead of just asking general questions where you can easily find the information yourself, you’ll be able to ask specific questions: What sort of people do well on this course? What is to be avoided? What advice would you give for people in my position?

“Don’t just focus on the course: some people want to go to college for the third-level experience and studying may not be their main focus, in which case an intensive 9am-5pm course in architecture or engineering may not be for you.”

Sarah Geraghty: “If you have a course in mind, Higher Options is your chance to ask questions and look for information beyond what is in the prospectus. If you don’t know what courses or careers to pursue, Higher Options is where you can find what is suited to your ability and ambitions. The key is to plan in advance what you would like to explore. Set objectives to help you stay focused.”

Betty McLaughlin: “You won’t be able to get to all the stands so make sure to look at the map of the exhibitors, which The Irish Times provides in advance, and have a list of who you really want to visit. Use or the Higher Options supplement to work out what questions you want to ask and write those questions down so you don’t forget them.”

Ailbe Murphy: “I attend this with my sixth years so they can gather information early in the year. They see that they are competing with thousands of students for a college place. Research before attending is vital. In your copy, brainstorm and ask yourself what you’re interested in after school. Is third-level education for you? What type of college or training centre do you want to attend? What course do you want to study? It’s important for students to look at their strengths and their academic ability and match these to certain careers if possible.

“Make an appointment with your guidance counsellor before you go. Include parents or guardians in your research as they know you best. Is staying away from home an option? Look outside the Republic of Ireland at UK options through UCAS, or in Europe through Eunicas. Talk to your parents about finance and what you can afford. Look up to see if you qualify for a third-level grant. will provide information on the Dare (disability access route) and Hear (higher-education access route) options. Look up last year’s CAO points. Are you being realistic? Make a list of your subjects, levels and predicted grades, and don’t rule out apprenticeships, PLC courses and level 6 and 7 courses.

“Check if there are specific subject or grade requirements. If the course is restricted, you may need to register for HPat [the aptitude test for medicine applicants] or complete a portfolio or assessment. Enquire about scholarships from each college and application deadlines.

“Bring an empty schoolbag for the leaflets, brochures and prospectuses.”

What to do at the expo

Ronan Kennedy: “Don’t forget the practical realities. If your chosen course means you have to commute for over an hour a day, will you actually get out of bed and go? Ask about the job opportunities a course can provide. The job options from a course can seem obvious but if, for instance, you do a course in sports and exercise science or journalism, the number of places on those courses is not reflected in the number of jobs available. Don’t be lured by a good sales pitch, such as the offer of a free laptop or a year abroad on this course: choose your course for the right reasons.”

Betty McLaughlin: “Ask what the course involves, what the minimum requirements are and whether it requires particular mathematical or language skills. If you don’t have those skills, you may flounder in first year. Consider your strengths and what would motivate you to go to college every day – that may be based on your interests and aptitudes.

“The CAO is not the only show in town – while you’re at Higher Options, be sure to ask about colleges in England as well as apprenticeships and further education courses.”

Sarah Geraghty: “When you arrive, visit priority colleges and stands first. It may take longer than you think to find the right representative to talk to and, at busy times, you may have to wait a few minutes. Do this and you’ll be less likely to run out of time. Once your priorities are ticked off, you can spend time browsing and exploring.”

Ailbe Murphy: “Pick up a directory and spend a few minutes deciding where to go. This is also available online so you can print it out and highlight chosen exhibitors. Get straight to business, visiting stands and talking to the college representatives and students.”

“At the Institute of Guidance Counsellors stand, students can ask guidance counsellors questions, seek advice and receive a worksheet to fill in during the exhibition to assist in exploring their options on the day.

“Investigate access courses, PLC courses, apprenticeship and level 6 and 7 options.

“Attend a few career talks and you might surprise yourself by finding something completely unexpected. Keep an open mind on all your options, and remember that the more you apply for, the more choice you will have.”

What to do after Higher Options

Ronan Kennedy: “Once the dust has settled and you’ve had some time to review, follow up. You may have more specific questions, such as: can a business or law student studying languages transfer to the mainstream course after a year if they decide that French isn’t for them anymore? Can they do their work experience in Spain.

“When you are looking over your options, don’t discount the alternatives to university – post-Leaving Cert courses and apprenticeships. A lot of people go to third-level through the CAO because they think it’s where the well-paying jobs are, but that may or may not be true and there are lots of well-paid trade jobs. Another option is to take a year out after school to travel or to work.

“Follow up with your career guidance counsellor whether some of the PLCs or level 6 and 7 certificate courses can lead to a level 8 degree. If you’re looking at the UK, find out what the requirements are.”

Betty McLaughlin: “Bring home the prospectus and check out the college websites. Follow up by finding out when the open days are on. For this, you will be looking to target in advance which faculties and courses you are interested in.

“It’s important at the open day that you find out what the extracurricular side of college life is like. What sports clubs do they have? What societies, such as drama or debating, can you get involved in? It is so important to be connected to the third-level you’re studying in and clubs and societies are the best way to do this. They’re also a way where you could learn skills that you’re interested: if you like film, you could learn how to use a camera; if you like journalism or politics, you could get involved in the college paper or the students’ union.

“You can follow up on accommodation and find out about costs and availability. You’ll need to also sit down and work out the costs involved in your chosen course: will you have to live away from home and if so, can your family afford that? Working for a year before college could be a way of meeting some of these costs.”

Sarah Geraghty: “It won’t be long before you forget the interesting details and tips you learned from speaking to representatives so it’s good to make a note of any stand-out details before you put the brochures away. Once you get home, flick through the material, turn down pages and make some notes while the information is still fresh in your head.

“Most students visit Higher Options without their parents or guardians so it is a good idea to bring your family members up to speed on what you have learned at Higher Options and what you plan to do next.”

Ailbe Murphy: “I’d echo the need to involve parents or guardians in reading the material so they can assist you in making decisions and be involved in your career journey. and have information sections for parents.

“Research your local training centre or PLC provider to learn about apprenticeships and day/ evening courses on offer.

“Follow up open days, write them into your diary and pick the ones you are serious about attending. Always prepare for an open day. Make a list of application deadlines, scholarship deadlines and campus accommodation application dates and put them in your diary. Some scholarships available to students include the JP McManus All Ireland scholarship for students exempt from paying the Leaving Certificate fee and the Naughton Foundation Scholarship for students interested in applying for STEM courses. You will be busy studying, doing college applications, preparing for mock examinations, orals and practicals, but you have to take responsibility for meeting all deadlines.

“Book an appointment with your guidance counsellor to discuss your options. If you are thinking of third-level education, register for UCAS or Eunicas early and get preparing your personal statement. Register for CAO in November to avail of the early-bird discount and so you can start on your Hear and Dare application.

“Remember there is something there for everyone but you must explore the many options, prepare to research and apply for everything that interests you. Some students know what they want to do after school, others don’t; if you are one of the latter don’t stress – look at your strengths and keep your options open by studying something of interest to you rather than narrowing yourself down into one area. You can always change direction later on with a postgraduate or masters programme.

“Education is a lifelong process. Best of luck in the year ahead. Work hard for the few short months, believe in yourself and you will achieve.”

Higher Options 2018 will take place at the RDS Simmonscourt, Dublin, on September 12th, 13th and 14th, from 9am to 3pm each day