How to prepare for a future of study

College Choice: Forget the Leaving Cert. Doing research now on how you want to spend your life will lessen chances of making a mistake. And there’s time to change your mind

 

New year, and a new life beckons. But this post-Christmas period means competing demands for attention from Leaving Cert students and their parents. The last decent study stretch before the Leaving Cert is beginning and the mocks are looming.

Yet now, when students are gearing up for the critical exam, they are also expected to think seriously about the rest of their lives as the first CAO application deadline is on January 20th.

Avoid panic. Most people have a much more meandering trajectory to their lives and careers than it may seem. It’s just the next few years rather than your whole life at stake now. And there is more time than you think to decide – even if you have no idea what you want to do after school. If you don’t get your first choice, there are more options or alternative routes – other courses, other colleges, a PLC – to where you’d like to go. Whether you know what you want to study and where, or just have a loose idea of what you would like, or haven’t a clue, these pages explain how it all works, and how to make it work for you.

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Some 30 per cent of third-level students drop out or change course, so something is going wrong with students’ initial decisions. Discovering you have made the wrong choice can be upsetting, and expensive as you may have to pay the full cost if you start a different course.

The number of students sitting the Leaving Cert will go up for the next 12 years, so unless there’s a radical increase in the number of places, points for third-level courses will generally continue to rise. This situation is exacerbated by some colleges’ policy on manipulation of points.

Cut-off points

Prof Philip Nolan, president of Maynooth University and chairman of the Irish Universities Association’s task force on third-level admission reform, admitted to The Irish Times in August that colleges have been artificially inflating points by offering courses with a small student intake. He said, “All of us have become embroiled in a system where we’ve been using the points system . . . to try to attract students”.

“We need to get away from this sense that points are related to quality. Points are related to nothing but demand and supply and it’s a real shame if institutions, including my own, feel they should reduce the supply to make the points higher in order that it looks like the course is better; the course is no different.”

Number of places

It was illuminating reading: our analysis showed that one-third of course codes had 15 or fewer students. Only 48 courses out of 1,400 filled 100 or more places in 2013.

The Irish Universities’ Association task group has suggested third-level courses “should not normally admit fewer than 30 entrants”, and colleges have vowed to reduce the numbers of courses, to bring them back to 2011 levels.

So far, however, it has been all talk and little action. The number of CAO course codes at higher degree (level 8) rose from 903 in 2013 to 941 last year, but will still be about 925 this year.

Nolan said there are “too many courses with very small numbers that are there for historic reasons to do with ensuring points are not seen to sink too low”.

The Leaving Cert is outdated and stressful, and the admissions set-up is problematic, but you can navigate it more easily than you think. Here’s a good place to start.

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