‘Know yourself’: 9 steps to choosing the right course after the Leaving Cert

Career guidance experts on what to consider when deciding your career pathway

One in four Leaving Cert students who go to college next year will likely drop out of their course before completing their degree. That's based on trends identified by the Higher Education Authority over recent years. Most of those who won't make it to second year will drop out for one key reason: they chose the wrong course.

So, how can you make sure you make the right course choice? And how can you discern between a course you genuinely love versus something others say is your best bet?

Derek O'Byrne, Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) registrar and vice-president for academic affairs, says students need to make decisions primarily based on their own interests and abilities.

This conviction prompted WIT to launch its Right Student, Right Programme initiative, aimed at educating and informing students to pick what is right for them, rather than what they’re told to do.


It's a view backed by Alice O'Connor, an expert guidance counsellor at Educate Together Secondary School in Stepaside, Co Dublin. We asked both of them to identify what students need to know when making their call.

1. Choose what interests you

This is the key piece of advice any guidance counsellor will give a student.

“From transition year onwards, students should be thinking of the subjects they’re interested in,” says O’Connor.

"What are your hobbies, values and skills – how might they fit into a career path, and are there courses that would take them there? In school, I liked art but I didn't do well in my Junior Cert, although I did history of art in college."

2. Think broad and beyond subjects

There are so many subjects to choose at college, and most of them don’t directly map onto what’s available for the Leaving Cert.

“If a student enjoys English, it doesn’t necessarily mean they should study it in college,” says O’Byrne.

“Instead, they should reflect on what it is that they like about English. Is it poetry? Do they particularly like writing? Or, if it’s critical analysis, they might look at degrees that involve a lot of critical analysis: it could be that they mightn’t particularly want an English degree but would enjoy law, for instance.”

Students also tend to understand the careers they have seen: if a parent, relative or friend is an accountant, engineer or teacher, they might be more inclined to follow that path.

“This is part of the reason why we encourage students to think not in terms of particular subjects or careers, but in terms of skills and abilities,” says O’Byrne.

3. Do aptitude tests

Aptitude tests are a great way of identifying your interests. CareersPortal.ie and Qualifax.ie both have useful tests on their sites, while Stepaside Educate Together uses MyFutureChoice.com to help students make up their mind.

4. Try tasters

A growing number of third-levels institutions, including WIT and UCD, offer taster courses. WIT, for instance, runs the Try business/ engineering/ nursing and so on to let students try out the discipline that they might be interested in; more than 1,000 students signed up in 2019. NUI Galway's College Awareness Week includes taster talks across 11 subject areas, while UCD and Maynooth University run summer schools where students can get a taste of both college life and particular subjects.

O’Connor advises that students should pay particular attention to the modules available on any given course, so they understand what the degree might look like.

5. Talk to students

It’s easier to talk to students about their course and college if you happen to know them, but most third-levels today are keen for potential students to talk to their current students.

NUI Galway has a Student Voice podcast featuring more than 20 interviews with students from a range of disciplines. TU Dublin and DCU applicants can use the Unibuddy system to chat directly and privately with a student on courses that interest them.

Maynooth has a dedicated online chat facility – Ask a Student – where student ambassadors can answer questions about the degree programme, subjects, transition from school to university and student life at the university.

But how can you know if those students are truly objective?

“Ask them what they find interesting or exciting about the programme and the college,” O’Byrne advises.

6. Know the college and the city

“While most open days have been virtual over the past two years, this has almost meant that students can find out about more colleges because they don’t have to travel to them all,” says O’Connor.

“But if any student puts down a course option on the CAO without going to an open day, I’d question what they’re doing there. You need to hear the experience of students who have been on the course in that college.

“College is about more than the course, so it’s important to pay attention to the societies, clubs and extracurricular options in the college,” O’Connor adds.

Student accommodation can be difficult to secure, and college is expensive, so students should weigh up how it might cost to move out of home for college, as well as whether they want to live away from home, O’Byrne says.

7. Minimum entry requirements

Know the minimum entry requirements for a course, O’Connor and O’Byrne advise.

They tend to be lower in technological universities and institutes of technology, says O’Byrne. “But if, for instance, the maths requirement is relatively high, it can mean the course has a lot of maths– this is one of the benefits of the taster programmes.”

O’Connor says that, if students don’t think they’ll meet the minimum entry requirements for a particular level eight course, they might look at a level seven, from which they can progress to a related level eight.

8. Don’t forget FET

Post-Leaving Cert courses, apprenticeships and traineeships have never been such a good option. A growing number of school-leavers are going from school to a PLC, either to train for a particular qualification or as a stepping stone – perhaps if they didn’t get the CAO points – to a college course.

9. Get advice, but don’t be bound by it

It’s harder for young people to decide what they want to do with their lives, according to conventional wisdom. But many adults well into their 30s will tell you they haven’t got it figured out yet and, in any case, what you choose to do in college does not define your life: most people can now expect to change careers several times.

Talk to your guidance counsellor, family and friends but, ultimately, don’t be swayed into a decision that you’re not happy with.

“Whatever decision you make will not define your life, and college is about more than your course; it’s about the skills and experience you pick up on the way,” says O’Byrne.

How colleges are helping students make the right call

Virtual talks and open days: They run across all third-levels, but UCC's Nurturing Bright Futures, a six-module programme involving podcasts, articles, lessons, exercises and quizzes, are a must-do for students across Ireland, irrespective of whether they want to go to UCC or not.

Tasters: On December 7th, UL's arts, humanities and social science faculty will host a TY taster day involving live and pre-recorded sessions. UCD and Maynooth run taster events. Trinity College's school of computer science and statistics offers small groups the chance to meet their teaching staff, while many of its schools have outreach programmes.

Podcasts: Home at UL, available on Spotify, features talks on sports scholarships, taster courses and the CAO application process. NUI Galway's Student Voice podcast includes interviews with students and graduates. The DCU CAO Hub hosts weekly podcasts with current students, virtual campus tours and a Pubble chat option where the DCU team can answer your questions.

Prospectuses: It may sound obvious, but an online or print prospectus gives valuable information about colleges and courses.