Most CAO applicants likely to get one of their top-three choices despite points rise

Government’s 4,600 extra college places aimed at easing admissions race

The Government is aiming to ensure about three-quarters of all CAO applicants will get one of their top-three choices when college offers are released on Tuesday afternoon.

A combination of record-breaking Leaving Certificate results and higher numbers of college applicants – 84,000 – are expected to push CAO points higher for many courses on Tuesday.

While data on college offers is still being processed, a spokeswoman for Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris said it is seeking to maintain the percentage of people who secure a top-three offer this year compared with last year.

A total of 78 per cent of students did so last year, despite a significant rise in CAO points.


The Government hopes the addition of more than 4,600 additional higher education places in high-demand courses – in areas such as nursing, pharmacy, medicine, science, law, media and other areas – will ease some of the pressure on admissions.

However, higher education sources warn that places in areas such as medicine and pharmacy are “maxed out” and fear that they will need to use random selection to award places in more courses this year.


Separately, the extent to which schools overestimated their students’ performance in this year’s Leaving Cert is revealed in new data.

Almost three-quarters (74 per cent) of students’ estimated grades were higher than the normal pattern of Leaving Cert results prior to the pandemic. This is up on the equivalent figure (60 per cent) in last year’s system of estimated grades.

However, a State Examinations Commission (SEC) report says schools should not be blamed for the high estimated grades.

It says research shows that in such situations there is a “natural tendency towards optimism” in estimating students’ performance.

A 180-page SEC report on the accredited grades process – based on schools’ estimated marks – acknowledges significant grade inflation in this year’s results.

It says last year’s school estimates showed strong evidence of “overestimation of outcomes at all points in the achievement spectrum” .

This year, it says, there were “even stronger grade profiles, with substantial further increases in the proportion of estimates corresponding to the highest grades, especially at higher level.”

For example, while the proportion of top grades(H1s) was just under 6 per cent in 2019, it rose to more than 13 per cent under the school estimated grades in 2020 and just under 17 per cent this year.

Ultimately, a standardisation process overseen by the SEC this year resulted in the adjustment of some school-estimated grades for reasons of consistency and fairness across schools.

While most grades remained unchanged (77 per cent), some grades were adjusted downwards (17 per cent) and upwards (6 per cent), a similar proportion to last year.

Grades were not adjusted back to normal pre-pandemic patterns as the extent of downward adjustment would place “stakeholder and public support for the entire process at risk”.


The report also notes that a move to bring this year’s school-estimated grades in line with last year’s estimates would have required a downward adjustment of almost a third (32 per cent).

The report also shows there was a “clear reluctance” by schools to give estimated marks to students close to grade boundaries.

For example, in the case of H1s (90-100 per cent), there was a clustering of estimated marks around the 95 per cent area. This was repeated for all grade levels.

This was despite official guidance for schools that drew attention to this tendency and advised teachers to try to avoid it.

Despite the high proportion of top grades, it says teachers engaged with the estimates process with “ the utmost integrity and professionalism”.

It said it is “only natural that teachers who are working closely with their students over a long period of time will see the best in them and will both want and expect them to do well.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy

Ronan McGreevy is a news reporter with The Irish Times