My Leaving Cert results don’t make the grade – but I don’t want to repeat

Don’t panic if you didn’t get the points – there are other routes to third-level

While the idea of repeating the Leaving Certificate may seem like the only option if you are determined to get the points for a place on a particular third-level course, there are plenty of other options if you didn’t get the results you wanted or needed and remain open-minded about your future career goals and, more importantly, the route you can take to achieve them.

Vacant places list

Assuming you don’t get a satisfactory offer in the first or second rounds of the CAO application process, the list of vacant places (also termed “available places”) will continue to be published and updated on the CAO website. These are places that remain unfilled after all offers have been made and there is no one left on the waiting list for them. They start becoming available after the first round of CAO offers are issued, and it operates on a weekly schedule of applications, offers and acceptances.

If you are an existing CAO applicant there is no charge for checking this list and adding any of these places to your Level 7/6 or Level 8 wishlist, but if you are a new applicant, then you’ll need to pay a €40 fee. Either way, you must make sure that any applications arrive at the CAO (by post or online) before 11am on a Monday to be considered for offers made on the following Thursday.

You’ll have a week to consider any CAO offer; any offer not taken up before the round two deadline of September 7th will continue to be offered over the following few weeks until October 19th.


It’s worth mentioning here that if you choose to appeal your Leaving Cert results, the SEC (State Examination Commission) will publish the results of those appeals in mid-October. If it turns out your result is improved and would have entitled you to a higher-ranking offer when the first or second rounds of CAO offers were made, then the CAO will make revised offers to you shortly afterwards.

However, most students who wish to accept such higher-choice offers will probably have to defer these places, as half of semester one will have passed by that stage.

PLC courses

Although colleges or institutes of further education have been accepting students on PLC (Post-Leaving Cert) courses since January, thousands of places may be freed up after August 22nd as students who had applied to both the CAO and their local PLC college will have opted to accept their CAO offer.

A PLC course can be taken over one or two years and lead to FET (QQI) Level 5 and Level 6 awards. Many of these courses can link to NFQ Level 8 and Level 7 courses in the CAO, which you can apply for in January next year using your FET (QQI) award as your entry qualification.

The simplest way to check the “progression routes” for all PLC courses is by using the search tools in the “courses” section on Or if there is a particular CAO course you want to gain entry to eventually, you can look it up and see if there is a QQI link icon that indicates whether or not it accepts FET awards instead of Leaving Certificate results. Under the Higher Education Links Scheme (HELS), these courses will reserve a limited number of places for students who gain access via the PLC or FET route.

A small number of PLC colleges offer students the opportunity to progress to level 8 honours degree programmes that are validated by external bodies. For instance, Ballyfermot College offers a BA (hons) degree in media production management that is awarded and accredited by DCU.

Some PLC programmes also offer direct entry to excellent employment opportunities, so check out the courses available in your locality on

PLC courses are generally based on continuous assessment and not a final examination, and usually include a mandatory work placement in the area the students are studying so they can see what life is like in that career area.

Depending on the points you achieved this year, you can also consider doing courses leading to an Advanced or Higher certificate (level 6) or an Ordinary Bachelor degree (level 7), many of which can allow you to progress upwards to an Hons degree (level 8).

Independent/ private third level colleges

The private college sector has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years, with institutions such as

Dublin Business School

and Griffith

College Dublin

enjoying name recognition on a par with many publicly funded colleges and with all-round reputations to match. Other institutions have built strengths in particular fields, such as Hibernia College for primary teacher education and the Newpark College of Music.

More and more students are considering courses in these colleges for high-ranking CAO choices as well as lower-points alternatives to the university and institute of technology sector, and many of the institutions will have places available if you lose out in the second round of CAO offers.

The biggest drawback for many students is, of course, the fees, which can be as low as €4,000 but are more likely to be closer to €6,000-€7,000 per year. However, the fact that these fees are tax deductible and the student contribution charge for “free” public institutions has risen in recent years to its current level of €3,000 (not to mention a host of extra fees that some universities may add on top of that), means that the difference in costs between attending a publicly funded and a private third-level institution is getting smaller.

You won’t be eligible for the student maintenance grant, but the fact that most of the biggest private colleges are in Dublin means that many prospective students will probably live at home anyway.

Entry to most reputable private institutions is through the CAO, although some may offer direct entry. The fact that a course is not available through the CAO doesn’t imply that their providers work to a different or lower standard than publicly funded colleges, but you should at least check whether the qualifications have QQI accreditation. If they don’t, there is a risk that they won’t be recognised by many employers or seen as worthwhile.

You could also check that the college you apply to is affiliated with the Higher Education Colleges Association, which represents private institutions and also ensures standards within the sector. It only accepts members that are QQI accredited.

UK ‘clearing’

Given the shock of Brexit, the idea of studying in the UK may not seem as attractive to some students as it once did, but if this doesn’t put you off, you can check out the UK equivalent of the CAO’s Available Places process, which is popularly known as “clearing”. It’s run by UCAS, the centralised agency processing applications for colleges in

Northern Ireland





and Wales and, like the CAO scheme, you don’t need to have previously applied to the UCAS system to be eligible to apply for places under the clearing process.

You should start by researching the available courses on Ucas. com. Students can search by keyword, course, institution and even county or area, and you can also see their entry requirements. Some will show Irish Leaving Cert requirements, but if you can't find them, admissions officers can provide this information over the phone. While you're speaking to them, ask them what your chances of acceptance would be.

Some colleges will accept lower grades than advertised during the clearing process and some will not, so it’s vital to actually ring and speak to someone in the college.

You must fill out a UCAS application form on including a personal statement and a reference completed by a teacher or other independent person who can comment objectively on the your ability to succeed in your chosen subject area.

Once a “clearing” number is received and a decision is made on the preferred course from these informal offers, a student should enter the details of this course alone into the clearing section of the UCAS application.

Studying in Europe

Just as taking up a college place in the UK will be a big decision because of the need to factor in the costs of living away from home, tuition fees, travel and expenses, so too will looking at options to study in mainland Europe. But in a post-Brexit world, studying in another EU member state may well prove less daunting, more secure and more rewarding in the long term than going to the UK.

The attractions are varied, including a more cosmopolitan life and exposure to other languages and cultures, while many continental European universities figure higher in international rankings than Irish colleges. Plus you can take your student maintenance grant – if you qualify for one – with you.

But more and more Irish students have been driven abroad by points pressure here, a shortage of places and the high demand for third level. For many popular courses in science, engineering, business, IT, pharmaceuticals, games design, animation, fine art, hotel management, law and psychology, there can be more appropriate entrance requirements.

Universities all over Europe offer courses through English, even in countries where English is not the main language. Many of these courses have lower entry requirements than Irish courses, and low fees. In some cases, such as Germany, Scandinavia, Sweden and Finland, no fees apply at all, while in Austria, Switzerland and Belgium fees are usually less than €1,000 a year.

Eastern European countries such as Hungary and Poland are popular destinations for those studying high-points courses such as medicine, veterinary, dentistry, pharmacy and physiotherapy. Fees are high, averaging about €10,000 a year, but these may be offset by the lower cost of living compared to here.

Good resources to look up include or Eunicas is an independent application support service set up for Irish or UK students who are unable to access their preferred course at home, as well as those who actively want to study abroad.

Even at this late stage there are opportunities to apply for college in continental and eastern European colleges for this autumn but, at the same time, the idea of studying in a non-English speaking country is a big move and probably something you will want to consider carefully over the course of several months rather than a few frantic weeks.