Nine tips for choosing a business course

With a dizzying selection of business courses available, what should you look out for before deciding?

Dr Anne Smyth: Students interested in setting up their own business need to know about marketing.

Dr Anne Smyth: Students interested in setting up their own business need to know about marketing.


Budding business students are spoilt for choice. But in choosing a course, what should they look out for?

We asked for perspectives from career guidance experts, students and business professionals:

Ailbe Murphy is a career guidance counsellor with and at the Jesus and Mary Secondary School in Enniscrone, Co Sligo.

Dr Anne Smyth is managing director of Drover foods, a Wexford company which employs 57 people and provides cooked food ingredients for the UK sandwich and convenience food markets.

Eamonn Sweeney is a student on the business, economic and social studies (BESS) course at Trinity College as well as content and communications manager at

1. Broad or focused course?

Ailbe Murphy: Business degrees are broad, so students don’t have to make a decision straight away; they are a good stepping stone into a diverse range of careers. Business covers employment in sectors such as retail, banking, insurance, management, accounting, human resource management, entrepreneurship, finance, sales and marketing.

There are hundreds of different CAO business courses available in colleges, institutes of technology and universities, including courses from level six higher certificates through to level seven ordinary degrees and level eight honours courses. If students aren’t sure of which course they want they could do a PLC business course after school to give them a taste of the modules they may study in college or to gain employment in a business environment.

Students need to think about their end goal and where they see themselves ending up. There are more specialised business courses for students who know what they want to do, including commerce with a language, entrepreneurship, HR, marketing, business & law and business and ICT. But if they don’t know the specific area they would like to work in, they could apply for a broad business or commerce degree where they can sample a range of subjects in first year and specialise in second year.

It is important for the student to research course content in detail to see if the first year modules interest them and what options are available to them in second year.

Anne Smyth: My undergraduate degree is in food science and technology at University College Cork, and I have a PhD in protein chemistry. My formal business training has been through Enterprise Ireland’s business for growth programme, which I went onto because I knew we needed to diversify and grow our product portfolio. I’ve worked in the food business now for 25 years, and I think it really doesn’t matter what course you do after school as long as you do something you are passionate about. If you love it, you will be good at it. And, as there are so many postgraduate and executive business courses available, you can do a business course at any stage.

2. What skills do you want to develop?

Ailbe Murphy: Employers value key skills such as communication, teamwork, creativity, entrepreneurial, organisational, problem-solving and analytical skills, so courses that can develop these attributes are valuable.

Anne Smyth: For me, resilience is vital in business. You will get so many knocks that are out of your control, whether that’s the uncertainty of Brexit or something as everyday as currency fluctuations affecting your exports. You must be willing to take a few bruises and adapt and change your business.

3. Does the institution matter?

Ailbe Murphy: The result of a degree and a graduate’s involvement in extracurricular activities is more important than where the degree came from. Employers will look at work experience, job skills, language and voluntary work. Students can also complete a postgraduate diploma or masters in a specialised business school to enhance their qualifications.

4. Is there more to consider than the course?

Eamonn Sweeney: I think the university experience matters a lot. There are so many soft skills that I’ve learned through clubs and societies and which you don’t get in a classroom, including working with a team or committee, managing real money and organising events. They’re incredibly formative things to do, but they’re also skills you put on your CV and draw on in job interviews. They’re definitely some of the best things I’ve done since college and would definitely weigh on my mind if I was choosing again.

5. How important is work experience?

Ailbe Murphy: Students should research all business courses to see if a work placement is offered, as it’s a valuable way of developing necessary business skills and making contact with employers, which in turn enhances your CV.

Anne Smyth: The importance of being adaptable makes work experience an invaluable part of a business course, particularly for those who want to start their own business - it would be really hard to succeed without it.

6. What do budding entrepreneurs need to know?

Anne Smyth: Students interested in setting up their own business need to know about marketing. We have rebranded our whole business, using a new logo and new website. First impressions count and branding and image are important.

A knowledge of technology matters too: there are so many changes and so many technologies disrupting the way things are done, so it’s important to be aware of what’s coming next. In our business, processes are becoming more and more automated and we are investing in this, so we need people who can understand it.

7. Does language offer an advantage?

Ailbe Murphy: Many universities including DCU and UL offer the chance to do an extra year on work placement or travel to a university abroad to improve your language skills. Work experience and learning a language can go hand-in-hand.

Anne Smyth: As an export company, we’ve got support from Bord Bia and we use local agents in markets including Spain, Germany and the Netherlands. It’s important that they know the culture of a country, not just its language, so language graduates who have studied and worked abroad are an asset.

8. Does maths matter?

Eamonn Sweeney: Having a basic grounding in statistics and quantitative work in your course probably does matter. I even get the sense that there is a real expectation that you can handle basic quantitative work and be comfortable working with data and numbers. It could be worth keeping an eye out for courses that have introductory stats classes and allow you to develop analytical skills.

Anne Smyth: If you’re running a business, you can of course hire a good accountant. But it’s still your money and your debts, so it’s good to have some understanding of money.

9. How can you find out more?

Ailbe Murphy: When deciding on which college or course suits you best, think about your learning style and the teaching methods on the courses. Do you value small classes and more personal approach? Project work, work experience or a more theory-based approach?, Qualifax,ie and all contain information on the various courses available, their requirements and career sectors. Attending open days, talking to former or current students and consulting with your school guidance counsellor can help.

It’s also worth considering attending a third-level summer school for students interested in college or university. NUI Galway, UCD and Maynooth University have applications open for their one-day or week-long summer schools. They’re an opportunity for prospective students to get a real taste of university life and enjoy a range of hands-on practical activities; I’d highly recommend them to transition year and fifth year students.

And remember: it’s not a requirement to have studied a business subject in secondary school in order to do a business course at third-level.

Panel: Don’t discount apprenticeships

Apprenticeships have been traditionally associated with mechanics, carpenters and plumbing but, in recent years, new options are opening up in the world of business. Apprenticeships combine the best of both worlds: a chance to work and earn while you learn, with classes held in both higher and further education settings.

Business-related apprenticeships include:

* Accounting technician: level six advanced certificate in accounting. A two-year programme involving four days a week on-the-job training and one day of learning. Delivered at various locations.

* International financial services associate: level six higher certificate in international financial services. A two-year programme with four days a week on-the-job training and one day of learning. Delivered by the National College of Ireland.

* International financial services specialist: level eight higher diploma in financial services analytics. A two-year programme with four days a week on-the-job training and one day of learning. Delivered by the National College of Ireland.

* Insurance practice: level eight BA (hons) degree in insurance practice. Four days a week on-the-job training and one day of classes. A three-year programme delivered by IT Sligo

For more information see