Parent’s diary: ‘I’m wistful for the random way we made CAO choices in the 80s’

In the absence of psychometric tests or college open days, we took a more anarchic approach to life-defining career decisions. It seemed to work out well for most of us

Back in the 1980s, fans of Brideshead Revisited wanted to go to Trinity - as long as they were able to pose in tweedy jackets, corduroy trousers and tank tops. Photograph: Nicola Dove

Back in the 1980s, fans of Brideshead Revisited wanted to go to Trinity - as long as they were able to pose in tweedy jackets, corduroy trousers and tank tops. Photograph: Nicola Dove


Back in the 1980s I don’t remember anyone being psychometrically tested or going to wonderfully informative college open days ahead of deciding what third level course to apply for.

There was very little career guidance. Course choices were limited. Our motivation for CAO choices ranged from deeply unimaginative and completely random to totally misguided.

In recent days, my son has been finalising his course choices in a very different era.

The sight of the CAO application form and all its definitive implications makes me want to invite Alain de Botton over for dinner to help our teenager work on those big philosophical questions: why are you on this earth? What is your purpose in life? How do you make your course choices on the CAO?

I almost feel wistful for the slightly anarchic approach we took to our life-defining CAO decisions.

While I’m sure this process appears flawed and inexplicable to today’s students, there are some lessons they might be able to take away from our unorthodox career planning. Here are some strategies to consider:

The ‘Brideshead Revisited’ factor:

Many of us in the 1980s made CAO choices strongly influenced by the prevailing TV shows and movies of the time. Those who were fans of the TV series Brideshead Revisted or the movie Chariots of Fire wanted to go to Trinity and study anything - at all as long as they were able to pose around the arts block in tweedy jackets, corduroy trousers and tank tops.

The portly and eccentric Rumpole of the Bailey was a role model for successful school debaters who inevitably made law their first choice.

One of my friends from college was so deeply moved by the novel Dr Zhivago that she decided to made Russian her number one choice - so she could become a spy.

The hopeless romantic  approach:

A friend from school decided to study Italian because she had met a cute Italian boy on her summer holidays in Rome and thought a year in Italy as part of the course would allow her to pursue more attractive Italian boys as part of her studies.

Boys studied French and Spanish for the same reason. If you were a girl who picked engineering, chances were that you would be one of the only two girls in a class of a hundred boys. This gave you the status and popularity of a rock star. Ditto if you were a boy who picked art history.

‘I’ll do anything to get into college’ strategy:

Many of us who knew we weren’t going to set the world on fire in the Leaving Cert chose the most unpopular courses with low points only to become successful academics.

That’s why they we ended up in subjects like ancient Greek and Roman studies, Latin, theology and classics. Ironically, many did very well because they were taught by dedicated passionate professors and the interesting, small classes created “a big fish in a small pond” effect on students who stuck it out.

The ’computers will never take off’ policy:

There were a few computers in school back then, but practically everyone thought they were hopelessly boring.

Computer classes involved maths teachers trying to teach us how to program them using binary numbers, which was impossible. I, for one, felt convinced they were a boring fad and of marginal interest only to geeks. It turns out that I may have been wrong on that one.

The nerds who applied for those courses turned out to be farsighted geniuses on fat pay checks.

‘Cool comes first’ blueprint:

Only the achingly cool students had the confidence to apply for architecture or art college.

From a very young age they dressed in black and talked knowledgeably about abstract art and modernism.

Once they got into college they spent the rest of their life boring, I mean, enlighening us with advice on how to live, what to eat, wear and listen to - several years before the rest of the population.

The ’keep in the family’ approach:

If your parents had a big farm in the midlands and you wanted to work as a farmer then your mind was made up: agriculture was number one. If your parents had a successful business and you wanted to work with them, marketing was the answer.

After college you then got to spend the rest of your working life trying to persuade them to modernise because you knew how to run things better than they did - and praying for the arrival of their retirement date.

The ‘dive head-first into college’ angle:

For many, it didn’t matter in the slightest what they had put on their CAO forms. They arrived in college as fully formed mini-adults with a goal.

They became totally immersed in whatever it was that interested them: organising gigs, staging political protests, joining DramSoc, setting up business activities, writing for student newspapers or selling soft drugs. Some even managed time for college work as well.

Many went to be very successful impresarios, politicians, journalists, art gallery owners, tech millionaires and Oscar winners.