Planning on attending an open day? Do your homework first

Open days give you a great chance to gauge how good a fit your course and college choice will be

Students  should undertake  basic research about the college and its courses  prior to the open day. Photograph: iStock

Students should undertake basic research about the college and its courses prior to the open day. Photograph: iStock


The full realisation that their time at secondary school is coming to an end often becomes clear for sixth-year students when they find themselves walking the corridors or sitting in a lecture theatre in one of Ireland’s third-level institutions during an “open day”.

The opportunity to physically experience the college environment – even for a few hours – can kickstart the process of thinking about the importance of maximising their performance in the Leaving Cert, as they consider the next step on their life-long career journey.

It can also bring a greater focus to their interactions with the school guidance counsellor as they work together to identify the most suitable course option to pursue following the completion of the school year in June 2020.

The key to successfully making the transition to higher or further education is to concentrate on the suitability of the curriculum content, college facilities, availability of accommodation, or public transport links rather than the desired occupational area or specific job which they may hope to progress to following graduation.

That task can become the focus of attention in four or five years’ time, when college life is coming to an end and the needs of the labour market in 2025 have become clear.

With this in mind, students who are planning to attend a series of open days in the coming months should undertake some basic research about the college and its course offerings prior to each event. Doing so hugely increases the benefit of taking time out of their studies to experience what college life is really like.

After all, depending on the decision students will make by the close of the CAO course selection process on July 1st, 2020, and the course offer they eventually secure next August, they are committing several years of their life to this next stage of study and learning.

Prospective third-level or further-education students will already have been given a copy of the 2020-21 CAO handbook and have been online to explore college courses in Ireland (see Anybody who is not based in a second-level school or college of further education (who all receive handbooks from the CAO), can get a copy from the Central Applications Office in Galway (

More than 25,000 sixth-year students attended the Irish Times/IGC Higher Options conference in the RDS last month, where they attended talks from experts in the field of further and higher education and spoke to representatives of many colleges and courses.

Of course Leaving Cert students are not only considering courses offered through the CAO. Thousands choose to study at their local Further Education (FE) college, where they can secure level 5 and 6 QQI awards facilitating entry to employment or into those CAO courses which reserve a percentage of their first-year undergraduate places for FE graduates.

All FE colleges operate open days, often holding several such events throughout the academic year.

Several thousand Irish students will apply for courses in Northern Ireland (particularly those living near the Border), Scotland (where Irish students pay no fees) or, in some cases, England, notwithstanding the £9,250 (€10,430) yearly fees. Most of these applications are through the UK Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (

The UK’s higher education authorities have guaranteed the same terms and conditions in September 2020 for Irish residents enrolling in UK/Northern Ireland universities, even though Britain may by then have left the EU.

EU citizens can study in any EU country under the same terms and conditions as in their own country and thousands of Irish students have in the past six years chosen to study at one of the more than 1,000 courses taught through English in continental EU universities.

EU colleges also host open days which Irish students can attend – low-cost air fares should help minimise the expense involved in attending such events.

Three career events with representatives from Dutch universities, as well as Irish students who already study in the Netherlands, are taking place on the evenings of October 21st, 22nd and 23rd in Cork, Galway and Dublin.

You can find out more about these events, and studying in Europe, from the European Universities Central Application Support Service (

Some sixth-year students may even consider studying farther afield, such as in the US or Australia.

Course content

When exploring college options, be aware that the course is only a small part of what you will experience when you arrive on registration day in late August next year to start college life. You will be entering a community that will help shape you for the rest of your life.

In our personal relationships we take time getting to know other people and every aspect of their personality before we commit to them. Selecting a course that will commit you to living your life within that community for at least three years should be considered just as carefully.

The only way to evaluate whether a college is right for you is to explore all aspects of its life as fully as you can on its open day and see whether it feels right. This is more than an intellectual exercise.

As a guidance counsellor I have dealt with many students whose minds were full of facts and figures about dozens of courses but could not differentiate between the choices. They were lost in a sea of data, with no guiding compass to make the right choice.

Would you commit yourself to a relationship with someone based on reading a fact sheet about their life so far? On a college open day you will see the institution put its best foot forward. It is dressed in its finest attire, full of presentations, smiling student ambassadors, friendly lecturers and goodie bags, all designed to present the college in its best light.

It can be hard to see the true nature of college life from such an experience. But you can see through a certain amount of the perfect presentation that every college puts on during open days, to the reality that lies behind.

If you are particularly impressed with a college or course after an open day, try to go back on an ordinary day and wander around, to see if day-to-day normality gels with its open-day presentation.