Q&A: What’s this about CAO points again reaching last year’s dizzying heights?

Last year saw very strong Leaving Cert grades and high CAO applications. A similar pattern is expected this year

Latest figures show the number of CAO applications is running close to last year’s record-breaking number. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Latest figures show the number of CAO applications is running close to last year’s record-breaking number. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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CAO points are likely to match last year’s record high. Why?

Last year saw the strongest set of Leaving Cert grades combined with the highest number of CAO applications to date. When college offers were issued in 2021 many courses saw a record rise in the required points as a result.

A similar pattern is expected this year. This is because Leaving Cert grades will be “no lower” than 2021 on foot of a Government decision earlier this year.

In addition, latest figures show the number of CAO applications is running close to last year’s record-breaking number.

This all sounds very stressful. Does this mean I’m less likely to secure my chosen course?

Not necessarily. The Government is due to create about 1,000 additional college places in high-demand courses in response to the rising number of applications.

As a result it is hoped that a similar proportion of applicants will receive offers compared to normal years.

Last year, for example, about 50 per cent of applicants received their first preference CAO course in the first round of offers and just under 80 per cent received a top three offer. This was similar to previous years.

Will many courses involve random selection this year?

Random selection, or a lottery, is the method used by the CAO to award places when students with the required number of points outnumber the places available.

There was a big increase in the use of random selection in 2021 due to the strong grades awarded.

It was most common in high points courses: while random selection was used in just 8 per cent of courses overall last year, it jumped to just over 40 per cent among courses requiring 550 points or more.

Internal Government records state that the recurrence of random selection at this level is “highly likely” this year.

Government officials said this week, however, that the 1,000 additional college places this year will be targeted across many high-demand courses. The hope is this will lead to fewer places being awarded on a random basis.

Why are there so many more college applications?

Last year record number of CAO applications – 85,000, up 9 per cent on the previous year – was due to a number of factors. They include demographics (more Leaving Cert students), increased applications from abroad (due to Brexit) and a sharp rise in mature applicants (due to Covid, mainly).

Latest figures for this year show college applications are slightly below last year’s (down 1.5 per cent). This is due mainly to a drop in the number of mature students, which is partially offset by a further rise in demographics and overseas applicants this year.

If points climb high surely I’ll lose out?

A rising tide lifts all boats. If you are sitting the Leaving Cert this year (or reapplying based on last year’s results), your grades will be at a higher level than would be expected in normal years.

Grades generally increased during the pandemic due to the use of teachers’ more generous predicted grades and light-touch moderation by exam authorities.

This translated into significantly higher points in the CAO, with the median points achieved rising from 350 in 2019 to 390 in 2020 to 420 in 2021.

Those disadvantaged are applying on the basis of grades secured in 2020, 2019 or 2018 and so on, when results were at a significantly lower level.