School’s out: Time to focus on those college choices

Students still have until July 1st to finalise their course selections on the CAO form

The prospect of selecting a set of course choices that will set you on a career pathway can seem very daunting, if not impossible

The prospect of selecting a set of course choices that will set you on a career pathway can seem very daunting, if not impossible


What do you really want to study in college? This is the time to reassess your CAO options. The Leaving Certificate is now over or finishing up for this year’s students and two months of rest – or summer work – beckon. For most students, the grades you receive on Wednesday August 12th will be immediately translated into the currency of CAO points to secure your preferred college course/courses.

Many Leaving Cert students have not yet decided what they want to study in college. More than 6,000 CAO applicants this year have yet to indicate a single course choice. Many of those who did make course choices back in January listed very tentative or holding preferences, knowing they had until July 1st at 5.15pm to go online to their CAO record and list their final course choices.

Even though you may feel totally drained by the Leaving Cert written exams you’ve just completed, and far more focused on a trip to Ayia Napa or some other holiday resort, it will pay huge dividends in September if you give your undivided attention in the coming days to getting your CAO choices right.

Even if you are perfectly happy with your original choices, it is wise to review them at this stage. Courses are discontinued all the time and colleges add new courses to the CAO system. There are dozens of courses on offer at the moment which didn’t exist when the CAO printed its handbook last summer. Explore them now.

Between now and July 1st, log on to your account on and see what courses you have listed, and in what order. For all the courses you have listed, study the full course content of each year’s lectures, and the progression opportunities of each course to employment or postgraduate opportunities on

Getting into the right frame of mind for the future

Now you have finished the Leaving Cert and left behind 14 years of school life, the prospect of selecting a set of course choices that will set you on a career pathway can seem very daunting, if not impossible.

The litmus test in determining your course choices over the coming days is not what job you will get when you leave college in three to four years’ time. It has to be what subject material will motivate you to get out of bed next winter, to attend your lectures, study the topics raised by your lecturers in the library, write the assignments such research will generate, and successfully complete the first-year examinations next May.

If you find a course whose subject content interests you, and does not involve subjects which you found very difficult or uninteresting in school, you are likely to engage fully with that programme, and to be in a position to engage with all of the non-academic life of the college without endangering your chances of successfully passing your exams at the end of the year.

Where will a degree in the course you select now – because you find the subject interesting – lead to? Technological change is reshaping the nature of work rapidly, so a degree you finish in 2019/2020 could open up opportunities in the labour market that haven’t even been invented yet. So don’t worry about it now, just get your course choices right in the next week.

How do I identify the courses I will enjoy?

Qualifax has advanced searches to enable you to list a series of key words in either the title or course prospectus for a range of programmes. If you have not done so yet, that search facility is the best place to start. When you read the course content, admission requirements, progression opportunities, career options etc, you will get a clear idea whether this course should be on your final list.

If every Leaving Cert followed this simple exercise, there would not be thousands of unpleasantly surprised college students in October each year, dropping out of their course because they do not like the subject content of their course. I have spoken to hundreds of students over the years who admitted they chose their course not on a detailed examination of its academic content, but because it what was what their friends were studying.

What happens if I make that mistake?

The price of failure to fully research the course content of every programme you plan to list on your CAO application now – before the change of mind closes on July 1st – can be very big.

If you end up accepting a course that isn’t right for you – whether because you don’t like the curriculum, or you didn’t research the course content thoroughly, or because you realise you have selected a course you have no interest in – you may end up dropping out during the academic year, or you may fail your exams.

If either of these happens, and you decide to return to college the following year on another course, you will have to pay the registration fee of € 3,000 again in 2016. You will also have to fork out the course fee, at least € 4,000, which the Department of Education and Skills will pay the college on your behalf this year.

The HEA, on behalf of the State, will only pay course fees once for every year of an approved course. If you end up repeating a year, you pay. This extra € 4,000 would bring your fee total for your repeat first year to at least € 7,000. For many families today, this is way beyond their resources, especially when you factor in the living costs of college.

Even if you choose a course in a private college this year, and then leave it to follow one in a State-funded college next year, you still have to pay the full fees.

Fees paid to private colleges are tax-deductible at 20 per cent on any charges over € 3,000 and so are treated in the same way as State-funded places, even if you do not claim the tax relief.

Things to check

If, after a few days of detailed research you have identified a list of courses that seem to fit your interests, make sure you are in a position to secure a place in all of them, if you get sufficient points in your Leaving Cert.

Make sure you meet all entry requirements of all these courses, and have taken the required subjects at the appropriate level. An example of this is the higher-level maths requirement for level 8 engineering degrees.

With this list in hand, put them in an order of preference or priority. This is one of the most intense periods of engagement between colleges and prospective students in the whole year.

Colleges will facilitate individual visits from you to discuss any programme you are seriously considering. Contact the course director or programme office (phone numbers/emails on the college prospectus or website). If possible, if you haven’t already done so, visit both the college and the department to get a personal feel for the course.

When you have completed this process before July 1st, list your final course choices on your CAO record in the order you actually want them, allowing for all possible results in your Leaving Cert. You have up to 10 choices at both level 8 higher degrees and level 7/6 ordinary degrees/higher cert programmes.

Never disregard the level 7/6 courses out of a sense of academic snobbery, as almost all these programmes allow you to progress onto the level 8 higher degree with one additional year of study.

Don’t finalise your choices without consulting the key adults in your life: discuss them with your parents and guidance counsellor.

If you contact your school, the guidance counsellor will probably be happy to meet you or discuss your choices by phone.

Remember, the work you put in over the next few days will pay dividends when you check The Irish Times or log onto the CAO site on Monday, August 17th.

Whatever you do, once you have completed your research and made your final list of choices, don’t be tempted to revisit this process from some far off internet café in a beach resort, following a few beers with your friends. Mature students, deferrals

If you are a mature applicant, have already completed your Leaving Cert or have requested a deferral of your place, you may receive an offer of a CAO place any time after July 4th. If you get any offer from the CAO and do not accept the place within one week, your offer lapses and you cannot retrieve it.

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