The expert view: Making the right CAO decision

The selection of a wrong course choice is one of the main reasons why students drop out of college

The timing isn’t ideal. Last February, tens of thousands of students filled out the CAO form and decided what they wanted to do with the next few years of their life.

Except that they didn’t really, because increasingly students have come to see the change of mind deadline as the real final decision date for college courses. And now, it really is decision time.

The good news for students is that the notion that this choice is no longer as high-stakes as it once was. College courses are becoming more general, giving students the chance to specialise in second or third year; a growing number of courses focus on equipping students with transferable skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving, which will give them a wider choice of careers; and, in any case, the notion of a “job for life” is gone and today’s graduate can expect not only to change career multiple times in the course of their working life but also to engage in continuous learning and professional development.

The bad news is that wrong course choice is one of the main reasons why students drop out of college, and most students would rather get it right the first time around.


Catherine O'Connor is an education consultant, specialist in student recruitment at Trinity College Dublin and author of Cracking the College Code: a practical guide to making the most of the first-year college experience. Fergal Scully is a guidance counsellor at Rathmines College of Further Education. We asked them for their advice.

Check the form

“A lot of students use the change of mind to change their course choices but increasingly I am seeing people who open their CAO account in January and leave the course choice section blank until change of mind opens in May,” says Scully. “Many put off this decision as long as possible. If you’re using the change of mind facility now, you are less likely to be the student who has known for a long time what you want to do. This is nothing to worry about: the vast majority of us didn’t know for sure what we wanted to do when filling in the CAO for the first time.”

Scully says that all applicants should use this time to get someone who knows the CAO system to look through their application. “Mistakes can be costly. The best person for this job is a guidance counsellor as they use the CAO system every day, and most mistakes can be easily rectified at this stage.”

Do your research

“You need to re-examine your set of CAO choices with an eagle eye,” says O’Connor. “Each course listed requires in-depth research including searching the college and course websites. You should ask family, friends, the third-level colleges, college students you might know, your community and any contacts or networks you might have. Ask questions. A lot can be done in a short space of time. You need to get below the surface and find out if you are really interested in the courses you have listed. Do I know enough about these courses and the subjects I will be studying to make a commitment for three or four years? Have I looked ahead to the second and subsequent years of the course to see how it evolves. You also need to look at the course content and how it is delivered and assessed, academic supports, college services, opportunities abroad, internships and links with industry.”

She adds that students should check if their course has an element of studying abroad and whether this is voluntary or compulsory. “While this experience can be most beneficial to students, both in terms of language and cultural development, it can be daunting if you are unprepared or the exchange agreement is badly organised.”

Choosing the right course

Is the content of the course right for you? Scully advises students to look towards courses with broader, rather than very specific, content. “Courses like arts cover a broad spectrum of the more traditional academic subjects such as English, history and philosophy and they offer a range of subjects to choose from as well as electives from other departments. For those more technically-minded, a general-entry to a science course is worth considering. Students cover a very broad range of the science disciplines in first year before specialising in later years, so this gives you a chance to make a much more informed choice. There is no point in studying something very specific like genetics unless you are sure about it. Likewise, there are many general business studies courses out there which offer a good grounding in a broad range of areas including finance, marketing, human resources and management.”

He suggests that students consider the subjects they enjoy the most. “If you like English or history, then maybe an arts or social science course would suit you. On the flip side, if the idea of writing essays fills you with dread and you feel more comfortable in your science or maths subjects, then something technical like engineering, computing or science may suit you better.”

Choosing the right college

Choosing the right college is equally important, says O’Connor. “How does the location suit you and what are the financial implications surrounding this choice? What size is the campus both geographically and in terms of student numbers attending and, more importantly, the number of students enrolled on your courses of interest? How can you adapt to this environment?”

Scully and O’Connor both point out that extra-curricular activities often give graduates an edge in the jobs market as well as making time there more enjoyable. The bigger universities and institutes of technology tend to have the broadest range of clubs and societies, but Scully says that the big institutions can be a daunting experience for some, whereas a smaller institution like a regional IoT or college of further education, with a more personal approach and smaller class sizes, can be a better fit for some.

“Talk to students and graduates and explore your wider network to find out what clubs and societies are run at the college of your choice and how you might spend your free time in getting to know others and involve yourself in college life,” says O’Connor.

Making a mistake

What if you get it wrong? “It is possible to transfer to other courses within an institution during the first term but I wouldn’t rely on it, as it really is down to the college itself to decide on a case-by-case basis. Most of the more popular courses simply don't have the space for transfers,” says Scully.

Outside the CAO

Don’t rule out the PLC option, says Scully. These are primarily courses of one year in duration, as opposed to the three or four demanded by college. “The progression routes from PLC to universities and IoTs is broadening all the time. Maynooth University for example will consider any level-five course for entry. Once the year is complete, you have a qualification that makes you more employable, that can be used instead of the Leaving Cert for entry and that has given you a better understanding of your chosen area of study.”

Last words

Fergal Scully: “When making your choices at this late stage, make sure to run through your options with your guidance counsellor if possible.”

O’Connor: “Make sure to find the college that suits you best. Don’t be tempted to hunt with the pack or change your mind based on your Leaving Cert performance. A good test is to answer the following question about every course listed: ‘If this was offered to me in August, would I be happy to take it?’” Your answer will speak for itself.

My CAO choice: Rebecca Gorman, third-year student in human nutrition and dietetics at DIT

“Back in Transition Year, I was going through the DIT course booklet and human nutrition and dietetics really jumped out at me. I always wanted to be challenged in my career and to work with people, and I love science, so it was a good fit.

“It is a difficult decision to make because it feels like you are making a call on what to do with your life. I knew that I wanted to go to college and that I had to find a course. I also looked at human rights, law or political science, but gradually came to focus more on nutrition.

"I'm from Gorey in Co Wexford, so I always knew I'd have to go away for college. As well as applying to DIT, I put in applications for human nutrition at UCD and UCC, and I also applied for UK colleges through UCAS.

“I was really happy with my choice, and I really enjoy the course. The focus is on helping people who are already sick, but I’d love to go into policy-making.

“As for the college, I got involved with societies and the students’ union, which has really added to my experience. Beyond a doubt, students should not neglect the extracurricular when they are making their call. It has massively added to my college experience.

“My advice for students: think of the skills you will learn from a course and how it will teach you to think and work. Pick something that makes you excited rather than something you are settling for.”