The Irish Times Higher Options expo: how to make the most of it

The Higher Options expo for senior cycle students is vast, so plan this week’s visit wisely, think about what you want to ask and you’ll be surprised at the options open to you

What will you do after school? Many sixth years haven’t given it much thought yet. Others may have a firm idea of their future career and will have settled on a degree course in a university or perhaps a post-Leaving Cert course in a college of further education. And, let’s face it, many will go to Higher Options expo in the RDS this week out of curiosity and because it’s a day off school.

The Irish Times Higher Options is a firm fixture in the education calendar. This year's conference will be the largest ever, with more stands from hundreds of colleges throughout Ireland, the UK and Europe than ever before.

Claire Looby of The Irish Times is the project manager for Higher Options. "This year, there is an increase in the presence of UK agricultural colleges," she says. "There are also more representatives from the Irish construction and engineering industry, and they are highlighting the re-emergence of apprenticeships."

Also, this year, a number of overseas colleges will focus on applied sciences, and there will be talks on careers in nursing; what you can do with a bachelor of arts degree; how to apply to college through CAO; how to apply for UK colleges through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) system and much more.


"Some students will go in well-researched and some will go to the conference in search of ideas," says Betty McLoughlin, president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors and a counsellor at Coláiste Mhuire CBS in Mullingar, Co Westmeath. "Others will be trying to get their head around what is available and what it might be like in college. If they're very ill-prepared, they may not get as much out of the day."

The Institute of Guidance Counsellors, in association with The Irish Times, will give students a worksheet to help them to make the most of their time. Students can use the worksheet to highlight the stands they want to visit and the talks they want to attend. But what sort of questions should they be asking?

1 What are the minimum requirements for this course?

Perhaps you have a course in mind. “It’s really important to know the minimum requirements,” McLoughlin advises. “For instance, some students might have their heart set on the veterinary medicine course in UCD, but they might not know that they need to study Leaving Cert chemistry to get in. Nor can you study dietetics in DIT without a minimum of a C3 in higher level Leaving Cert chemistry. Or, they might want to do a degree in law and French, but it’s not an option without Leaving Cert French.”

This information is usually available on college websites or; students can also find it out at the college stands.

2 What is involved in this course?

"My son was interested in social work, but he spoke to the people at the stand in Trinity College, and, after asking a few questions, realised it wasn't right for him," says McLoughlin. "Then he spoke to people about computers at the DCU stand and figured out it was the course for him. The conversations you can have at Higher Options may have a crucial bearing on your decisions."

3 Is there a work placement or Erasmus opportunities?

Some courses, especially in business and science, offer a work placement. These help deepen understanding of the course and can also give students valuable work experience and a career head-start. Some employers, if they are particularly impressed with certain candidates, might offer them a job on graduation.

4 I don’t know what I want to do. How can I make the most of the day?

“Ask yourself what subjects you like and what you are good at,” advises McLoughlin. “What are your aptitudes and transferable skills? Am I numerically gifted or do I prefer to read? If you like reading and critical thinking, a law or an arts course might be worth looking at.”

It may seem obvious, but if you’ve no real interest in computers (outside of using the internet), then maybe a computer course isn’t the best option for you. Likewise, if you’re squeamish about biology, you mightn’t like medical courses.

5 What other factors should decide my college choice?

Don’t forget to ask about clubs and societies. Increasingly, employers will look at two almost identical CVs from two applicants with 2:1 degrees and make their decision based on how involved the student was in college life. Did they join a sports club? Were they involved in a student society, student politics or college newspaper? Did they volunteer? It is, however, somewhat cynical to get involved in college life because “it looks good on the CV”. College life is a worthwhile experience in its own right. It’s where you make new friends, meet like-minded people, broaden your horizons, learn new skills and become a more well-rounded individual. So it’s very much worth asking whether there’s a vibrant student life there and if there are clubs and societies that you can see yourself becoming involved mightn’t like medical courses.

6 What if I don’t want to go to college? 

The traditional college route isn’t necessarily for everyone. Una Mulqueen is an advocate for Youthreach, a Department of Education programme for early school leavers, and she brings students to Higher Options every year to get them thinking about their future and higher education options.

“We don’t offer the traditional Leaving Cert,” she says. “Youthreach students do either Fetac Level 4 or the Leaving Cert Applied. Youthreach students can’t directly go to higher education institutions, but they can continue education on Post-Leaving Cert courses and progress to college through other routes.” Mulqueen encourages her students to visit exhibits from Dublin-based PLC colleges and ask any questions they have about the course and application process.

Visiting the stands can have unexpected results. Art and youth work are popular subjects for Youthreach students. "For art students, we bring the National College of Art and Design exhibition stand to their attention. Last year, two Youthreach students went to the NCAD shadowing day. This year, one of them is doing a portfolio preparation course in Ballyfermot College, and he is looking to go to either NCAD or DIT next year."

  • The Irish Times Higher Options conference is in the RDS from Wednesday, September 16th, to Friday 18th. Tickets are sold out. As well as college stands, the expo features talks and lectures on topics including CAO and Ucas applications, studying in Europe, careers with an arts degree, and in engineering, nursing, design, agriculture and science
  • Don't miss: This year, The Irish Times will run a competition at the event, open to all students attending, where one lucky student can win the Ultimate Study Hub, with a study desk and various study aids and gadgets.


JAMES COX (18) is entering his first year of a BA in computer science and business in Trinity College Dublin. He is a former student of Coláiste Mhuire CBS in Mullingar

“I got a lot out of the day. As well as meeting lots of students from different schools, I got to speak to experts about various colleges and courses. I had a vague idea that I was interested in IT and finance, but the day really helped me to cement it.

“I had some clear questions in mind. What were the career options when I finish my course? I wanted to make sure I had a good degree. Would I enjoy the course and would I enjoy studying it? A big factor for me was whether or not they had an Erasmus year option. What is distinct about this course here, as opposed to similar courses in other colleges, and what are the modules taught?

“I also wanted to know about the social side of college. Trinity might not be well-known for sports but they seemed really positive about their Gaelic football and hurling teams, which is important to me.”

CHLOE SWARBRIGG (18) has just been accepted to study medicine in NUI Galway. She is a former student of Coláiste Mhuire CBS in Mullingar

“For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be a doctor. It’s a lot of pressure, and I missed out by just 33 points in 2014, so I decided to repeat my Leaving Cert this year, and I got it. I went to Higher Options in 2013 knowing I wanted to study medicine, but I still had questions to ask. I wanted to find out more about my lower CAO preferences, including science and biomedical degrees, and I wanted to find out more about the different Irish universities I could study medicine in.

“I asked about the modules and I asked what life was like in the different campuses. My advice to students is not to be embarrassed to ask anything; even if it seems trivial, it might be important to you, and the various people at the different stands are there to answer your questions. Go in armed with a list of questions so that you can make the most of your time, and find out everything you need to know.”