What factors should influence your college choice

What should you keep in mind when choosing a course?

A lot has changed in the past year. But the big wheel of education keeps on turning and, with the CAO Change of Mind deadline looming, the Leaving Cert class of 2021 will soon have to decide on what to do after school.

So what should students keep in mind – and has the Covid-19 pandemic changed the usual advice? We asked two experts. Prof Mark Rogers is the registrar at University College Dublin, while Donnchadh O'Mahony is a careers expert with Studyclix.ie, host of the Leaving Cert Guidance Podcast and a guidance counsellor at Loreto College St Stephen's Green in Dublin.

1: Do your research

There are hundreds of courses out there, so how can a student find what’s right for them?


"Careers Portal [CareersPortal.ie] and Qualifax.ie are probably familiar to students, but they should also have a look at ExitEntry.com, an app from DCU that matches employers with students before they graduate and also has a personality test geared towards secondary students," O'Mahony advises.

2: Ask the right questions

Research is key to choosing the right course, says Rogers. “You should research the course content so that you understand the depth and breadth of the modules you can choose.”

O’Mahony says that students should ask themselves some key questions before making their choice:

* How long will the course be?

* Does it have an option to study abroad?

* Does the college offer electives allowing you to study outside your particular subject area?

* What skills will I get (eg verbal, teamwork, research, etc)?

* How do I learn best: am I interested in verbal learning, in which case I might be interested in politics, or perhaps I learn spatially and would be interested in architecture or construction.

3: Think of your values

Are you going to college because you want opportunities and a career, or is it all about the money? If it’s about the money, students might look at areas including finance and ICT, but they should have an interest in the course and the career or they may be in for a wealthy but deeply unfulfilling life.

Rogers advises students to research who they are and what motivates them. “Research yourself – set out a list of your interests and your own goals short term and long term and see what elements of college life, such as student societies, will help you to attain those goals. It may be a cliché but you won’t regret choosing a subject that interests and engages you.”

The decision is ultimately being made by the student, and should not be unduly influenced by parents or guardians, so don’t overfocus on market trends.

“It is their path and their pathway,” says O’Mahony. “If they’re going against market trends – choosing a fine-art course, for instance – there is always the option for a postgraduate.”

4: Take a (virtual) tour

The open day has always been helpful to students making their college course, but the pandemic has forced higher-education institutions to run their tours online.

“Ideally [students would] visit, but also talk to people near your own age who have gone there,” Rogers advises.

While some students might have better connections than others – perhaps their families know doctors, farmers or lawyers – most third-levels now have student ambassadors who can answer any questions you might have, and you’ll often find these through their websites.

5: Look at campus life

The chance to get involved in clubs and societies has been cruelly robbed from students and, while a lot has moved online, it isn’t quite the same college experience. It can’t be.

Hopefully, things will be better for the Leaving Cert class of 2021. Getting involved in clubs, societies, the students’ union or the campus media is a chance to make new friends with common interests, develop new skills or even get a parallel degree – actor Chris O’Dowd cut his teeth at UCD’s Dramsoc, while numerous journalists have learned their craft in college newspapers.

“During Covid-19 we conducted some in-depth surveys to assess how students were coping,” says Rogers. “The most challenging issues they highlighted were making friends, missing their friends, sustaining concentration and dealing with loneliness. Assessment results for autumn trimester 2020-2021 indicated that the vast majority of our students performed very well in their assessments in these difficult circumstances. So we can conclude that while technology can certainly address how we work, personal and in-person interaction is crucial for a person’s wellbeing.”

6: Look beyond the CAO

Don’t discount apprenticeships which, rather than require students to pay hefty college fees, provide them with the chance to earn while they learn. The range of apprenticeships is growing and includes much more than the traditional craft roles: students can also train as auctioneers, insurance practitioners, accounting technicians, finance, ICT, logistics, sales, recruitment and more.

Post-Leaving Cert courses can provide a valuable qualification in themselves, as well as be a bridge to third level.

Finally, look overseas: the UK UCAS system will open for “clearing” in August, with a massive sale of courses. Because European Union students are drying up as a result of Brexit, Irish students will be keenly valued by UK higher-education institutions.

7: Don’t narrow your focus to now

When the economy crashed more than a decade ago, and the construction industry all but collapsed, the demand for construction courses collapsed too.

Ten years on, with Ireland in the midst of yet another housing and homelessness crisis, there's still a shortage of suitably skilled construction graduates.

Today, with tourism on its knees, there’s a risk that students will turn away from hospitality courses, leading to a severe skills shortage down the line.

“It will be 2025 before most of the class of 2021 graduate,” says O’Mahony. “Most of the industries that have suffered during the pandemic – particularly travel, tourism and hospitality – will, we hope, be back to pre-Covid standards. Don’t let what’s happening now put you off those courses if they’re the route you want to go down.”

8: Prepare for change

“Covid-19 prompted some specific changes in the delivery of teaching and assessment,” says Rogers. “UCD has an online platform that lets lecturers post materials and communicate directly with students in groups or as individuals.”

Rogers says that UCD has invested heavily in software and hardware to support digital learning. “Despite the fact that we all wish to return to a normal campus experience, students will continue to benefit from these investments and more lecturers have recognised the flexibility it gives to them in their teaching and their mode of assessment.”