Crunch time is coming. In the next few weeks, students will finalise their Central Applications Office application and decide which further or higher education courses appeal to them most. What factors should influence this decision?
We spoke to two experienced voices for their advice. John McGinnity is admissions officer and assistant registrar at Maynooth University, while Ailbe Murphy is a career guidance expert with Studyclix.ie and a career guidance counsellor at Jesus and Mary Secondary School in Enniscrone, Co Sligo.
What you like
First and foremost, students should opt not for what they think will get them a “good job” after graduation but what they really enjoy.
“Some of this may be guided by the subjects they enjoy in school,” says McGinnity. “Some may be guided by their transition-year experiences – although, of course, this year’s Leaving Cert class found that experience limited by Covid restrictions.”
Students may have completed an "interest inventory" with their guidance counsellor, but for those who have not, you'll find plenty of useful resources on Qualifax.ie and CareersPortal.ie.
“The beauty of these inventories is that they give an indication of the areas they would most enjoy in college and the areas they would like to work in,” says McGinnity. “In deciding on a college, it’s hard not to be influenced by friends, parents and people you care about, but in the end it is so important to take ownership of the process.”
What’s on the course
McGinnity advises students to look at the different modules and electives on the various courses to get a real sense as to whether you’d enjoy studying it.
“Also have a look at study abroad and work placement options,” he says. “And see if, in the first few weeks or months of a course, you have the chance to change your subjects: on our arts degree at Maynooth, for instance, you can sit in on different lectures in the first month and see if you enjoy them, before making any final decision.”
Murphy says that students should look at the modules and see if they would be interested in them.
“There will be subjects you’ve never studied before and, here, looking at the related jobs can give you a good steer,” she says.
What you’re ready for
Murphy advises students to fill out their course options for level six and seven courses as well as level eight courses.
“The more you have filled on the form, the higher your chances are of being offered a place. It’s also worth considering if you want to take a year out, as some students don’t feel ready for college. Post Leaving Cert [PLC] courses are a very good bridge between school and college and, as many of them are not full-time, there is enough flexibility to also take on a part-time job. With the pressure of exams over, PLC courses can give students a better idea of what they’re interested in and whether a particular college course will be right for them.”
What you’ve seen
Although most – but not all – open days have passed, students can still visit the campuses they have applied to, in order to get a feel as to whether or not it might be a good fit for them.
Murphy says that, if students don’t get a chance to visit the campus, they should engage with an online open day or virtual tour.
The by-product of three years of Covid-19 is that third-level colleges have much more digital resources on their websites.
“This means that students can access a range of video resources to research their courses and the college they’re going to,” says McGinnity. “There’s now also more opportunity to physically visit the campuses that were closed or restricted during Covid. And there is something intangible about how you feel walking around a campus – so ask yourself if this is a place you will be happy to spend the next few years. If you can, take some time to visit the campus just before the final change of mind.”
What it costs
“The cost of college should definitely be a consideration,” says Murphy. “At the beginning of the college application process, students often look at courses as far from home as possible, but they put down a closer college as the deadline looms. Because of Covid, some students who moved away were only actually on campus one day a week.”
With inflation spiralling and the cost of accommodation being particularly prohibitive – if students can find somewhere to live in the first place – more are looking closer to home. And with five technological universities now offering the option of a university education to students in and around Athlone, Carlow, Letterkenny, Mayo, Sligo, Tralee and Waterford, this opens up a wealth of new options to students who may previously have felt limited to Belfast, Cork, Dublin, Galway or Limerick.
Other students might look at their options to study overseas (Eunicas.ie), with many courses in Europe having lower entry requirements – and lower fees – than here in Ireland.
Murphy says that the Susi grant portal is now open and that the qualifying brackets have increased slightly, which will benefit more students. She suggests that students check with the various colleges or on CareersPortal.ie for information about scholarships, which can really help lower the cost of third-level.
What you’d enjoy
In the final, heady days before sending off your final CAO application form, there's always a risk of focusing entirely on the course and module details and forgetting that college is also about the student experience: getting involved in clubs and societies, getting active in the students' union or contributing to the campus newspaper or radio station.
“They’re such a great way to make new friends, especially if you’re living on campus and staying up for the weekend,” says Murphy. “They’re also a great way of broadening your interests and developing your CV, and there are so many options available.”
Where the jobs are
These days, most companies are more interested in employing graduates with any degree than in necessarily employing specialists (with obvious exceptions for professions like architecture, engineering or veterinary medicine), so whatever your degree is will not define your career.
“Do consider the jobs and the likely income levels as one of the considerations, but not the only one,” says McGinnity. “Often a student will pursue an area they are interested in for their undergraduate degree and pursue a more vocational option for their postgraduate qualification. But if you are solely interested in high income and go on to study an area you don’t really like, you won’t enjoy the college experience and you may be more likely to leave that career area if you are not job-satisfied.”
And what not to do
“Don’t make the mistake of listing courses in order of which tend to have higher CAO points, rather than what you’re genuinely interested in. There’s no point, for instance, in listing science or health science courses at the top of your form simply because you think you might get the points for them, and putting and humanities course lower down your form because they’re likely to have lower points – unless, of course, you really want to do those science or health science courses. This is a surprisingly common mistake.
“Points can change hugely from one year to the next, as we saw over the last few years,” says McGinnity. “It might be that the right course for you is 100 points less than the one you have applied for.”