Ten deep breaths, seven good choices, one clear direction

The Institute of Education’s guidance counsellor advises students to pick the subjects that already engage them.


This June, 55,000 students will sit the Leaving Cert in Ireland. Everything they have spent the last two years learning, studying and revising will be put to the test. Their results will then be converted into points and put through the CAO system, where their future course of study will be determined. However, approximately another 55,000 students are only beginning this two year journey now.

Choosing your Leaving Cert subjects
Around this time is when students in transition year or students studying for the Junior Cert hoping to move straight into fifth year are asked to choose their Leaving Cert subjects. Students preparing for the Junior Cert may feel like the Leaving Cert is so far away and be wrapped up in their current study. Students in transition year tend to fall into “relaxation mode” and similarly find it hard to focus on Leaving Cert decisions. It would be easy to overlook the importance of choosing the right subjects for the Leaving Cert at this seemingly early stage. However this is a common misconception for students.

Don’t make the wrong decisions
Choosing the wrong subjects can have serious consequences for students. To begin with, by choosing a subject you are not good at, you are welcoming two years of struggle as you try to understand concepts, methods and ideas that others in your class seem to have grasped. Secondly, by choosing a subject that you don’t like or that doesn’t interest you, you are creating a challenge for yourself when it comes to dedicating hours upon hours of study of the subject. But most importantly, by not considering what it is you want to study after the Leaving Cert in third level education, you could be limiting yourself hugely in the options available to you. Imagine your disappointment if, after spending two years working hard to achieve the maximum points you can, you discover you are not eligible for your preferred course of study because you haven’t met the subject or level requirements for the course you want (many courses require you to have taken the higher level programme).

Now is the time for subject choice
The Leaving Cert is by far the toughest academic challenge you will have faced so far. The next two years of preparation for it will be intense, tough and sometimes overwhelming. Parents can prepare to embrace tantrums, tears and often more stress than the students themselves. Choosing subjects is a huge part of the process and should be treated as such. This is a crucial time where subject choice becomes your priority because getting the right mix of subjects may affect your future in school, at third level and in the work force.

Sharing the tough decisions
For all the first time Leaving Certificate parents who aren’t familiar with the current system, this can be an overwhelming time when you don’t know what to advise your son or daughter to do. Treat this Exam Times as a “how to” guide to the Leaving Cert. Everything you need to know about choosing subjects and getting the right balance over the next two years can be found on these pages, leaving you with enough information to make you into a Leaving Cert expert.

The common pitfalls
Students must pick subjects which will maximise their points and ensure they achieve grades which reflect their full potential. There are some common pitfalls when it comes to choosing subjects which I must advise you against. For example, never choose a subject just because your friend might be choosing it. Never choose a subject just because you like the teacher. Never choose a subject just because your older brother or older sister did well in it. I could go on and on.

Throughout all my years as a guidance counsellor, I am still asked “What are the perfect subjects to choose for medicine, drama, law, engineering, etc?” There is no right answer to this question. This is why choosing subjects is so challenging but if you follow this guide for how to pick which subjects will work best for you, you will hopefully reach your full potential.

Course requirements
One of the most important factors which I will continue to address throughout this guide pertains to course requirements. Many third level courses require not only a certain number of points for entry, but also a minimum grade in a certain subject. It is up to you to ensure you have met these requirements. This is why it is so important to think ahead to what you wish to do at third level. Planning is so important at this stage, to make sure you do not limit your options.

To find out if courses you wish to study have any specific requirements, you should go online and check college websites, or qualifax.ie and careersportal.ie. These two sites list all third level courses and give you any necessary information you may need for each course.

Typically, as you enter fifth or sixth year, you will fall under one of three categories:

“I know exactly what course I want after the Leaving Cert.”
This student might say : “I want to study business”, for example.

“I’m not sure exactly what course I want but I have a vague idea.”
This student might say : “I am good at languages”, for example.

“I have absolutely no idea what I want to do after the Leaving Cert.”
This student might say “I’m reasonably good at all subjects.”

The following articles will hopefully tackle any worries that a student from any of these three categories may have.

Striking the perfect balance:
This guide will give you an impression of almost all the subjects you can choose from. You can then make a more informed decision about what subjects suit you best. Hopefully, by reading this, both you and any parents who are worried about their sons and daughters will realise the importance of getting the correct balance of subjects. This is not a decision you should take lightly. If you have any doubts or queries, you should talk to your parents, teachers or guidance counsellor to make sure you are making an informed choice. Keep your future in mind while you make this choice. Don’t choose subjects which will overwhelm you so you have some chance of enjoying your next year or two years. Get the balance right now to ensure success.

You can download a full PDF version of the Exam Times subject choice supplement here, or visit www.ioe.ie to learn how the Institute of Education can help you achieve your goals.