CAO: What if you choose the wrong course?

It might feel like a setback but it happens more than you think. So what can you do if you don’t like the course you chose?

No matter what the degree is, there will always be a module or two that doesn’t appeal. Photograph: iStock

Ah, for those (relatively) carefree days of late January, when the Leaving Certificate didn’t loom so large. Back then, it didn’t matter too much what course you put down on the CAO form. Sure, couldn’t you change your mind in May or June?

As sure as night follows day, it’s now May, and the change of mind facility is open. Many students will have reflected on their mock results, done more research on courses and made their decision.

But even the most sure-footed will have doubts and fears. What if you press the submit button, one final time – only to find yourself on a course you don’t like? And how commonly does this happen?

“It is common,” says Brendan Baker, head of careers at Maynooth University.


“Students may say that the course is not what they thought it would be, and they are not really pushed about it. Often, it’s because their friends were doing it, and it sounded interesting, but they didn’t do much research.”

Alice O’Connor, who is a guidance counsellor at Stepaside Educate Together Secondary School in south county Dublin, says that even students with top CAO points will sometimes drop out of a course.

“Besides the course content, there are so many other factors that influence whether a course is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for any given student,” she says.

“The environment has to be right for the student. Maybe they didn’t visit the college, or dig down into the modules and exactly what they would be doing on the course. I am always trying to stress the importance of visiting the campus, talking to the staff and students and doing as much research as possible.

“Courses in different colleges may have the same name, but they don’t all necessarily offer the same things. I know, for instance, of a computer science student in UCD who dropped out and moved to creative computing in IADT Dún Laoghaire. This was a much better course for that student, as it was more creative, with more teamwork and smaller classes.”

No matter what the degree is, however, there will always be a module or two that doesn’t appeal, Baker says.

“The course does have to be of general interest to the student, but it isn’t always going to be entertaining the whole way through,” he says. “You don’t have to love it all on day one.”

Baker says that the cost of living and commuting has risen in recent years, and that this can be a stress on all of us, including students. Many students have part-time jobs; depending on the number of hours they have to work, it can eat into their study time and their chance to get involved in college life.

O’Connor concurs, adding that accommodation, transport and even groceries are relatively expensive.

“Some families may be able to sit down and budget, but those most vulnerable to dropping out may not have the same level of opportunity, or their family may not have a tradition of going to college,” she says.

“Many parents who have not gone to school or college here may not know how to help their child apply to college, so we do as much as we can to support them.”

To try to minimise the risks of a student dropping out, guidance counsellors will run through as much as possible, as often as possible, with their classes.

At this stage in the CAO process, Baker says that students should review their decisions.

“If you put down, for instance, arts or science in a given university as a first choice, go back and ask: is it really? Don’t put down courses you really don’t want to do as your fourth, fifth, sixth choice. If you’re under pressure to do business and accounting, but what you really want is law, sit down and have that conversation.”

And, if it does go wrong?

“If the college student figures out early enough that they don’t like the course, they may not lose that year of reduced fees,” says O’Connor.

“They can also explore a transfer within the college. Talk to student advisers and academic registry as soon as they have doubts. If they have a good relationship with their parents, talk to them too. My students can always come back and talk to me, even when they’re in college, and most guidance counsellors will offer the same. PLCs will take on students until October, too.”

Baker says that, whatever happens, there are so many more routes and options for students today.

Even if they enjoy what they are learning in, say, an engineering course, but can’t see themselves working as an engineer, that’s fine: the course will nonetheless provide them with valuable skills as their career progresses.

“Remember that you are not confined to this for the rest of your life,” Baker says.

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