Ireland’s Guide To Money And Living

CAO – The be all and end all

How to successfully navigate the CAO system – and make sure it leads you to where you want to go.

Sophie Rowan, psychologist and author of ‘Happy at Work’ advises a cool head and a long-term perspective when making your choice and filling out your CAO form.
Yes – it’s that time of year again when aspiring third level students are busily submitting their CAO (Central Applications Office) applications for 2009 and wondering if they have made the right choices for this important study (and potentially career) decision. Up to 70,000 applications are expected for 2009 and, given the state of the economy, the job market, and the fact that many of those let go in 2008 and early 2009 have a redundancy pay-off sitting in their bank account, 2009 will be busier than ever for the CAO.
Before we look at the broader question of career implications from your CAO choice, let’s look at some facts and figures.

Many leaving certificate students have received in-depth support and advice from their parents, teachers and peers about how to make the best choice of third level course. CAO packs were sent out to second level schools back in September last year and students have spent many hours poring over the range of options available to them. For those applying outside of the ‘school’ system (mature or international students, for example) the best resource available to you is the CAO website ( where you can download a comprehensive handbook telling you all you need to know about your application and you can also submit your application online. There are also a range of newspaper supplements published in the weeks preceding the various deadlines (see below). If you’re stuck on which course to choose, and where it may lead, you should consider looking into the range of professional services available to help you make your course choice and to assist with your application.

The official CAO deadline (February 1 2009) is already upon us, but don’t panic if you’ve missed that. There is a ‘late application’ facility available until May 1. If you are making a late application, make sure you give yourself plenty of time to research available courses and to prepare your application. There are literally thousands of courses available and, even if a course has been recommended to you, it’s worth looking at the alternatives too.

This is the million dollar question and sadly there is no definitive answer. However, here are some general pointers that might help you:
It’s stating the obvious but, first and foremost, you need to reflect on why you are choosing to study at third level. Is it to pursue a life-long yearning for further study, to re-train or forge a new career path, to kick-start your career or simply to keep your career options open?
Embark on some healthy introspection – think about where your interests lie. What are you naturally good at? What are your strongest or favourite subjects? What kind of career are you hoping for? What kind of student are you? What are you looking for from your college experience?
Bear in mind that, for the majority of students, third level education is a means to a career, so think ahead to what you would like to be doing in five years time. Look around at the people you know – peers, family, and friends. Whose job do you like the look or sound of? Now is the time to find out more about these jobs – what do these people do on a day-to-day basis? How did they get into this career area? What are the prospects for pay and career progression? How happy are they in their work? FЕS run a fantastic website, which is a mine of information on careers and entry requirements. It also provides a career matching facility, which helps you discover some surprisingly-suitable career choices for you.
Attend college open days and talk to current students or recent graduates of courses that appeal to you. Does the course or college you are considering have a strong reputation in your chosen subject?
Listen to feedback from those who know you well – often they will see talents and inclinations that you may not be fully aware of.
Unless you have a specific idea of where you want your course to lead you (career wise), keep your options broad enough and choose a course that will offer you some flexibility. You can always specialise at post-graduate level.
If you really are confused about study and career choice, you might think about undertaking a professional assessment with a career advisor or psychologist.
Think about the practicalities, especially if you intend to study away from home. You will need to plan your finances carefully and perhaps think about getting a part-time job.
College isn’t just about study. What extracurricular activities are you most interested in: sports, debating, or getting involved in the arts? Is your chosen place of study going to offer you the ‘all-round’ college experience?
Some CAO courses, especially art and media-related courses, will demand a portfolio or audition so make sure you are fully aware of what’s expected of you and the timetable.

First round offers will be available from about a week after Leaving Certificate results are available (mid-August) and go through until mid-October when courses start. Even if you don’t get your first choice, of course, the chances are you will be offered one of the courses from your list. In the event that you don’t receive an offer at all, there are a number of options to consider. You can reapply next year – the selection criteria for some courses fluctuate (both up and down) so, if you just missed out on an offer, you may fare better next year. There are numerous ways for you to study outside of the CAO and the standard degree route (see for typical academic and vocational entry routes into careers).
Those starting their studies in 2009 will typically graduate between 2012 and 2014, and 50 per cent of graduates now go on to do postgraduate study. So what’s likely to be in vogue career wise in five years time? Without the benefit of a crystal ball, it’s hard to fathom, particularly from where we stand today. Ireland has always prided itself on its entrepreneurial spirit and solid small- and medium-sized enterprises often thrive in more challenging times. Self-employment will also feature more regularly on CVs when the traditional job market contracts. In more general business terms, there will always be a need for business and accountancy graduates. The ‘knowledge economy’ acknowledges our international standing as one of the most well-educated workforces in Europe and this will boost careers in research and development. Medical and pharmaceutical sciences are currently very well established in Ireland and although the public sector is challenged financially, there will be ongoing reform and restructuring that should lead to some interesting opportunities in specialist areas.
Being realistic, we may also see an increase in the number of graduates travelling overseas once they qualify to more buoyant economies.
And remember, college isn’t the be all and end all
Many hugely successful people go straight into the workforce and undertake professional qualifications through an accredited professional body, rather than pursuing the academic route after secondary school. Others pursue their career while undertaking courses at night school or via distance learning. Others re-train or re-direct their careers without an academic qualification and focus instead on how to transfer their skills and talents from one career to another. What’s most important is your vision and ambition and the commitment and hard work you demonstrate in pursuing your goal.