THE race for a college place next autumn is already well under way.
Almost 21,000 college hopefuls have already applied to the CAO for entry to a degree or higher certificate course next September.
The figure is about 12pc higher than the 17,884 who had applied to the CAO by the same time last year.
The rise in early applications may reflect the growing appetite for higher education as record numbers of students sit the Leaving Certificate and also heed advice about the need for a third-level qualification for the modern workplace.
As many as 90pc of second-level students are now sitting the Leaving Cert, up from about 82pc a decade ago.
The initial CAO closing date is February 1, but applicants are advised to submit their forms as early as possible to help avoid any administrative logjams in the final days.
By February 1 last year, 71,648 had applied, although that figure subsequently rose, taking account of late applications.
Apart from school-leavers, there is rising demand from mature students (aged over 23) and those who have been through further education to go to third-level.
About one in five students who started college in the current year was either mature, or used a qualification such as a Post-Leaving Certificate (PLC) course as a basis for entry.
The Irish Independent is publishing a special 16-page supplement on Monday to assist Leaving Cert candidates, and other prospective third-level students, in making their decisions.
Going to College 2013 will include a unique table by Irish Independent career guidance expert, Mary O'Donnell, listing the 1,300 CAO courses by category across more than 40 institutions.
The up-to-date, comprehensive listing takes account of changes in courses on offer since last year and provides an easy-to-follow guide to the range available in particular disciplines.
The supplement also offers expert advice on what students need to consider when making their choices on the CAO.
And there is a raft of other information, such as how some students may access college on lower points, on private colleges, on UK colleges and student accommodation and living costs.