For now, get your form in on time then relax

Published 22/01/2014 | 05:20

IT'S an acronym that strikes dread in the minds of Leaving Cert students and their parents at this time of year – the CAO.

February 1 at 5.15 p.m. is the the normal closing date for receipt of Central Applications Office applications if you want to go to college.

Like a Census form or a Revenue return, it cannot be avoided

Official form-filling always brings a degree of anxiety but the CAO form is in a category all of its own. This is the one that asks: Come on now, stop dithering, what do you want to do with the rest of your life? And please give us first, second, third and umpteenth order of preference, in case we run out of places.

Since you were four years old, aunties and random strangers have asked you the same question. What would you like to be when you grow up? It's a query always posed with a big smile as if you could be anything you wanted. No limits. It was just a matter of deciding.

Over the years, your response has most likely varied wildly – spaceman, doctor, train-driver, dancer, famous footballer or hairdresser, depending on your imagination or the toys you were playing with at the time. When you are six, you can be as ambitious and as unrealistic as you wish, because that CAO form is not yet on the horizon.

My younger daughter was usually lost for an answer when asked the career question.

It must have caused her some private juvenile soul-searching because one day, then aged seven, she suddenly piped up from the backseat of the car: 'Mammy I know what I'm going to be.'

'What do you mean?' I asked.

'I know what I'm going to be when I grow up,' she grinned.

'What are you going to be then?'

'I'm going to be a millionaire!' she beamed with certainty and satisfaction. That was it then. Settled. I looked forward to a distant future of idle luxury financed by my worldy-wise millionaire daughter.

Now enjoying non-urgent career modules in Transition Year, with an older sister having started college this year, she looks up third level courses just for the fun of it. Without a CAO deadline looming, she and her peers can still day-dream about what they would like to be when they grow up.

Come Leaving Cert year, the parallel lines of reality and wishful thinking must converge and collide. This can cause stress, resistance and procrastination of pathological proportions for students and parents.

During the first few months of Year 6, my eldest daughter, now happily settled in third level education, was more freaked out about not knowing for sure what she wanted to do, than she was about the approaching exams.

The CAO demands that you put realistic choices, not day-dreams, down in black and white and be able to say with reasonable expectation, that you will get the projected number of points required. That's before you sit the exams.

This seemingly 'do or die' process can involve an adjustment of expectation that requires a high-level of maturity. It's a State-enforced episode of self-realisation, a grow up and make up your mind time. On the CAO form dreams and pragmatism collide.

Thinking of putting astro-physics top of the list? But you're not doing a Science subject for Leaving Cert. Adjust. You'd love to be a doctor but the points are beyond your reach. Not to mention you hate the sight of blood. Adapt. Culinary Arts sounds fun. Forget it. Eating, not cooking, is more your line.

How about film-making, peformance arts or acting? Mention something creative and your parents will start getting nervous. They will almost certainly raise the following query, perhaps not straight away but it will come: 'We know you enjoy dancing but do you think you'd be able to make a living from it?'

You see, economic practicality and unbounded ambition also meet on the CAO form.

There is a very sound reason for this. Your parents will be paying for, or certainly contributing towards, your education. You may think this is their duty and responsibility. And it is. But the chief purpose of this transaction is to make you financially independent of them at some stage in the not-too-distant future.

They pay now so they don't have to continue paying later. It's an economic trade-off and one that they hope will eventually conclude with you paying your own rent and buying your own food.

So if you want to become an avant garde performance artist, you'd better be sure you really mean it.

Who would have thought that one little application form could involve so much?

All this while you're so busy studying for the damn Leaving Cert (on top of class tests and homework) that you fall into a book-strewn bed most nights, exhausted, and dream of being chased by menacing characters in uniform shouting 'Tell us, tell us. What do you want to be?'

For now, the most important thing to remember is that once you complete the form by the February 1 deadline, there will be an opportunity to change your mind. So, relax.

You will almost certainly make changes before the ultimate deadline on July 1. In fact, there may be no resemblance at all between your first and final applications.

Try not to feel pressured in the meantime. Just keep a note of the crucial dates. And again, relax.

Your teachers and your parents have your back. Tell them if you're stressed. Ask for advice. Use your instinct. Focus on your own interests and strengths. Don't worry about what your friends are doing. Trust that your choice will come, by a process of elimination, if nothing else, as the time draws nearer.

Aim high, put down your top choices but give yourself well-thought out alternatives further along the list in case things don't work out the way you planned.

Finally, remember education is a journey not a destination – a journey filled with side roads, y-bends and potential.

The third level course you choose may eventually lead you into a different place entirely, somewhere wonderful and exciting that you never dreamed about when you were filling out the dreaded CAO form.

It depends on you – how interested and determined and ambitious you are or later become.

Because you can really be anything you want to be when you grow up, if you want it badly enough.

Maria Pepper

The Argus

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