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CAO 101: How to make the best college choices... for you


Aoife Walsh

Aoife Walsh

Aoife Walsh

Hopefully, most CAO applicants will have already identified a number of courses for which they wish to apply.

It is important to list as many courses as possible, and students should always complete the application form in order of preference only.

If a student can say they would enjoy every course they list on their CAO form - and they can see how each of these courses supports their career goals - then these should be included in their application, even if they don't consider the course perfect.

Usually, half of applicants receive their top choice in the CAO first round but, if not, the CAO will work down each individual's order-of-preference list until they can make an offer. (This will be a course for which applicants have met the entry requirements and have enough points.) Three in four applicants receive one of their top three preferences.

Come August, when an applicant receives an offer, all courses they have listed below the offer they have received (whether their top choice or a lower preference) will be removed from their list.

So, once an applicant has received an offer, it is not possible for them to receive an offer for a course they listed lower down. They may, however, be offered a place on a course higher on their list in a subsequent round. For these reasons, order of preference is extremely important.

For many students, filling all the slots on the CAO form - 10 each at Level 8 (honours degree) and Level 7/6 (ordinary degree/higher certificate) - is a struggle, but it is worth it, as the CAO cannot offer an applicant a course they have not listed.

The preference list for Level 7/6 courses is completely separate from the preference list for Level 8 courses. This means that applicants can fill in their Level 7/6 preferences without in any way jeopard- ising their chances at Level 8. An applicant may then receive two offers in August, one from their Level 8 list and one from their Level 7/6 list.

Most Level 7/6 courses include the option of 'add-on' years. This allows students to enter an area of study with lower entry requirements and lower points than if they entered at Level 8 - but then go on to achieve a Level 8 qualification in the same amount of time. The courses with the option of 'add-on' years are clearly identified in the qualification column of the CAO handbook.

Many of my students struggle to decide between specialisations. This may be because they are enthusiastic about a number of options and because it can be tough to make decisions on small differences. In these situations, broad- entry courses are a fantastic option. They offer applicants the chance to explore a number of areas relevant to their field of interest and generally allow for specialisation in years two or three. In many cases, broad (or undenominated) entry courses have a lower minimum-points cut-off.

Some universities have made great strides with the broad-entry route. This year, UL has joined the pack by reducing the number of separate CAO routes from 72 to 43, by amalgamating a number of specialisations into general- entry options. Certain programmes, such as medicine, are in very high demand, which pushes points up. There is the alternative of graduate-entry medicine - research shows that students on these programmes do equally well, regard- less of their under- graduate degree.

All CAO applicants will get a chance to revise their choices before July 1.

A number of tools can help with the course-selection process. Careersportal.ie has launched an improved version of its course-search facility, allowing applicants to apply a range of filters.

Waterford Institute of Technology has developed a useful advice pack, which can be downloaded for free from wit.ie/how. Another new site, unibrowse.ie, helps applicants find courses and also links to the colleges' websites.

Irish Independent