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Focus on what you want to do, not points, when making CAO choices

Every year, students make poor CAO choices and find themselves on the wrong path because they base their choice of course on the expectation of the points they might achieve and the likely CAO cut-off level.

Points' tables should be ignored when students are filling out their choices on their CAO forms. Instead of being fixated on cut-off levels, applicants should focus their efforts on finding the course that best suits their skills, competencies and interests.

The focus on points' pressures can distract students from the core reason for applying to third level, which is to create a fulfilling career path.

While attention is often paid to high demand, high points programmes, analysis of the CAO points distribution across the 55,000 Leaving Certificate students suggests that our attention might be more productively placed elsewhere.

Less than 3pc of school leavers get 550 points or more, which is equivalent to one in every 35 students. Indeed, less than 9pc of students achieve 500 points or more. By contrast, half of all Leaving Certificate students receive between 250 and 450 points.

In the 1980s, participation in higher education was around 20pc. Today it is around 60pc. Over the past five years, participation rates have increased by over 13pc, with a doubling of courses available through the CAO over the past decade.

Career options have also expanded with new opportunities emerging in science, technology and engineering. New hi-tech sectors in areas such as ICT, telecommunications, sustainability and life sciences have formed, offering new career possibilities.

Demand for graduates from the more traditional courses is now being outstripped by demand in these growth sectors. Never before have school-leavers had so many choices. With a wide variety of programmes on offer through a range of access routes, there are more and more ways for students to carve a career in their chosen field.

Continuing to discuss entry to third level in terms of points fosters a belief that choices should be made in the context of CAO expectations. This can cause two particularly dysfunctional outcomes.

Firstly, high performing students can feel they must 'use their points' and select high point courses that simply don't suit them. Secondly, students may confine themselves to courses with lower cut-offs and end-up disappointed with their choice if they achieve more points than expected. These two groups are often students who drop out of third level only to re-enter education in later years.

If CAO applicants think in terms of skills, interests and competencies instead of points there will be a better match between third level choices and the student. There are 20 choices available across levels 6, 7 and 8 on the CAO form. Use them and choose well.

Dr Derek O'Byrne is registrar at Waterford Institute of Technology.

Irish Independent