Choosing The Right Course

Selecting the best possible course for you is a key decision to make, and often a challenging one. The stress on Leaving Certificate students is compounded by intense pressure to choose the ‘right’ CAO course before they even step onto a university campus.

For a few people, choosing a course is simple: they have always wanted to be a brain surgeon or a dentist or an engineer. Others tend to choose their third-level options on the basis of the number of points they expect to achieve in the Leaving Certificate, rather than on their particular aptitudes and interests. The result is that a considerable number of students discover that they have started on courses that may be unsuitable to them. For most, however, there is simply a bewildering variety of courses, many of which involve subjects that are not taught in school. So how should you go about choosing a course?


This requires the individual to develop a certain degree of self-awareness. This entails asking yourself: What kind of person am I? This process of self-assessment consists of using several instruments in order to uncover your interests, personality type, work related values and skills. It is looking at these things in combination that can help you figure out what courses will be good matches for you, and you could learn something that will surprise you. The greater the overlap between an individual’s interests, aptitudes and personal characteristics and those required by the area of study, the greater the degree of satisfaction when engaged in that area of study. Your Guidance Counsellor will provide you with access to variety of self- assessment inventories. This process will help you decide which course best fits you. If you find the right course at the right college you will be inspired to succeed.

Step 2: Research the courses and the colleges/universities

Make a list of courses to explore and then research each course. The internet, (websites such as Qualifax and Careers Portal are excellent online resources) college prospectuses, family and friends are your best sources of information and support. Someone who is already studying the course can give you great insight from a student’s perspective. It is important to attend college open days or other career events and make every effort to speak to lecturers, tutors or admissions staff in the colleges you are interested in, as they will facilitate your decision-making. Some 30% of third level students drop out or change course, so something is going wrong with students initial decisions. A lot of heartache can be avoided if you take the time to look at the college websites to find out not just which subjects you will be studying on your course but also to find out the content of the individual modules of each subject. In this way you will know exactly what lies ahead of you. Discovering that you have made the wrong choice can be upsetting, and expensive.  If you decide to change course and repeat 1st year in college you will pay the full cost for that repeat year - a total of approximately 8,000 euros.

Consider options outside the CAO, such as the further education sector. Many students who do not secure the points they want for a course through the CAO, do very well in a Post-Leaving Certificate course in the discipline they want to study and then go on to secure a place in their preferred CAO course the following year.

Explore options in the UK and Northern Ireland at and in mainland Europe at

  • Identify the courses in which you are most interested and some alternatives on which to fall back if you do not get the points for your first choice.
  • Give serious thought to how you will prepare to enter your chosen course: for example do you have the right subjects? There are certain subjects that are essential for entry to particular courses and colleges and it is important that you are aware of these. Check online at 
  • Make sure you meet the minimum entry requirements, for example do you require higher level Maths or Irish for your course?
  • Check out the duration of the course and additional costs such as accommodation, books, travel etc.
  • Other factors which may need to be taken into consideration include family responsibilities, financial difficulties and disabilities that may interfere with pursuing your goals.
  • Finally don’t forget to get advice from your guidance counsellor.

Step 3: Match what you have come to know about yourself (self-assessment) to a course

During this phase of the career planning process you will decide which course is the best fit for you based on what you now know about yourself and the courses you have researched. This will entail looking at the jigsaw pieces of your life to date and putting them together. Considering your interests, hobbies, skills, aptitudes and achievements, both academic and personal, and identifying certain personality traits combined with appropriate course exploration will hold the key to successful course choice.  

Step 4: Take action

Complete the initial CAO registration process in the November/December of the year prior to which you intend to start college.

Read the rules and regulations surrounding the Disability Access Route to Education (DARE) and the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR) schemes, details of which are outlined in the General Information section of the CAO handbook.

You need to apply for any course listed as “restricted” in the CAO handbook by February 1st. All other courses can be added or removed from your application list up to the final change of mind deadline in July 1st.

If you are thinking of going to a PLC college, you must apply directly to the college preferably in January as some courses are very popular. Places are offered on a first-come first-served basis in most cases.

If you are considering studying in England, Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland, you must submit an application to by January 15th, unless you are applying for medicine, dentistry, veterinary medicine and veterinary science, and for all courses at Oxford and Cambridge for which the application is October 15.

EUNICAS is the support service for Irish students seeking to enroll on programmes in EU universities. You can register with the service for 38 euros and get advice on the best way to apply to up to eight programmes and the deadlines for applications.

Choosing the right course is a big decision and it is important to get it right as it can impact your future success. If you can manage to get it right it will help you to take the next step in your career journey into the right postgraduate course in a few years.

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