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5 tips on filling out your CAO form

Robert gives his essential tips to filling out your CAO form

Written by Robert Morgan and posted in education

"If you are struggling about what to put on your CAO then you can narrow it down by focusing on your weaknesses before your strengths."

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It is coming close to that time of year again. Those who are in 6th year can almost feel the build up of pressure within as the CAO , mocks and the dark morning and evenings begin to take their toll. I myself was in the same position this time last year and experienced similar turbulent emotions. The CAO is a huge aspect of leaving cert year and here are some early tips on how to approach it with the correct mindset. I also have to redo my CAO as I am currently on a gap year so I feel I have some valuable advice to offer. This is the same advice I will use myself to fill out my own CAO in the coming months. It is by no means an easy process and it is one that involves a lot of dedication, tough decisions and most importantly composure throughout.

1. Attend University open days as much as possible and make use of valuable course material

It is often viewed as a cliche , however University open days are just as important as any study you will do. It is often the only place where lecturers and current students of a course will be present to answer your questions. When you go to any college in the country, you may often know whether or not it is for you within 10 minutes. You may just stumble across your true passion by spending two hours of your Saturday talking to a lecturer or third level student. It is of utmost importance that you use the materials published by individual courses and that you make full use of any videos, testimonials or course material that will benefit you. You would be surprised by how many students don’t know such simple details about their course such as entry requirements, modules covered and its careers prospects, details of which are all online. Whenever I had a spare few minutes, nearly every 2nd night I used websites such as, and GradIreland to aid my CAO decisions. These websites are great for breaking down course points history, content learned and contact details for course directors. GradIreland specifically aims at careers for those with degrees in their chosen subject i.e. jobs prospects for those with a science degree. is another valuable tool for those who wish to pursue third level education in Europe.

2. Don’t forget the golden rule to choose in order of preference

When filling out your CAO, always choose your courses in order of preference. The CAO works by a system where once your are offered a course anything below it on your list becomes redundant. For example, if you are offered your fifth choice then you can only be offered anything above that in round two and after i.e. your 4th up to 1st choice. I stress how important this is, because in my own case I was offered my sixth choice pharmaceutical chemistry. If offered to me, I would have taken my seventh choice which was primary teaching but it was ruled out once I got offered my 6th. There are 20 choices for a reason, 10 for level 8’s and 10 for level 7 and each one deserves equal value and thought. Always choose preference over points, even if you’d prefer to do food science that is 400 over Dentistry which is nearly 600 points. There is no benefit to anyone if you are in a situation next August of being offered something you truly don’t want. This is why it is important that you choose wisely and that you don’t just set the sky as the limit. According to the Irish times on Tuesday June 16th, ­ ‘Every year, more than 1,000 applicants to the CAO, with points scores over 500, don’t get any offer of a place because they didn’t list any course with less than 500 points.’ This is the last thing you want on your plate after a tough year of studying.

3. Never feel pressured into applying or accepting a specific course

In the coming months you will hear people say to you ‘don’t study that course as there’s no jobs’ or ‘do this as you will earn lots of money’. When filling out your CAO it is important that you listen to yourself and stay true to what you know is for you. Yes, people such as guidance counsellors , parents and friends are all great advice however there comes a time where you must stay honest to your own convictions. Just because you are the smartest in your class doesn’t meant that you have to study actuary or medicine. Courses that are 300 points are nearly all just as good as those that are above 480. The amount of points mostly never determines the quality of a course, points are all driven by supply and demand. In my own case , Irish was my best subject in school however I didn’t put it down on my CAO as I almost believed that those who said it was useless were true, especially considering that I got above 500. Always follow your passion even if you may think you will have no job when you finish your degree. If you have the determination to do it in the first place then you will more than likely have the motivation to be the best you can and find a job after it. We all hear the stories of those who decide to do accountancy or pharmacy because there uncle or father is one but ask yourself this , do you think they really thought long and hard outside the box about what they wanted to put on their CAO? The main point is to apply for what you want and not what somebody else wants for you.

4. Focus on weaknesses first before your strengths

If you are struggling about what to put on your CAO then you can narrow it down by focusing on your weaknesses before your strengths. Fear not, there are thousands of students around the country who struggle about what they want to do, even myself at the second time of asking. We all love to talk about how good we are at certain things and rightly so, however focusing on your weaknesses can be advantageous in this case. For example, why would you put engineering on your CAO if you know that you never liked maths and that you never did DCG for leaving cert? For me, maths was my least favourite subject in school so I knew that I could discard courses such as physics, statistics and computer science easily enough. Once you eliminate the weaknesses, you can focus on your strengths and whatever is left in between is what will you decide is right or not for you in the next few months. If your strengths involve becoming a physiotherapist and you know that you can only achieve 400 points then it is maybe the time to look at the lower level 8 choices or 7 on your CAO. You could do Athletic therapy in Carlow or DCU before pursuing physiotherapy in Ireland or the UK after. Most degrees nowadays lead to an endless amount of jobs so it is almost impossible to know what a 17 or 18 year old wants to do. If you plan early before the rush of June then you are very much on the right path.

5. Be brave and don’t have any regrets

At the end of the day, it is the student who has to put in the work to achieve their first choice on their CAO. You must be the one who has the final say on what course you decide to put down and to work towards such goals. It’s good advice to use your teachers , guidance counsellors and friends wherever you feel necessary. Within the coming months you can turn your CAO from a distraction into an advantage. Use it as a motivator tool and there’s no reason as to why you can’t achieve the points you need if you work in tandem with what’s on your CAO. Use the subjects that you do in school as a guide or an indicator as for what you want in the future. My favourite subjects in school were Irish and German and it looks likely that I will be doing one if not both of them at University come next September. Remember that you are the one sitting the exams and it is your life so fill out your CAO to the best of your ability so no regrets are left behind. If all else fails then plc’s are a good option as many have progression routes to third level institutions. Have courage and make sure that the courses you apply for are there for you own interest. The CAO is a very important piece of paper, however it is only a piece of paper and perspective in life is everything. I’m taking a gap year after doing my leaving cert in June, I am already looking forward to College next September and I haven’t looked back since.

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Published December 9th, 2015
Last updated March 7th, 2016
Tags cao leaving cert
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