Applying for college through the CAO

Here are some things to consider when applying to college
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Illustration of two people sitting at a table talking while one person holds a document in their hand - cao

Applying for college is an exciting experience, but sometimes it can be hard to decide what to study and where you want to go.

The CAO is the system for applying to college courses in Ireland. You can apply for full time courses including degrees, diplomas and certificates. If you want to study in the UK, you can apply to courses through the UK system, UCAS.

Advice for applying to the CAO 

Find out all you need to know about applying for college through these systems below.

Applying online

You can apply for CAO online by visiting their website, and you may have the option of a paper application too. Get hold of the free handbooks that explain how to fill in the forms to make sure you have all the information you need. You can get these online or ask for the handbooks at schools, colleges and careers offices.

Listing your preferences

When filling in CAO, make sure to put the course you really want to do as first choice, not what you think you’ll have the results for. Make sure to put down as many course choices as you can, don’t limit yourself to just two or three!

Remember, the points required to get into a course change every year, so don’t be afraid to aim high with your preferences.

Consider both Level 8 and Level 6/7

With the CAO, there are two separate lists for Level 8 courses (such as a degree course) and for Level 6/7 courses (such as certificate or diploma courses). You will be able to fill out both lists, or you can just fill out one of the lists – whichever you prefer. If you fill out both lists, you will receive an offer for a Level 8 course and for a Level 6/7 course. You can only accept one of these offers. Find out more about CAO offers here

Give yourself time

Fill out the form in plenty of time. Don’t forget there is a ‘change of mind’ form that you can use if you decide you want to apply for different courses. It is also possible to put off an offer for a year if you don’t feel you’re ready, but it can depend on your circumstances.

If you apply to colleges in the UK, the UCAS application will require an essay or a personal statement explaining why you’re interested in your chosen field of study. Make sure you have enough time to complete this.

Practice your application

Practice filling in the CAO forms. When applying online, double check everything and get someone to look over the application before you finalise it. You could also fill out the paper application, make a photocopy of each one and get a teacher to check that everything is filled in properly before you post them off. The CAO has a demo application you can use to practice.

Submit on time

Make sure you get the CAO forms in on time. Click here for a list of important CAO dates you’ll need to know.

Do as much research as possible

The more research you do, the better. It will help you feel confident in your choices, and you’ll be prepared when you arrive for your first day of your college course!

Ask the careers teacher or guidance counsellor at your school to help you. Spend time in the careers office researching the best options and deciding what you really want to do.

Deciding what to apply for

Sometimes it can be hard to know what courses to put down, especially if you haven’t made up your mind about what you want to study. Here’s some advice for helping you make some decisions. If you’re having trouble, read about how to choose a college course here.

Look at the brochures

Look at lots of college brochures and get an idea of what courses interest you. If your school doesn’t have prospectuses, ask them to order some or phone the college yourself and ask to be sent one. You can usually download the university or college prospectus from the university website.

Know the entry requirements

Make sure to check the basic entry requirements for the courses you’re interested in. This information will be in the prospectus. For example, many Irish universities require that you have results in Irish and English as well as the necessary points.

Think about the area as well as the course

Consider what you want to study and where you’ll be happy living. If you want a taste of city life then check out Dublin, Belfast, Galway, Limerick, Cork, Derry and other UK universities. If you’re more comfortable living somewhere smaller look at what’s on offer in places like the University of Ulster at Coleraine or Sligo I.T.

Consider living arrangements and expenses

If you are concerned about the costs of going to college, you can factor this in when deciding where to go. If the option is available to you, it may be less expensive for you to continue living at home while studying at a college or university nearby. If this isn’t an option, then you can find out the average living costs of different towns and cities around Ireland or the UK when looking at colleges. 

Remember, those who need financial assistance to attend college in Ireland can apply for a student grant from SUSI.

Talk to someone in the colleges and visit the campus

Once you have an idea of what you’re interested in, call the colleges and ask if there’s someone you can talk to about the courses on offer. If you have a friend or a relative who has studied there, ask if they would be willing to answer your questions.

If possible, visit the universities or colleges you plan to apply for. Most universities have open days, which give you an opportunity to visit the college. There is usually a tour of the facilities and information about everything the university has to offer.

Getting an offer

So what happens when this is all done, exams are over, and you’re waiting to hear back? Read about CAO offers here.

For more information on the CAO, visit

For more information on UCAS visit

Need more information?

We are here to answer your questions and talk through your options. Our online chat service is for 16 to 25 year olds and is available Monday to Friday, 4pm to 8pm. Chat to us now about your situation.


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