Applying for college and opportunities through the CAO

Before filling out the CAO, it is a good idea to find out about all of the opportunities available to you.

Written by spunout


Looking for new opportunities after school is an exciting experience, but sometimes it can be hard to decide what you want to do next.

The CAO is the system for applying to college courses in Ireland. You can apply for full-time courses including degrees, diplomas and certificates. You can also use it to find out more about PLCs and apprenticeship opportunities.

If you want to study in the UK, you can apply to courses through the UK system, UCAS.

Deciding what to apply for

It can be hard to know what choices to put on your CAO, especially if you haven’t made up your mind about what you want to study. Before filling in your application, it is important to be aware of all of the options available to you. You can find out more about your options on the CAO website

Look at the websites and prospectus’

It can be helpful to look at lots of college websites and prospectus’ (brochures) to get an idea of what courses interest you. Both can offer detailed information on each course, including the modules you will take, potential career paths and testimonials from former students. You can usually download the university or college prospectus from their website. 

Explore the different routes available to you

Once you have an idea about what you are interested in studying, it is important to explore all of the different options available to you. University isn’t the only route that you can take to get to where you want to be. It is also worth looking into Post Leaving Cert (PLC) courses and apprenticeships that are relevant to your chosen field of study. A PLC is a good way to try out a course if you aren’t ready to go straight into college and many of them offer a route into a degree after completion. You can find out more about them on the CAO website.

Know the entry requirements

It is a good idea to check the basic entry requirements for the courses that interest you. This information will be in the prospectus and on the college website. For example, many Irish universities require that you have results in Irish and English as well as the necessary points.

If you do not meet the requirements for the course that interests you, try not to worry. As mentioned above, there are other routes that you can take to access your chosen career field.

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 nearby. If this isn’t an option, try to find out the average living costs of different towns and cities around Ireland or the UK when looking at courses. 

Remember, those who need financial assistance to attend college in Ireland can apply for a student grant from SUSI. Find out more about financial support for college students in Ireland.

Talk to someone in the colleges and visit the campus

Once you have an idea of what you’re interested in, contact the colleges and ask if there is someone you can talk to about the courses on offer. Ask them if they can connect you with current students and give you a tour of the campus. 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 usually involves a tour of the facilities and information about everything the university has to offer.

Decide what is best for you

It is ok if you decide that you don’t want to apply to the CAO. Further education is only one of the options available to you once you finish school. You might be more interested in getting a job, travelling or volunteering.

Find out more about what you can do when you finish secondary school.

Find out more about how to choose a college course.

How to use the CAO portal

If you decide to fill out a CAO application, the easiest way to do so is on the CAO website.

Applying online

You can complete and submit your CAO application on their website. The website also includes some free downloadable handbooks that explain how to fill in the forms correctly. It is a good idea to read through this before making your application. 

Listing your preferences

When filling out the CAO, make sure to put the course you really want to do as your first choice rather than focusing on the points required. Remember, the points required to get into a course change every year so try not to focus too much on them when filling out your form.

It is important to put down as many course choices as you can. This will increase your chances of receiving an offer if you don’t meet the requirements for your first choice. Remember, you do not have to accept a CAO offer if you don’t want to, so putting down many choices does not mean you have to commit to them.

If you are interested in doing a PLC or apprenticeship, you cannot apply directly on the CAO website. However, the website can give you more information about these opportunities and link you to the websites of the course or internship providers.

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. 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

Give yourself time

It is important to give yourself plenty of time to fill out the form. However, if you change your mind after submitting it, know that you have options. There is a ‘change of mind’ form that you can use if you decide you want to apply for different courses. If you miss the deadline for the change of mind form and you later receive a CAO offer you aren’t sure about, know that it might be possible to defer a course if you don’t feel you’re ready.

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

If you want to apply for a course through the CAO, it is very important to submit the CAO form on time. Find out more about important CAO dates you’ll need to know.

If you are filling out a CAO application, you might be interested in the following articles:

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