Sixth year is a terrifying time. You're taking what feels like the biggest exams of your life, you're expected to make loads of huge decisions, and there's pressure coming at you from all angles; society, teachers, parents, other students, and even yourself. Fears about points and your future are spinning around in your head, countless what-ifs. How are you supposed to pick a career path for the rest of your life when you can't even pick what cereal to eat in the mornings? (No, a Kinder Bueno does not count as a substantial breakfast!). Luckily for you, I'm about to graduate college and have a sister who's about to sit her Leaving Cert – so you could say I know a thing or two about making course choices. I'm here to share a few gems of wisdom that I've discovered along the way.
The Leaving Cert is not the end of the world
First off – breathe. I know it feels like it now, but the Leaving Cert isn't the be – all – end – all. Doing badly in your exams won't result in social isolation, exclusion from your family and a lifetime ban on succeeding. There's so many choices on how to progress in the event something does go wrong! Firstly, there's the option to repeat. This does not mean going back to the start of sixth year and sitting through it all again with the year below you! Repeating is done externally, so it's not the regular hours stuck in school that you just sat through. You also don't have to sit the entire thing again! You might just want to sit one exam again to get a better mark, and that's fine. You'll attend classes for that one class outside of your school, and then you can sit the exam the next time around. There's also PLC's (Post Leaving Cert courses), foundation/entry level courses, apprenticeships, access programs, and a thousand other options if you're still screaming at the thought of repeating. There are so many backdoors into college that it's both brilliant and unbelievable.
"Arts" is not Art
This is something that I've seen cause a lot of confusion, especially in Fifth Years. An Arts degree is like a general degree where you study several modules and eventually refine them as you progress. This can lead to degrees in business, economics, law, anthropology, philosophy, accountancy, languages, history, and so many more. It's a route that many people take towards becoming a secondary school teacher (not the only route though!). The first year of arts can be large and very broad, but as you progress you gradually become more and more specified in what you study, and will graduate with a named degree (i.e. Law and Anthropology, or English and History). However, arts is often confused with art – an art degree, one which involves something else entirely, is often named more specifically, e.g. Art and Design, or Graphic Design. These are often only taught in specific colleges dedicated to art, such as the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), and require a portfolio to be submitted in order to attend.
What are your interests?
What do you love to do? What are your hobbies? Favourite subjects? Interests? What would you love to learn more about? Any idea of an ideal job? Writing out a list of things like this, and the opposites, will help you narrow down which general direction to go in and give you an idea of what course you might like to do. Was business your favourite subject, but you were thinking of studying law? Try out a general arts degree so you can study both. This method of thinking may not be the answer to all your questions, but it's definitely a great starting point to look at when picking a course.
So you like science but you're not sure of much past that? Try a general science degree. That way your first year will be like a taster of each science, and you can gradually specify in what you prefer. The same with an arts degree – these give you the chance to try something more general and gradually specify in your interests.
Do a PLC
Have an idea of what you'd like to do, but you're not 100% sure? Try a PLC – they're only a year long and they'll give you a better idea of what you'll be pursuing. You might think that being a criminologist would be the most exciting job in the world, but after the PLC you find out it's not for you! Plus you'll have a qualification at the end of it, and if you go on to study it in college then you'll have much more confidence and better background knowledge on the topic.
Talk to people in the area you're interested in
Attend open days and talk to the students there, they'll tell you anything you want to know about the college or the course that they're in. Find someone with a job you'd be interested in (guarantee you'll find loads if you search on LinkedIn) and start a conversation with them. Most people will be more than happy to help you, and give you guidance and insight that you won't find anywhere else. This can really help when it comes to making a decision.
Research the life out of your course
Okay, so you think you've found a course that you're interested in. Find out everything you can about it! Go on Qualifax, and look at the year-by-year breakdown. This way you'll know exactly what's expected if you go into the course, what you'll be studying, and you won't get any nasty surprises. You'll know what you're getting yourself into, and that the course won't suddenly change two years in! Find out the career options for graduates, see where people who've studied that have gone on to work. Find out what the college is like – is it good to study in, are they good at a particular type of course, what sort of societies are there. Don't just pick a course because the name sounds kind of cool, or because your friends are going to the same place!
Don't let anyone pressure you
Parents, teachers, friends – they all have opinions. Sometimes they might be well intentioned, but not what you need. Don't let these opinions pressure you into making a decision to go into something that you're not really interested in. Maybe college isn't for you, and that's okay, there's other routes to go. Maybe you want to take some time out after the stress of the Leaving Cert, maybe you want to try out an apprenticeship, maybe you want to try something completely new – it's entirely your choice. Don't let others pressure you into doing something that you don't want to.
If the course isn't for you, don't grin and bear it
So you're in college and suddenly you realise that TV has lied to you and this isn't at all what you were expecting. You're not interested in the topic, you don't like the college, it's not what you were expecting, you're not feeling the best – there's any number of reasons why you might not like it. Don't force yourself to stay. This will have awful effects on your mental and physical health, your grades and you entire life. You can transfer into a different course, you can defer the year, you can leave the college altogether and go elsewhere. Just because you started it, doesn't mean you have to finish it for the sake of having a degree. It's not worth it at all, make sure you make the best decision for yourself.
Overall, yes the Leaving Cert is important, but it's far from the most important thing in the world. Finding a course can be tricky, but it's not impossible. You don't have to have everything figured out. I'm going to let you in on a little secret – nobody has it all figured out. I'm about to graduate and I still have no clue what I'm about to do, so don't sweat it too much. Follow your gut feeling, do your research, things are going to work out.