The look of mild shock on the faces of my sixth-year students when I hand them a copy of the CAO handbook and tell them the time has come to consider what they might like to study after they leave school never fails to surprise me.
They have been in school for 14 years, and now they have to leave it all behind and step into the adult world. They have to research, apply and commit at least the next three years of their lives to a new college, course and circle of friends.
They have until July 1st, just after the Leaving Certificate, to commit to one course as their first choice. Over the coming months, colleges hope to attract their custom with open days.
Prospective third-level or further-education students will probably already have that CAO handbook and have been online to explore college courses in Ireland (see qualifax.ie). Anybody else can get a copy from the Central Applications Office in Galway (cao.ie).
As well as this, several thousand Irish students may apply for courses in Northern Ireland (particularly true for those who living near the Border), Scotland (where Irish students pay no fees) or, in some cases, England, notwithstanding the £9,000 (€12,500) yearly fees. Most of these applications are through the UK Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (ucas.com).
A growing number of students may also consider more than 1,000 courses taught through English in EU universities. These tend to be easier to get into because of many of the countries’ low birth rates, which mean they have fewer students of their own. You can find out more from the European Universities Central Application Support Service (eunicas.ie).
Some may even consider studying farther afield, such as in the US or Australia.
When exploring the college options, be aware that the content of the course is only a small part of what you will experience when you arrive on registration day, in late August next year, to start college life. You will be entering a community that will help shape you for the rest of your life.
In our personal relationships we take our time getting to know another person and every aspect of their personality before we commit to them, and selecting a course that will commit you to living your life within that community for at least three years should be considered just as carefully.
The only way to evaluate whether a college is right for you is to explore all aspects of its life as fully as you can on its open day and see whether it feels right. This is more than an intellectual exercise.
As a guidance counsellor I have dealt with many students whose minds were full of facts and figures about dozens of courses but could not differentiate between the choices. They were lost in a sea of data, with no guiding compass to make the right choice.
Would you commit yourself to a relationship with someone based on reading a fact sheet about their life so far? Visiting a college open day is like a first date. It is dressed in its finest attire, full of presentations, smiling student ambassadors, friendly lecturers and goodie bags, all designed to present the college in its best light.
It can be hard to see the true nature of a college’s life from such an experience. But, as on a first date, you can see through a certain amount of the perfect presentation that every college puts on during open days, to the reality that lies behind it.
If you are particularly impressed with a college or course after an open day, try to go back on an ordinary day and wander around, to see if day-to-day normality gels with its open-day presentation.
Preparation is half the battle in discovering the true nature of a college or course. Research the courses it offers before your visit a college or it will be a waste of valuable study time. If you take a day or half-day away from school or studies for an open day, you are sacrificing time you could spend preparing for the Leaving Certificate. Researching course options, on qualifax.ie or the college’s website, will add to the value of your visit.
Before going to an open day, ensure you are studying the required subjects to the appropriate level to be eligible for a place on the course. You would be amazed how many students list courses on their CAO application for which they can’t be offered a place because they won’t have the minimum entry requirements.
On the other hand, don’t ignore a course or open day because you don’t expect to get enough points. You may do far better than you anticipate. Thousands of students make this mistake every year. Also, points move up and down as demand fluctuates. The most disappointed students every August, when they receive their Leaving Cert results and CAO offers, are those who realise they could have had their dream course but did not put it at the top of their course choices.
Thoroughly explore the college’s website. Yes, its academic programmes are central, and the purpose for its existence, but lectures are just a fraction of the activities. The college you choose for the next few years will have a huge influence on the type of person you become. Its clubs, societies, student services, outreach programmes, Erasmus opportunities (for a year studying abroad) and opportunities in the college city or town will be as important in shaping you as your lectures or subjects.
In the week before an open day, jot down some questions. This will clarify what you hope to get out of the day. When you arrive you will probably have a formal introduction and get a campus map and a schedule of lectures or talks. Before you leave this session see if the programme covers your questions. If it doesn’t, ask the presenter where you should go to get the extra information you need.
As you move from presentation to presentation, reflect on what it would feel like to live and study in this place. Do you feel good about the environment? Do you feel at ease? Don’t dismiss your gut feeling: it is almost always right.
For many students, the size of the college or class group matters. You may seek a big campus full of bustle and excitement, with thousands of students in each year, or you might find such an environment intimidating and prefer a more intimate college, where smaller groups of students get to know each other quickly. I have met many students over the years who have found large colleges intensely lonely. Everyone else seems to be having a great time, and making friends easily, while they struggle to find even one good friend. Many colleges are aware of these difficulties and work to help students find their feet in first year. On open day, ask about the support services for new students. The answer is often a good guide to the quality of the overall package.
During open day talk to existing students if they are on campus. Colleges that are comfortable allowing you to meet current students usually provide a high quality of service. Colleges that ensure visitors have little access to students may give you cause to question why.
When you get home after an open day, sit down within a few hours and write out, in the quiet of your room, your reflections on the day. You will be amazed at the things that strike you. It will help you to draw together all you have experienced during the visit and give you a rich resource to reread when you have to submit your final list of course choices by the deadline of July 1st.