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Are personal statements the answer for a CAO system badly in need of an overhaul?

Alternative admissions schemes could be a fair complement to the existing CAO system writes Trinity College communications officer Aifric Ní Chríodáin.

LAST WEDNESDAY, WE anticipated a busy day in the Students’ Union, as thousands of students across the country opened up the flimsy brown envelopes representing two years of toil.

Leaving Cert results are a spectator sport in Ireland – the whole country stops to reminisce and joke about that tense day we all endured, and an unlucky few are forced to pose, results in hand, for awkward stock photos that will haunt them for years.

On results day we fielded calls mostly from parents – proud parents, whose children were in the “safe zone” and were likely on a path to Trinity, and the more anxious ones who wanted to know if we had an indicator of the CAO points yet. We couldn’t say for sure, we told them, and parents and students alike faced a long five days’ wait to today’s CAO offers.

Today’s offers confirmed what we all suspected – points rose in several courses in Trinity, as they have annually for the past five years. In particular, law and courses in the engineering, maths and science faculty have gradually climbed. The fight for college places has only grown tougher each year. More and more people are calling for a reform or overhaul of the CAO system, with personal statements mooted as an option, as in the UK.

Personal statement

Trinity recently developed its own alternative admissions scheme along these lines. 25 places were offered to students based on their Leaving Cert points, a personal statement, and their relative performance ranking in their school. This particular scheme offers better opportunities to those in disadvantaged or rural schools, where the overall performance might not be as high as in a typical Dublin private school. Similarly, access programmes and the DARE scheme provide places for lower-point students from disadvantaged areas or with learning difficulties. Perhaps a broad approach such as this, accounting for socioeconomic and personal factors could be a fair complement to the CAO system.

14/8/2013. Leaving Cert Results Students receiving their Leaving Cert results at Stratford College, Rathgar, Co Dublin last Wednesday Laura Hutton / Laura Hutton / /

However, the rise and fall of points isn’t just due to the system itself. It’s down to a constant increase in demand each year. Colleges, already overcrowded and tight on cash, simply can’t accommodate all of the students seeking admission. Courses across the board are cutting modules and academic staff. In the National College of Art and Design, student numbers have sharply increased, as have fees for “materials” and postgraduate courses.

Controversially, the college introduced a €15 fee for the college health centre, a decision criticised by students and the college doctor. Colleges can’t afford to offer their students the services they deserve, and the situation is only getting worse. State funding in higher education has dropped by a devastating 32% in the last six years, and it’s the most vulnerable students who are paying the price. Whether they’re dodging the doctor because they can’t afford to pay or dropping out due to repeat exam fees, even the smallest charges can have catastrophic effects on their education.

First choice is never your only choice

All this being said, the CAO isn’t the end of the world. Your first choice is never, ever your only choice. Within universities, there’s plenty of scope to change course or develop your skills outside academia. Didn’t get the points for business? Why not get involved with the college entertainments crew, promoting nights and selling tickets to develop the skills that will make you stand out to employers in three years’ time? Didn’t make it into film school? Get involved with your campus TV station or film society, and learn the skills yourself.

If you’ve always had a passion for law, but didn’t get the points, head into the library and dig out the books yourself, or take an extracurricular course. College is about so very much more than the time you spend in the lecture hall or library. You may never work in the area you studied, but the friends you make and the experiences you have will stand to you in ways you never thought possible. So be proud and celebrate today, whatever your options are – you’ve worked hard and you’ll never have to listen to the voices on the Irish aural again.

Aifric Ní Chríodáin is a graduate of French and Film Studies at TCD, and is currently the Communications and Marketing Officer for Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union.

Read: You can find all of the Round One CAO points right here

Read: Students face battle for places as number of 500 point CAO courses jumps up

Aifric Ní Chríodáin
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