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Monday 11 December 2023 Dublin: 7°C
Sam Boal/Photocall Ireland
CAO 2015

14 tips on filling in the CAO from people who have been through it and survived...

Don’t worry. It’s all going to be ok.

TOMORROW IS DEADLINE day for the tens of thousands of students (and wannabe students) to get their CAO forms in which will decide the exact course of the rest of their lives.

Except that’s not quite true. While it can seem like a huge and scary thing when you’re filling it in, it can often take a few years to realise its actual significance in the big scheme of things.

To test this out, we asked staff for their best tips for filling out the form. Here’s what they came up with.

1. Get some perspective – it’s just a form

Leaving Cert Exams Begin Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Despite what people tell you, it isn’t the biggest decision of your life. It is the biggest decision you will be asked to make when you are a teenager so act appropriately – talk to people, put some thought into it, but don’t let it ruin even one day.

2. If you’re smart, don’t feel like you have to put certain courses down as your #1 choice. 

shutterstock_71153212 Shutterstock / Pressmaster Shutterstock / Pressmaster / Pressmaster

Just cos you’re brainy doesn’t mean you have to put medicine or law or actuarial studies down as your number one choice (unless you’ve actually thought through whether or not you want to be a doctor/lawyer/actuary). Really think about what you’re good at and what your dream job is.
If you’re a high-pointer that doesn’t want to be a doctor – that doesn’t mean you want to be a lawyer either. Law degrees aren’t for everyone who gets over X points. Talk to people who did Law and those who did more general courses but then went on to become solicitors/barristers.

3. Put a bit of thought into your chosen course…

Don’t pick a computers course just because you like playing video games. (A couple of friends dropped out of a programming course because it was incredibly difficult. I’ve no idea what they thought it was about.)

4. … and remember that everything is an option…

Arts is a valid choice. You will be employable.

5. … but don’t just go for what your big brother/sister did

shutterstock_210656761 Shutterstock / RimDream Shutterstock / RimDream / RimDream

There are other experiences than those your older siblings have had. My sister used to get really annoyed at people presuming she’d go to Trinity because my brother and I had. She was much happier taking UCD’s money and gold cards for Coppers.

6. Get an idea of what you’re signing up for

Talk to as many people as you can – especially those who have already done the same course. Your expectation is normally a fair bit different to the reality.

7. Think about the practical stuff

Ask advice. If you don’t have a guidance counsellor, ask the college for information on what a course is like practically.
If you are picking a course that requires you to move, get that sorted.
Look at what a uni offers outside the academic. A lot of important stuff happens outside the classroom – for example, if you’re trying to get into journalism, how good is the student paper/radio station?

8. Be brave

shutterstock_201396161 Shutterstock / Ollyy Shutterstock / Ollyy / Ollyy

Think big – don’t put down courses just based on what you think you can achieve.
Put down that course you really want but is a million points first- if you do better than expected you can’t go back and change it!
Much better to have the option there – you don’t want to have 600 points and be doing some other course because you didn’t think you’d make it. (And no one will have pity for you if this happens- even worse!)

9. Seriously. You never know how it’s going to go. 

Always put the course you really want down as number one, even if you think you mightn’t get it. You might surprise yourself, get the points, but still end up with your first choice, something you didn’t really want at all.
(Actually happened to a girl in my year, she wanted Pharmacy but put it second because she was afraid she wouldn’t make the points. She did, and had to take a year out and apply again.)

10. Give yourself a bit of time to fill the CAO form in


I ended up crying in an internet café on O’Connell Street trying to get it to send because I couldn’t decide between French and Sociology as my number one choices. In retrospect, this was pretty stupid.

11. Sounds obvious, but find out about what the course you want to do can lead to. 

Really research the pathway of your chosen course, especially if you’re doing something like general sciences or arts. Make sure there’s something on offer that you really want to end up doing, and make sure you have the relevant leaving cert subjects for something you might want to study in second or third year. Also, something like a general science course will almost certainly mean you have to do some kind of maths element. Bear all of these things in mind rather than just blindly choosing.

12. The direct route isn’t the only route

Griffith College Graduatio Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland Leon Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

If you think that something is really out of your reach pointswise, research other ways to get to it. A lot of national diplomas or higher national diplomas can lead to add on degrees, or can be just as good as degrees with much higher points. There is almost always a way to get where you want to go, you just might need to be creative.

13. The main thing? Don’t worry – it’s all going to be ok

 Don’t stress too much about making a decision – lots of people change their minds mid-way through their studies about what they want to do.

14.  Just don’t let your brain rot away after the Leaving Cert

Continue to read non-Leaving Cert books and the newspaper/ you enjoy reading. You don’t want to become a dope with 600 points.

Anything we’ve forgotten? Share your tips in the comments. 

Read: 96 hours to go until (some) college students make one of the biggest decisions of their lives… > 

Read: Before you fill out that CAO form, ask – which Irish university has the best gym facilities? > 

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