By Dr. Derek O'Byrne, Waterford Institute of Technology

Opinion: All too often the decision on transition from second level to the world of additional study or indeed of work is seen as a high-stake decision but in reality, careers have never been more dynamic.

Every year we focus on the high points race as symptomatic of general competition for higher education places.

This encourages us to think about CAO points as reflecting a value on a course e.g. studying a 600-point course is more difficult, more prestigious or more worthy that a 300-point programme. However, the reality is very different.

The CAO system is a process of allocating third level places. It's a system that is widely considered as fair, equitable and transparent and has become a deep-rooted part of the Irish education system. So much so that you could be forgiven for forgetting that its purpose is to balance the supply and demand for a particular programme based on the number of applicants and the number of places available.

It is a ranking of applicants in order of their CAO calculated points. Whether or not an applicant is offered a place depends on where their points lie relative to all other applicants for the course. It follows that if everybody’s points go up so will the cut-off point, and vice versa. High point programmes can therefore be a result of lots of competition for a course or conversely relatively few places offered.

Traditionally, point cut-offs have been relatively stable from year to year and this has allowed students predict programmes that might fall within their expected Leaving Certificate performance range.

The last two years has seen this predictability somewhat reduced and maybe that is a good thing. Perhaps, it might give the space for CAO applicants to ask hard questions about the relativity between courses and between careers and drive them to consider CAO points in different ways.

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On RTÉ Radio One's Today with Claire Byrne Niamh Dwyer, Guidance Counsellor Chairperson of the Kerry Branch of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors gives CAO Advice.

The evidence for better higher education outcomes for students who match their skills and interests to their third level choices is clear. Selecting a course that is of interest and is accessible physically, financially, and most importantly, emotionally, will likely result in better performance and better career focus.

This applies in the short term through better academic performance in college but also in the longer term through the passion and creativity, developed in in a positive college experience, that will most likely count in their career promotion opportunities, long after the technical content of their college programme has been superseded.

The key to success therefore lies in the judgements that a student needs to make to ensure their interests and abilities align to the courses they want to pursue. This has absolutely nothing to do with the volume of points they achieve or the points cut-off for a course.

Why is this particularly important to the leaving cert students of 2021? The class of 2021 have seen a significant rise in in the points requirement for most third level courses this year, and students may erroneously think that they should make better use of the points they achieve by selecting higher point course in the mistaken belief that they will lead to better careers or indeed a better college experience.

We, as a society, must not steer them into the belief that academic achievement, through the narrow definition of CAO points, defines in anyway the career choices or career aspirations that they should choose.

The upheaval of the past 18 months coupled with the return to a campus life for third level students may also add additional dimensions to the choices many individuals and families will have to make over the coming days. Considerations about accommodation, travel and the ever-increasing costs of attendance on campus, coupled with emerging out of a pandemic, creates a uniquely demanding environment.

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From RTÉ Radio One's Morning Ireland, Career guidance expert Brian Mooney on offers of college places to Leaving Certificate students.

While college is an unquestionable rite of passage to independence and self-realisation it should be an enjoyable experience and selecting the right college and right course makes that more easily achievable and enjoyable. All too often the decision on transition from second level to the world of additional study or indeed of work is seen as a high-stake decision.

In reality, careers have never been more dynamic and there are often many routes to achieve a career objective. Students’ understanding of careers and opportunities are often shaped and developed as their journey through college unfolds and the traditional career pathways meld to new and emerging opportunities the student could never have imagined.

Our working life is now shaped by a continuous pattern of change, and we can all expect to change our careers and career direction multiple times over our working life. Our transition from school to college or work is just the start of that journey and by no means the high-stake that defines our future.

Over the coming days, as school leavers weigh-up and reflect on the college offers they receive, or, indeed, on the next steps they are considering, they would do well to reflect on how their decision makes the most of what they like to do and study rather than CAO points and not be distracted by fears of getting it wrong.

Staying true to your skills and interests will likely serve as best way to navigate your career ahead.

Dr Derek O’Byrne is the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Registrar at Waterford Institute of Technology.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ