The process by which the majority of Irish students gain entry to their desired third level courses is determined by the Central Applications Office, or the CAO as it is more commonly known.
The CAO system allocates points to students depending on the results they receive in the Leaving Certificate, with third level courses such as Medicine, Law and Accounting typically being among the courses with the highest point requirements.
However, there are many third-level options open to students regardless of how many points they receive in the Leaving Certificate. Students are encouraged to fill out a ‘top 10’ of the courses they would be interested in taking in their CAO form — that way, if they don’t get their first choice, they are still likely to have plenty of alternatives.
It is not only Irish students who apply for third level in Ireland using the CAO. In fact, all EU/EEA students wishing to study in Ireland as an undergraduate student should apply through the CAO, unless otherwise advised. However, if you are an international student from a non-EU/EEA country, then you will most likely have to apply directly to your third level Irish university or institute of technology of choice.
The application process for the CAO is straightforward and can be done easily here. In addition, the CAO Handbook also provides details of the application procedures, closing dates and much more. It is also available on the CAO website.
Points system overview and third level requirements
Leaving Certificate students in Ireland can choose to take subjects at higher or ordinary level, with ordinary level subjects offering a maximum of 56 points, compared to 100 points for higher level when it comes to the CAO process. An additional 25 points are available to students who take higher level Mathematics.
Changes to the Leaving Certificate points structure in 2017 mean that there are now just eight grade bands in place, compared to the 14 that existed previously. This change was enacted to ensure a greater degree of fairness and to mitigate subjectivity in correction, especially in subjects like English, to affect an applicant’s chances of obtaining a place in their number one course. In the old (pre-2017) system, students often missed out on a course by just a few points.
In addition to the points system requirements, almost all Irish third level courses will require a prospective student to have taken Irish, English and Mathematics as part of their Leaving Certificate examination or, as offered in a small number of Irish secondary schools, the International Baccalaureate (IB). Many third level institutions in Ireland will also require applicants to have taken certain subjects in the Leaving Certificate to ensure entry to their desired course (this is known as matriculation requirements).