Since September, Ireland’s third-level institutions have sprung back to life with all students on campus, in their tens of thousands for the first time in three years.
All third-level colleges are now able to bring prospective 2023 students on to campus during the current academic year.
The opportunity to physically experience the college environment – even if just for a few hours – can kickstart the process of thinking about the importance of maximising a student’s performance in the Leaving Cert, as they consider the next step on their life-long career journey.
It can also bring a greater focus to a student’s interactions with their school guidance counsellor as they work together to identify the most suitable course option to pursue following the completion of their school life in June 2023.
Whether a student experiences open days virtually through their website or in person, the key to successfully making the transition to higher or further education is to concentrate on the suitability of the curriculum content, college facilities, availability of accommodation or public transport links rather than the desired occupational area or specific job to which they may hope to progress following graduation.
That task can become the focus of attention in four or five years, when college life is coming to an end and the needs of the labour market in 2028/9 have become clear.
Whatever the nature of the coming open days, you should undertake some basic research about the colleges you are considering and their course offerings prior to each event. After all, depending on the decision you will make by the close of the CAO course selection process on July 1st, 2023, and the course offer you eventually secure next August/September, you are committing several years of your life to this next stage of study and learning.
For many the process is already well under way. More than 25,000 students attended The Irish Times Higher Options conference in mid-September. There they benefitted from talks by experts in the field of further and higher education from home and abroad, heard about apprenticeships and other training opportunities and spoke to representatives of many colleges and courses.
You have probably already read the 2023 CAO Handbook online at cao.ie and are exploring all third-level and further educational college courses on offer in Ireland qualifax.ie.
Of course, Leaving Cert students are not only considering courses offered through the CAO. Thousands choose to study at their local Further Education (FE) college, where they can secure level 5 and 6 QQI awards facilitating entry to employment or into those CAO courses that reserve a percentage of their first-year undergraduate places for FE graduates.
All FE colleges operate their own open days, often holding several such events throughout the academic year.
Several thousand Irish students will apply for courses in Northern Ireland (particularly those living near the Border), Scotland or, in some cases, England, notwithstanding the £9,250 yearly fees.
These applications are made through the UK Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (ucas.com). Some 2,200 Republic of Ireland applicants made that choice last year, including 850 who went to Northern Ireland.
EU citizens can study in any EU country under the same terms and conditions as in their own country and thousands of Irish students have in the past 10 years chosen to study at one of the more than 1,000 courses taught through English in continental EU universities.
These EU colleges also host in-person open days that Irish students can attend – low-cost air fares should help minimise the expense involved in going to such events.
You can find out more about these events from the European Universities Central Application Support Service (eunicas.ie).
When exploring college options, be aware that the course is only a small part of what you will experience when you arrive on registration day in late August or early September 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 time getting to know other people and every aspect of their personality before we commit to them.
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 like a good fit. This is more than an intellectual exercise.
As a guidance counsellor and teacher for more than 40 years, I have dealt with many students whose minds were full of facts and figures about dozens of courses but could not differentiate between them. 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?
On a college open day, you will see the institution put its best foot forward. 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 college life from such an experience. But you can see through a certain amount of the perfect presentation that a college displays on an open day if you take the time to dig a bit deeper.
If you are particularly impressed with a college or course after an open day, and are considering ranking their programme at the top of your CAO application list, then simply try to go back on an ordinary day and wander around, to see if day-to-day normality gels with its open-day presentation.
It may well take the next six to eight months to clarify your thought processes as to where you want to launch yourself into the post-secondary world, but if you follow the advice outlined above you will probably find clarity by the closing date for final course choices on July 1st, 2023.