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Applying for college this year? Here’s all you need to know

Students planning to apply through the CAO will need to register now but have until July 1st to make a final decision on their course choice

1. January 2024

Register with if you are interested in getting a place at a traditional or technological university, institute of technology (IT), teacher-training college or private college where places are offered through the CAO application process.

Go to by January 20th and make an application, paying €30 by credit or debit card. After January 20th and until February 1st, the fee rises to €45.

All the CAO requires at this stage are your personal details including your name, address, phone number, any disability or specific learning difficulty, country of birth, nationality, email address, payment details and details of any post-second-level course (PLC) or other qualifications you may have. When you have done this, you will get your CAO identification number. From this point onwards, you may indicate which courses you wish to be considered for the 2024 academic year.

However, if you don’t know what courses you wish to be considered for, you have the freedom to leave it for now and return to your application in May or June, to list or amend your course choices until the July 1st deadline. The most comprehensive source of information on courses is on


2. February/March: Consider PLC options

The further education (FE) sector has thousands of opportunities for students who may consider that a year consolidating their learning in a specific area of knowledge while developing their academic self-management skills, would better prepare them for successful engagement with a third-level programme. FE is also extremely useful for those who may not secure the CAO points for their preferred course choice.

Many third-level colleges reserve up to 10 per cent or more of the overall places for applicants who have successfully completed a level-five FE award in that specific discipline. Colleges of further education, which provide these programmes throughout the country, report that many students who defer entering third-level directly from school and instead spend a year securing a PLC award often perform far better than their school peers when they progress to universities a year later.

If you have a strength in one subject area in school but may not be academically strong across the full range of Leaving Certificate subjects, deciding to spend a year at PLC level in that subject could be a very wise decision.

If students get distinctions in all eight PLC modules, they have a good chance of a reserved place in their preferred CAO course next year.

See for a database of such linked programmes. PLC programmes also offer training in practical skills for employment in a trade or craft such as business, hairdressing, beauty and the fire and ambulance services.

Students interested in local PLC courses need to fill out application forms, usually online, from individual colleges in the next few months; a link to a range of FE courses and PLCs is now on offer through a link to Fetch programmes on the CAO website. FE places are offered mostly on a first-come, first-served basis and may be impossible to secure later in the year.

3. If you want to do nursing, your options have improved considerably in the past year or so

The Health Service Executive (HSE) cut the number of approved nursing places by 310 in 2010 to 1,570 during the then financial crisis in order to cut costs associated with paying student nurses during their fourth-year placements. As a direct consequence of this action the CAO points required to secure a place moved beyond the reach of many school-leavers, who in other circumstances would have become highly skilled nurses.

Many who did not achieve enough CAO points applied instead to FE pre-nursing courses, in the hope of securing a CAO place the following year. However, only a handful of places are made available by CAO colleges during those years through this route.

However, through increased funding and the creation of new places, hundreds of additional students secured nursing places in 2023. Two hundred of these places were secured in Queen’s University Belfast and in Ulster University, for Republic of Ireland-based applicants through a funding arrangement with the Irish exchequer. Those places have been secured again in 2024. Applications must be made in the normal way through by the January 31st deadline.

A further 60 places were created in Further Education colleges in the northwest through the new National Tertiary Office These students will complete their nursing training over a five-year period. Again these places will be available in 2024 through direct application to the NTO. There is no immediate deadline for such applications.

Until 2016, given the then tiny numbers of CAO places on offer to FE graduates, most successful PLC nursing students applied for UK programmes, which were funded by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). However, over the past seven academic years, new students on nursing, midwifery and AHP (allied health professional) preregistration courses in England – which lead to a qualification with one of the health professional regulators – must take out maintenance and tuition loans rather than getting an NHS grant. This affects courses leading to professional registration in nursing (all four fields), midwifery, physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, podiatry, radiography, dietetics, orthoptics, operating department practice, as well as prosthetics and orthotics.

This change has hugely affected the numbers of students from the Republic seeking nursing or paramedical courses in the UK through UCAS (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) as they will now have to pay the full annual tuition fee of at least £9,250 (€10,837). Figures provided by UCAS in the UK show that the numbers of Irish students securing places in nursing, midwifery, other paramedical programmes, medicine, dentistry and veterinary science remains at very low levels.

4. Check the Brexit effect

Although the UK has left the European Union, the Common Travel Area agreement between the UK and Ireland means that Irish students will be levied fees of €9,250 identical to UK applicants and will not be treated as international students, who have to pay significantly higher fees. Notwithstanding the advantages conferred by membership of the Common Travel Area, the number of Irish students opting to accept places offered through UCAS remains quite low.

Other fellow EU applicants to UCAS are not as fortunate as they are levied international fees of up to £30,000-£40,000 a year, which has led to a collapse of their application numbers to UCAS and a corresponding increase in continental EU students seeking and accepting offers from the CAO this year.

Some 9,064 continental EU applicants sought a CAO place last year, a huge increase in the 2,000 or so who applied annually before Brexit. This trend will grow strongly in the coming years, given Ireland’s status as the only English-speaking country in the EU, and will only enhance the linguistic and cultural mix of our universities. Will this new trend put pressure on CAO points and the availability of student accommodation for Irish students? Only time will tell.

5. January and May/June: Choosing a college course

You need to apply for any course listed as restricted in the CAO handbook by February 1st. All other courses can be added or removed from your application list up to the final change-of-mind deadline on July 1st.

If you want to apply for university in Northern Ireland or Britain, you must finalise your course list with UCAS by January 31st at 6pm. The fee for 2024 applications will be £27.50 for up to five courses. All applicants to UCAS will need to register in their Hub to start and access their application.

For FE programmes you must indicate which PLC courses you are applying for on your initial application to each college. For courses in other EU countries offered through English, closing dates are on the course profile pages on

Between February 5th and March 1st, any CAO applicant may change a course choice for a fee of €10. If you are a mature student or have applied for a restricted application course, or if you want to apply for a course you have not yet listed and wish to correct or amend your application record, you must report any errors or changes to the CAO by March 1st (fee €10).

Otherwise you don’t need to make course changes at this stage but if you have to, you can use the change-of-mind facility (May 5th-July 1st) with no charge. Before the end of May, all applicants receive an online statement of application record as a final acknowledgment and to verify that all information is accurate. If this does not arrive by June 1st, contact the CAO immediately. You can exercise your option to list any courses other than restricted ones not yet listed up to the closing date of July 1st, at 5pm. You may do this as many times as you wish during this time period.

6. July/August: CAO offers

In the first week of July 2023, the CAO made offers to 5,095 people, almost exclusively mature applicants (aged over 23) and applicants who accepted and deferred a place last year.

A further 4,477 -plus individuals received offers in round zero at the beginning of August. Most of these were to FE graduates who had a PLC award. Several hundred places in graduate medicine are offered at this stage also. These offers are available online but you need to log on to get them and there is no email or text alert.

When the change-of-mind period closes on July 1st, sixth-year students wait for the results of their Leaving Cert in late August. When the results are released, admissions officers in the third-level institutions inform the CAO of the number of places available on each course. The CAO then allocates places via computer, based on the results of each qualifying student and the instructions of the admissions officers. Colleges offer a specific number of places on each course listed with the CAO.

Students are offered their highest choice on each list that their CAO points gives them access to. If there are 100 places on offer, the 100 students with the correct entry requirements, who have the highest points, will be offered these places in round one. When the CAO receives the Leaving Cert results, each candidate’s choices are examined by the computer, starting with their first choice on each list and working downwards. When their points fall within the number of places offered on a course, the computer offers that place and removes all lower-preference courses.

The CAO may later offer a place on a course listed higher up on your list if it becomes available. It is imperative that candidates list their choices in the order they desire them, from one to 10, with one being their most desired course and 10 being the least desired.

7. Studying abroad

As the UK loses much of its attraction to Irish students due to Brexit and higher costs associated with the withdrawal of NHS funding to nursing and paramedical programmes, European universities, which offer more than 1,100 undergraduate degrees across all disciplines through English, are attracting growing numbers of Irish applicants.

There are now up to 1,000 Irish undergraduate students in first-year undergraduate programmes in Dutch universities alone, with many hundreds more scattered across colleges throughout Europe. Some of these European universities, which rank in the top 100 worldwide in international ranking and which might have registered four or five Irish students 10 years ago, are now admitting more than 100 students a year ( Prospective students should be aware that the academic year is considerably longer in many continental European universities, stretching into late June in some cases.

Fees range from just over €2,200 in the Netherlands to no fees in Germany and Scandinavian countries. Medical and veterinary programmes in eastern European countries charge fees of €8,000 upwards. Many of these countries have invested in their third-level infrastructure for centuries and have sufficient places to accommodate most aspiring applicants. In recent decades, due to lower birth rates, fewer young people are seeking third-level places so places are more readily available.

Matriculation entry requirements are similar to Irish universities: two H5s and four O6s in the Leaving Cert in most cases but, unlike in Ireland, there are no CAO points requirements in EU universities. A student on 300 CAO points could well secure entry to a European university programme to study, for example, physiotherapy or psychology – courses that would require at least 500 points in Ireland.

But given that securing a place in a European university for domestic as well as external applicants is relatively easy compared with an Irish one, failure or dropout rates after first year are high, at up to 40 per cent for domestic students. Irish students’ attrition rates on these courses tend to be much lower, probably reflecting a higher level of commitment required to secure the offer of a place.

So be warned: after securing your first-year place, passing your exams and completing the course over three to four years is a big challenge. Repeating the first year is often not allowed, unless you have secured the majority of required credits in your examinations.

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