Six steps to applying for college in 2021

The transition from school to third level can be a challenge. This is what you have to do

1: Register with CAO. ie

January 2021 – If you are interested in getting a place at an Irish 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 wants 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 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 next September.


However, 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 up until the July 1st deadline. The most comprehensive source of information on courses is on

2: Consider PLC options outside the CAO

February/March – 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.

Further education (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 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 and ITs 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; further education courses and PLCs are not in the centralised CAO system. Places are offered mostly on a first-come, first-served basis and may be impossible to secure later in the year.

In the 2020 CAO application season, 12,556 people presented a QQI (Quality and Qualifications Ireland) FET/Fetac further education award (formerly NCVA). A total of 3,941 others presented further education awards received from other regulatory bodies. At the beginning of August 2020 the CAO made 4,155 offers in round zero, the majority of which were to applicants presenting further-education awards. Many of these college place offers were in courses which require more than 500 CAO points from those competing on the basis of the Leaving Cert alone.

3: End of the road for Irish PLC nursing studies in the UK?

Since the Health Service Executive cut the number of approved nursing places by 310 to 1,570 in 2010 to cut costs associated with paying student nursing during their fourth-year placements, the CAO points required to secure a place have been beyond the reach of many school-leavers.

Many who do not make the cut apply to FE pre-nursing courses, in the hope of securing a CAO place the following year. Sadly, only a handful of places are made available by colleges through this route.

Until 2016, given the 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) – up to 500 Irish students went annually.

However, over the past four academic years, new students on nursing, midwifery and AHP (allied health professional) pre-registration 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 a 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 impacted hugely on 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).

Although Britain has now left the European Union, the Common Travel Area between the UK and Ireland means that Irish students will not be treated as international students in the UK in the coming academic year and will, therefore, still be levied fees of €9,250.

4: Choosing any college course

January and May/June – 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 the UK, you must finalise your course list with Ucas by January 15th.

You must also 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 a 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.

Accompanying this statement will be a change-of-mind form, which you can use up to the closing date at 5.15pm on July 1st. You may make as many changes as you wish online.

5: CAO offers

July/August – In the first week of July 2020, the CAO made offers to 5,800 individuals who were almost exclusively mature applicants (aged over 23) and applicants who accepted and deferred a place last year. A further 4,155-plus individuals received offers in round zero at the beginning of August. Most of these offers were to FE graduates who had a PLC award. Several hundred places in graduate medicine are offered at this stage also.

These offers arrive at the applicant’s home address in the middle of summer so be sure to decide how to deal with any offers sent to you. Offers are also 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 mid-August. When the results are out, 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 points give 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 on your list if it becomes available.

It is imperative that candidates list their choices in the order that they desire them, from one to 10, with one being their most desired course and 10 being the least desired.

6: 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 more than 1,000 Irish undergraduate students in Dutch universities.

Some of these European universities, which rank in the top 100 worldwide in international ranking, who registered four or five Irish students five years ago, are now admitting more than 100 students per year (

As is the norm in continental Europe, fees range from just over €2,000 in the Netherlands to no fees in Germany and Scandinavian countries. Medical and veterinary programmes in eastern European countries charge fees of €10,000 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 easily 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.

A student on 300 CAO points could well secure entry to a European university programme to study, for example, physiotherapy or psychology – courses which 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 to an Irish one, failure or drop-out 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 and repeating first year is often not allowed, unless you have secured the majority of required credits in your examinations.

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney is a guidance counsellor and education columnist. He contributes education articles to The Irish Times