Step-by-step guide to applying for a college place in 2022
You need to register now to apply for college through the CAO, but you have until July 1st to make a final decision on your course choice
1. January 2022: Register with cao.ie
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 cao.ie 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 qualifax.ie.
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 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 careersportal.ie 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.
In the 2021 CAO application season, 13,125 people presented a QQI (Quality and Qualifications Ireland) FET/Fetac further education award (formerly NCVA). A total of 4,406 others presented FE awards received from other regulatory bodies. At the beginning of August 2021 the CAO made 4,418 offers in round zero, the majority of which were to applicants presenting FE awards. Many of these offers were for courses which require more than 500 CAO points from those applying on the Leaving Cert alone.
3. If you want to do nursing, check your options
Since the Health Service Executive cut the number of approved nursing places by 310 in 2010 to 1,570 during the financial crisis in order to cut costs associated with paying student nurses during their fourth-year placements, the CAO points required to secure a place have been beyond the reach of many school-leavers, who in other circumstances would have become highly skilled nurses.
Many who do not achieve enough CAO points apply 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 through this route.
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has stated publicly in recent months that he is unhappy with this situation, and wishes to see an opening up of opportunities for suitable PLC graduates of pre-nursing programmes into our level 8 nursing degree courses. We wait with interest to see how many of the 2021 pre-nursing students receive offers of places in August 2022.
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 five 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).
In October 2021 UCAS reported that 325 students with Republic of Ireland home addresses registered for nursing and midwifery programmes in either Northern Ireland or Britain.
A further 520 applicants secured places in the other paramedical programmes listed above. Some 90 applicants secured a place in medicine or dentistry, with 35 succeeding in getting a place in veterinary science.
4. Check the Brexit effect
Although Britain 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 and will not be treated as international students who have to pay significantly higher fees in the UK.
In 2021, 850 students from this State opted to study in Northern Ireland, where fees are £4,000-£5,000; 460 travelled to Scottish universities, paying £9,250 fees for the first time due to Brexit, and 900 accepted a place in England or Wales.
Other 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 applications to UCAS and a corresponding increase in continental EU students accepting offers from the CAO this year.
Some 5,356 continental EU applicants sought a CAO place in 2021, over 2,200 received a level 8 offer, and 870 (up from 330 prior to Brexit) are now studying in an Irish third-level college.
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 26th. The fee for 2022 applications will be £22 for one choice, or £26.50 for two-to-five. 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 eunicas.ie.
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 acknowledgement 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 5pm on July 1st. You may make as many changes as you wish online.
6. July/August: CAO offers
In the first week of July 2021, the CAO made offers to 6,698 individuals who were almost exclusively mature applicants (aged over 23) and applicants who accepted and deferred a place last year.
A further 4,418 -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 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 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, who registered four or five Irish students five years ago, are now admitting more than 100 students a year (eunicas.ie).
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. Repeating first year is often not allowed, unless you have secured the majority of required credits in your examinations.