CAO – A Guide for Parents Part 1

Running the gauntlet of the CAO application process has become a right of passage in Ireland. It was founded in Galway in 1976, with nine colleges and universities participating initially. Ireland as a society was changing and there was dissatisfaction with the old system of college entry and a perception that certain professional courses were reserved for that same professional elite.


The first students processed through the new CAO system started their college courses in 1978. Since its inception, the CAO has earned a reputation for integrity and fairness. The points system, despite its flaws, is an objective method of allocating scarce places to an excess demand from students.

The role of the CAO is solely to facilitate the processing of applications to higher education in Ireland on behalf of its third-level clients. Colleges have adopted a common “points system” for making offers in order of merit, and the CAO is specifically authorised to make these offers on behalf of the colleges.

It does not determine the admissions policy of any college or who gets admitted to third-level.  It is completely at the discretion of the college whether it wishes to use the common points system, a combination of the points system and interview (or similar) or indeed develop a points system of its own.

We are now in CAO Season for Leaving Cert students. Completing the application at this time of year serves two functions: it completes the registration process and gives students time to focus, knowing that there will be plenty of opportunity to revisit the application in the months ahead.


The rationale for the normal application closing date of February 1st was that applicants should consider their options in a calm atmosphere with the advice and guidance available from their advisors in the term before the Christmas break. They could then decide during the holidays and submit their application at the beginning of January. February 1st was intended as the latest date for applying, however, late applications can be submitted up to May 1st, with certain restrictions.

Once applications are submitted applicants are free to concentrate on their studies and prepare for the Leaving Certificate. When the Leaving Certificate is finished, applicants have an opportunity to change their course choices up to July 1st.

Choosing the wrong course is one of the major factors which leads to student drop-out at college. This can cause considerable upset for students and parents alike. As parents, our instinct is to dive in and take control of the process in an attempt to protect our children. However, it is important to remember that this is not our life decision but the student’s.

So here are some tips for parents:

  • Familiarise yourself with the new grading system – A’s and B’s are no more!
  • Read the CAO handbook or download the Guide for Parents & Guardians from
  • Respect the student’s choices. Encourage them to independently research their prospective courses
  • Be open on costs. Living costs for college students have skyrocketed in recent years. If doing a course in a college puts an extra financial burden, then consider a similar course elsewhere where the costs may be lower. This will ease the pressure on everyone, student and parents alike.
  • Register with the CAO early. Even if the student is 100% sure of their choices, getting the registration completed takes the pressure off. The CAO system is remarkably flexible in that choices can be changed right up to July 1, apart from restricted-application courses, which have early assessment procedures.
  • Be positive. This is an opportunity to have open-ended discussions exploring life choices.


Next time , in CAO – A Guide for Parents Part 2, I will be going more into the nuts and bolts of the CAO Application.

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