Tips for Filling Out the CAO Form
As we enter the New Year, the CAO deadline looms and many students face daunting decisions about their future. JOANNA MARSDEN gets some reassuring advice from Mary Quirke, guidance counsellor and Assistant Director of AHEAD.
“I encourage students to think about a ‘career path’ rather than an ultimate career,” says Mary Quirke, qualified guidance counsellor and Assistant Director of AHEAD, the Association for Higher Education Access and Disability. “If you don’t know what you want to do longer term, don’t feel bad. The vast majority of people don’t know what they want to do. There are so many careers out there and, chances are, you’ve only had exposure to a limited number at this stage in your life.
“At AHEAD, we seek to show students that they don’t have to go with a safe bet. Events like our Better Options fair are about getting students to loosen up and consider course and career options that they haven’t thought about before. Often, if we’ve no role models in a certain area, we assume it’s not possible. But how people work has changed, and people with physical disabilities are now working in most professions. I can think of nurses, GPs, teachers, engineers... A lot of it comes down to how you sell yourself, and our goal is to get students to ask themselves, ‘Is this possible?’, ‘Does it suit me?’, ‘How would I do it?’”
Mary believes that the starting point for any student planning their future is to focus on their strengths. “Most people discover their aptitudes at school - that’s their first lead. You might be good at art so your mind starts moving towards a career in graphic design, or you might be good at home economics so catering becomes an obvious choice. But the reality is you are not going to be getting a job tomorrow, so you don’t have to make that decision now. Instead, focus on looking for a course which fits with your abilities, interests and personality. Play to your strengths, and develop them through college. Hopefully, down the line, you will have an opportunity to refine your decision with the input of work experience or a work shadowing programme.”
When choosing a course, Mary acknowledges that practical factors like proximity to the college campus often come into play. “Most people have to ask questions like is it practical to get there? Is it financially feasible? Sometimes to get the course you want you have to consider moving away from home, and that’s a big decision. Choosing a course is a bit of a Rubik’s cube exercise - you have to look at it from all angles, including what you’d like to do, where you’d like to do it, the entry requirements, the location, and the accessibility of the campus and the buildings in which classes or lectures will be held.
“When you are trying to decide on the best courses, take advantage of all the information that is out there. Go to open days, and talk to admissions officers and staff in disability support services. Take the advice of your guidance counsellor, talk to family and friends, and don’t be shy about emailing people for advice. Another tip I’d give is not to focus on the course title, but instead to look at the syllabus. You might be comparing several courses with the same name, but the syllabi may include very different subjects.”
If students are worried about points, or don’t feel ready to move on to a third level course, Mary recommends that they explore options in further education. “Places like IWA centres and VECs offer a huge range of QQI Certificate courses. These courses are a valuable way of building up your CV for employment, or can be an ideal stepping stone to third level. But remember that the application process for further education is different from CAO. Deadlines are normally around Feb-March and you should visit the college’s website to find out more.”
Other options for students concerned about the points system include the DARE programme, under which universities allocate spaces to students with disabilities, or the Mature Student entry route for those over 23-years-ofage, which takes into account all education and work experience.
Understandably, finance is a big concern for many students considering third level. “If you’ve never done a degree before, you should be entitled to free fees, although you will have to pay the Student Contribution charge (Ä2,000 at present). Means-tested grants are also available via local authorities. Finally, students with disabilities have an entitlement to disability supports, such as assistive technology, available under the Minister’s Fund for Students with Disabilities - and this applies even if they opt to study in the UK.” However, with third level funding currently in the political spotlight, Mary acknowledges that the situation may change and suggests students contact AHEAD to discuss their individual circumstances. Having worked in career guidance for many years, Mary advises students not to be overly influenced by current trends or the current economic crisis. “Some people think they shouldn’t do a course related to construction because there are very few jobs in that area at the moment - but you have to remember that by the time you finish college things may have changed. I remember IT courses plummeted around the millennium, and picked right up again soon afterwards.
“Also remember that you can build on a degree. You often need to do something else afterwards before moving into employment. Arts degrees, for example, now encompass a much wider range of subjects and there are lots of different directions you could move in once the course is completed.
“There are so many reasons to go to college. It will help your job prospects - everyday we work with employers who actively recruit graduates with disabilities - but it’s also a very exciting time. Don’t forget that as a student with a disability you have the same opportunities as other students to take up programmes like ERASMUS, where you get to spend a year in another European country, giving you the opportunity to broaden your experience and learn a language.
“My advice to students is not to worry too much about the long term future - instead go college, enjoy the experience, build on your strengths and start thinking innovatively about future opportunities. When you leave college it’s not necessarily going to be about finding a job in a big company, entrepreneurship is becoming increasingly important. In my experience, people with disabilities are very good at thinking outside the box because they have had to find different ways of doing things throughout their lives. And don’t underestimate that skill - I really believe that thinking outside the box is what is going to get us out of this recession!”
Mary's tips for filling in the CAO form
- 1. Put in plenty of options - at least 5 or 6.
- 2. Put in courses that you genuinely want, in order of preference. Don’t let estimations of points dictate your choice - you may do better than you expect.
- 3. Consider putting in options that allow for an alternative route to your chosen area, so that you have another path if you don’t get the points you hope for.
- 4. Bear in mind any special entry requirements for particular courses, like science subjects, European languages, maths or Irish.
- 5. Always tick the disability box. This tells the college: “I am a student with as disability and I’m on my way!” It doesn’t make sense not to tick it - no one will hold it against you!
- 6. Consider applying for ‘DARE’ on your application form. DARE is a supplementary entry scheme open to students with disabilities, under which a college recognises that because of your disability you may not have achieved the same points that you would have otherwise. As part of the application, you will need a consultant’s report informing them about the impact of your disability. Also remember that not all colleges are involved in DARE - check on the DARE website for full details. You will be notified whether you are eligible for a place via DARE before the results come out and your place will be subject to your Leaving Certificate results, ie any offer of a place on a third level course will be through the first or second round of CAO offers. Finally, bear in mind that while DARE is a great scheme, it is not a guarantee of a college place.
- 7. Finally, don’t forget the CAO deadline of 1st February 2012! And check the CAO website for additional deadlines if you are applying through DARE.
DARE - Disability Access Route to Education. Web: www.accesscollege.ie/dare