Six steps to applying for college in 2021

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.