What is the CAO?

By your final year in school, you will have experienced open days, assessments, psychometric tests, careers focussed classes and individual appointments. Hopefully you have narrowed down your course choices and are ready to begin the process of selecting course and putting them in order on the basis of preference, content, points, location and duration.

1. What is the CAO?

The CAO is a centralised applications system that processes all course applications into courses at universities and institutes of technology in the Republic of Ireland.

  • demonstration on how to complete the CAO form is available here.
  • Note - there are a small number of similar courses available through private colleges (fee paying) which can be applied to directly - see Non CAO Courses.
  • Courses in the CAO system are funded by the state, although there is a substantial registration fee which all students must pay. This is also known as a 'student contribution' - it covers student services and examinations.
  • The amount of the contribution varies from one institution to another. The maximum rate of the student contribution for the academic year is currently €3,000.

Video Presentation of the CAO System

The CAO does not deal with FET / PLC applications or college applications outside the Republic of Ireland. It is just one of several options available to your child after 6th year. The other options are:

  • College in the UK
  • College in Europe or further afield
  • Post Leaving Cert Course
  • Repeat Leaving Cert
  • Apprenticeship
  • Job

What is a CAO Application Number? The CAO application number is the number assigned to candidates when they submit an application.

The number is unique to each individual and it is important to keep it safe and secure from interference by anyone.

Students often store the number on their phone along with PPSN and other important information. 

If everyone is agreeable it is useful for a parent of guardian to have a record of the number also.

What are the important CAO stages and deadlines?

(This is a brief summary. For full information see CAO Handbook)



What to do 

Transition Year to January of 6th Year

Pre Application

Research & Select Courses

November up to closing date 1st February of 6th year

Application Stage 1

Closing date for application

Register on CAO and Complete Course Choice

Mid February

Acknowledgement of application

Check any errors or deadlines

1st May of 6th year

Closing date for late applications

(Restricted entry applicants must apply by 1st February)

Up to 1st July year of Leaving Cert

Change of Mind

For full info re Change of Mind click here

Mid August after Leaving Cert

Offers and Acceptance of places

Following Leaving Cert Results

Tip: It may be useful to make out a version of the above chart and post it somwhere in your house.

Some other important application deadlines to note:

  • DARE = Disability Access Route to Education - click here
  • SIF = Supplementary information form - click here
  • HEAR = Higher Education Access Route - click here
  • UCAS – Applications to college in the UK - click here

What you need to know and where to find it out

General information about Options
Specific Course Information
Career Trends / Areas of Growth & Contraction
CAO Information & Applications

Common CAO Concerns

Common CAO Concerns

  • Choice anxiety – there are over 1,300 CAO courses to choose from. In addition, there are almost 2,000 PLC courses together with other training programmes, apprenticeships, and employment options. Young people may fear making the wrong decision. For example, there are 159 CAO Engineering courses to choose from. Even if a student has settled on doing Engineering, the process of selecting the right array of course options requires a bit of navigation. It is possible to avoid excess worrying over CAO course choice by fostering effective decision making at home with open and supportive discussion.
  • What is right for the applicant - the match between your subject preferences, your interests, your career preferences and employment trends.
  • Points pressure – how can your parents encourage you to do their very best and aim for the required points level, whilst at the same time ensuring that you are not put under too much pressure by the points system?
  • Being ready to focus on career and course options.  Often this is prevented because of other important issues: health & well-being, bereavement, age, relocation, personal or family concern, sports, extra-curricular interests, part-time job?
  • Financial concerns – how much will college cost?
  • Meeting CAO and other deadlines & making time for work and study
  • Awareness of other Non CAO options

What can Parents do to Help?

  1. Be aware of dates and deadlines from the outset of 6th year and find your in-house formula for ensuring that important reminders are issued and acted upon. Some households use the family wall calendar. This system of planning works well because it pertains to all aspects of family life and whilst it emphasises the importance of the CAO & Leaving Certificate processes and deadlines, it also places both within the overall context of life and family. 
  2. Be aware of ongoing careers & college events, noting which ones are most relevant to your child’s area of career and college interest. View list of events nationwide here.
  3. Make space for relaxed discussion time, listening and teasing out of possible options, narrowing down of options and the process of putting choices in order of preference.
  4. Recognise resources close to home, e.g. people in your work, social or family circle who can offer useful and focused career information or insights. 
  5. Recognise that you may have the power to influence but not the casting vote. Be like a good chairperson – impartial and objective, tactful, approachable and informed.
  6. Be supportive, open and accepting with your child but also agree clear boundaries and expectations in relation to preparation for their Leaving Certificate Exams. Work with them to set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic & Time bound).
  7. Identify through conversation with your child and in consultation with their teacher, areas where they may need additional tuition support. Grinds are a good option but also look out for more cost effective alternatives.
  8. Encourage Organisation & Planning and be aware of your position as a role model. A young person will find it easier to organise their notes and research and keep important passwords and documents secure, if they see organisation at home.
  9. Remember the single most important element at the centre of this entire journey – your child and your relationship with them.

Filling in the CAO Application

They may need to reflect on the results of careers assessments and interest profilers, aptitude tests, examination results to date, and career events and talks they have attended. Encourage them to talk to the guidance counsellor or trusted mentor and trust your own instincts too. If the young person remains unfocussed, then it might be a good idea to settle on more general CAO course options. 

They may like the general area of Science but might not know yet what area of Science interests them most. Also remember that with the exception of Medicine and other restricted application courses, applicants can change their mind up until 1st July. This is after they have sat their Leaving Cert.

Ready to fill in the CAO Application –Picking Courses and putting them in order

  • Course content - subjects taught / electives
  • Is there an internship / work experience option?
  • College / college facilities / Location / ease of access
  • Broad subject area vs. career focussed course?
  • When selecting course choice allow for a number of options, level 6, 7 & 8 and some back up options
  • Finance – fees – Some private colleges charge significant fees/ accommodation / duration X fees / Erasmus year /
  • Time frame – how long is the course? Is it possible to defer?
  • Career opportunities & employment trends
  • Earning power = what is likely earning power
  • Encourage the young person to arrange course choice by putting what they really want first and in descending order of preference.




LEVEL 6 & 7

TR085 Business Studies with French TCD (515)

CR021 Business Studies Cork IT (270) with French

DN660 Commerce International UCD (465) choosing from a range of 6 languages – Chinese, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish

BN010 Business International Blanchardstown IT (185) with language

DC112 European Business – French DCU  (430)

TA113 Management IT Tallaght (200) with language

DT555 International Business & French DIT (395)

CW917 Business Carlow IT  (220) with language


CK205 Commerce International with French UCC (500)

BN014 Business Blanchardstown IT (180) with language

DN650 Commerce UCD (465)

CR023 Accounting Cork IT (230)


DT565 Chinese & International Business – DIT (345)

TA111 Accounting IT Tallaght (200)


LM052 Business with French – UL (390)


MH404 Business Management – NUIM (420)



 WD049 Business with French Waterford IT (355)


This student wants to study Business with a language, preferably French or Chinese. She chose all level 8 Business courses with a French or Chinese language option. UCD offer both languages for the first semester. She also included straight Commerce UCD. She put her first real preference course at number 1 and listed her courses in order of preference – not in order of last year’s points. She lives in Kilkenny, so Dublin, Cork and Waterford are her preferred choices and where some of her friends are going. She is not interested in Accountancy and has only listed two courses at the end of level 6 & 7. She has scored 400 points in the Mock exams and hopes to improve on that by June. For this reason, she doesn’t feel it necessary to complete her level six or seven choices.

Important points to note:

  • Meet the deadlines
  • Put genuine preference first – if the Leaving Certificate student reaches the required points for their first choice, they will be assigned to that course and all other options beneath it will be wiped out on the CAO system!
  • The CAO gives the option of applying to twenty different courses. In England, students may only apply for five courses in any year. So it is a good opportunity to include specific course options, broader course options and a few alternatives.
  • It is the student’s responsibility to check and respond to all paperwork and email from CAO.

What happens after the CAO deadline?

What happens after the CAO deadline?

Students receive acknowledgement of their application in February and can check for errors at this point. In early May, students may register change of CAO courses online. If they have applied for Restricted Application courses they will be required to attend for an interview or audition, present a portfolio or sit HPAT or other tests. If their application is straightforward, parents and students can generally put CAO concerns on the back burner until early May when Change of Mind comes around. Time will be taken up with study, revision, mock exams, Leaving Cert assignments & projects for completion and submission, oral and aural exams and other deadlines.

However, it is a good idea to look at PLC options from February to April. Applications for PLC courses have risen steadily in recent years and because PLC colleges operate their own admissions procedures, high demand courses can fill up early. PLCs offer an excellent bridge between school and college for many students.

The option of Repeating the Leaving Certificate, (apart from in exceptional circumstances) is best left for serious consideration until after Leaving Cert results have been issued and CAO offers have been made.

And finally, if your son or daughter is likely to be away when Leaving Cert results issue and particularly when CAO offers are made, agree if possible that a designated trusted person at home has access to important CAO emails, offers, notifications and letters.

Changing and amending course choices

It is not unusual for applicants to have second thoughts about their course or college choice. The good news is (with some exceptions) the CAO system is built to accomodate most course change options and standard applications can change course choice and order as often as they like up to 1st July deadline.

Some Reasons Students change their course choices

  • To change the order of course choice
  • To remove choices and add others
  • To correct a mistake
  • Change on the basis of recent exam results
  • Changes in personal cirumstances, e.g. location/health/finance
  • Change of interest in course or course area
How the Change of Mind works
The Change of Mind facility for all standard CAO applicants becomes available on 6th May. At this point the applicant can register online to make changes to their course choices.

Key Points:
  • The facility is free and the young person may change courses as often as they wish (see exceptions)
  • Available up to 17.15 on 1st July
  • Each change of mind cancels and supersedes previous choices
  • Changes and choices in each category are considered separately from each other. Level 6/7 courses can be changed without affecting Level 8.
  • Different rules apply for Transfer, Non-EU and Mature applicants

Note: It is possible to amend course choices between 5th of February and 1st of March. There is a €10.00 fee for this as it is really intended for restricted course applicants, certain mature and restricted category applicants.

Key dates for changing and amending CAO courses

1st February
Close of date for applications
5th Feb to 1st March Change of course facility for restricted application courses
1st May Closing date for late applications
6th May-1st July  17.15pm Change of Mind facility for standard applications

Common CAO Mistakes

Common CAO mistakes include the following:

  • Students unaware of which colleges are Private (Private ones incur tuition fees! and the SUSI grant does not cover these).
  • Students unaware of and / or don’t understand CAO order of preference .
  • Students not researching courses down their CAO order of preference list - some students have never visited colleges or read the prospectus and so are on a mystery journey…
  • Students who don’t know difference between Further Education and Higher Education - they try to put down PLC course codes on CAO entries area!
  • Students not paying attention to the requirement that any additional documents forwarded to the CAO must have the student’s CAO number on each document.
  • Students unaware of CAO rules - Change of Mind etc.
  • Students having unrealistic expectations, risking receiving no CAO offer.

Made by students who are repeating or who have previously withdrawn from a course

  • Incomplete CAO application - Students who have dropped out need transcripts etc. from their college showing that they have withdrawn from a course - these must be sent to CAO as part of their new application.
  • Evidence of international qualifications provided must be certified translations.
  • Students (who have dropped out of Third level) reapplying to CAO-unaware of rules regarding “Free Fees”. The consequences involve loss of “Free Fees” and loss of grant. Rules vary from college to college regarding drop out / withdrawal / exit dates. Some students don’t even let colleges know they have dropped out and are on the college financial “books” longer than is necessary. Tuition fees also vary from college to college to the tune of thousands!

Mature Student CAO mistakes

  • Mature Students failing to read information in Mature section of individual college websites.
  • Mature Students unaware of admission rules on college websites - e.g. unaware of supplementary forms and requirements.  CAO alone is not enough for universities - each Third level has a different application process which can include admission tests, aptitude tests and interviews. Aptitude tests like MSAP or Hpat have deadlines.
  • Candidates for Nursing degrees unaware of An Bord Altanais role in the application process - CAO application alone is not enough.

FET/QQI Student CAO mistakes

  • FET students applying for courses where QQI link does not exist and / or module requirement is not met. (In other word, applying for a CAO course without meeting the particular subject requirements)
  • FET students not ticking the right box in the Qualifications & Assessments section. Failing then to insert their PPS number. This cannot be manually corrected later. So CAO has no idea they exist ….
  • FET students not inserting their Leaving Cert. number/ If they have sat Leaving Cert. They can still use points to go in through the Leaving Cert gate. CAO computer will select highest point score between FET and Leaving Certificate.
  • DARE & HEAR routes can still be availed of if students are using Leaving Cert. to gain admission.

CAO Fallacies

  • Repeat students who think CAO account can be used following year
  • Students who are unaware they are eligible for SUSI grant, especially at PLC level.

QQI Pre Nursing student mistakes

Applicants unaware that:

  • They must have a Grade C in Irish (ordinary level).
  • Leaving Cert Ordinary Level Maths or distinction in Maths at QQI level is required, if they want to be considered by UK Colleges (or D grade in ordinary level maths is sufficient for Irish Colleges).

CAO Change of Mind

CAO Change of Mind Facility from CAO on Vimeo.

Make your CAO course choice changes before 1st July

CAO Change of Mind The CAO Change of Mind facility is free and it does exactly what you'd think - to change your mind about the CAO courses you have applied for.  You can make changes to your CAO application at various points throughout the year, but the online Change of Mind facility is open from 5th May - 1st July each year. (The paper-based option is closed at this stage).

It is free to submit a CAO Change of Mind form

You can make as many changes to the change of mind form as you wish, between 12.00 on 6th May and 17.15 on 1st July. The Change of Mind form works in the same way as the regular CAO form. The key thing is to list your courses in order of genuine preference - always put the ones you most want to get as your top choices. Do not base the list on how many points you expect to get. 

You can make changes to both your Level 8 course list and your Level 6/7 course list. It is also worth checking for any new courses that have become available since you first filled in your CAO form. Once submitted, the Change of Mind form cancels out your previous application. 

Approaching Change of Mind

  • Review the list of course preferences submitted before 1st February
  • Reflect on each course, asking the question "Would I be happy if I was offered a place on this course?"- if the answer is no, remove it!
  • Revise the order in which your course preferences are listed if necessary - this is a good time to ask: "Which course do I want the most?" and check if that has changed since you first compiled your choices and be sure to put that course as Number 1. The best advice is to always put your course choices in genuine order of preference.
  • Research - finally, check for any new courses that may have recently been added to CAO - these courses can be included in your CAO choices during the Change of Mind period.

List your courses in order of genuine preference

Restricted Courses 

Restricted courses cannot generally be added for the first time to a Change of Mind application. See more details on the CAO website HERE. Mature applicants Mature students [and students from outside the EU and transfer applicants] may not be able to use the Change of Mind form - you should contact the admissions office of the college/course in question if you have an issue.  What happens next? Once you submit your Change of Mind form, you will receive a revised Statement of Course Choice confirming that your new choices have now been entered into your CAO record.  For online changes, you should receive an email acknowledging the edits you have made.  Paper applicants -  a revised statement is issued after the 1st of June. If you do not receive a Statement of Course Choice before the 7th of July, you should contact the CAO immediately with proof of your Change of Mind form.  Important Dates - Click here