How can parents help their kids with their CAO choices?

By Grainne McCool

As the mother of a forthcoming Leaving Certificate student, this time of year is a particularly stressful one. I’ve been here twice before and now on my third visit it hasn’t gotten any easier. The CAO application is in motion.

CAO is the college application process in Ireland. It enables our sons and daughters to make plans for after school and apply for their chosen field of third level study.

Most kids who go through this process are just 17 and 18 years of age. Surely this is way too young to be making such serious decisions about the rest of their lives.

But it’s a decision making time which must be broached and decided upon if our children wish to proceed with their education.

As a mother of three boys I had always laid down the rule that they each must complete the Leaving Certificate to the best of their ability. I had hoped that they would also enter third level study but that would have to be their own personal decision. Fortunately the eldest two did just this and son number three is also headed that direction. But it’s the same old story all over again. ‘What do I apply for?’ ‘Where do I want to go?’

There is no hard and fast answer if you do not have your heart set on a particular goal for the future. And surely at this young age they really shouldn’t need to focus completely on that future just yet.

But alas, that’s exactly what must be done. It’s one of the most difficult decision making times our children encounter in their young studying lives.

As boy number three approaches his CAO application form I have given him the same advice I gave number one and number two. It’s the advice I heard on the late Gerry Ryan radio show during 2006.

My eldest son was preparing for his Junior Cert and making subject choices for his Leaving Certificate. I recall what a stressful time this was as these subjects would define his future learning. It was equally difficult for each boy as their turn came along.

Grainne's family, including her 18-year-old son, Ultan (back left)
Grainne’s sons have all had to go through the CAO process

As I drove in my car that morning listening to the legendary Gerry, an educational psychologist spoke about subject choices and college application decision making. The advice he gave that morning rang so very true and I adhere to it to this very day.

His advice was to encourage the children to choose subjects they were going to enjoy studying. Choose subjects they felt passionate about. He advised that this would encourage the students to work hard and enjoy the course of studying towards the most difficult exams they would ever face – the Leaving Cert.

Following this the psychologist advised that on application to college, apply for a course that you knew would appeal to you. Choose one that again you would enjoy and feel that personal rewards would be had from this course of study.

He advised not to focus too far ahead on a career. His advice encouraged focusing on the present and letting career plans and such follow once study was complete.

His words that morning began to make so much sense. He instantly took away a lot of the emotional worry and stress that I was feeling at the time.

I relayed all of it to my son on return home that evening. I again relayed to the second son a few years later. And just last week when my youngest son expressed an interest in a certain course for next year but explained that he was unsure of the job prospects on completion, I did just this again.

I assured him that I felt he shouldn’t worry about that far ahead and to now focus on a course of study he firmly believes he will enjoy and feel competent about. These words reassured him and I do believe that this was the right advice.

Time will tell but as a concerned parent in the modern world and like everyone else, wanting the best for my boy, I am trying to allow him to be stress-free as he prepares for Leaving Cert.

The next chapter will hopefully follow on and then on completion of that chapter the employment sector will welcome him aboard. But for now, there’s only one thing he and others like him should be focusing upon – those ever so important exams in June.

So as the CAO process gets underway it shall be a number of courses which appeal to him in the here and now that he shall be applying for.

It shall be those courses which have enjoyment appeal and hopefully study will be fun for the three years that lie ahead. Work can wait another while. The career will hopefully follow.

But for now my only wish is that he is allowed to enjoy a course of study which will encourage him to participate fully because he wants to, not because he feels he has to.

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