University admissions, Irish style

The latest in our series of articles on international systems of university application sees David Hawkins take us through Ireland's central applications office.

David Hawkins is director of The University Guys

As we head towards post-qualification offer (PQO) or post-qualification acceptance (PQA) admissions system, as ever the UK system is perhaps forgetting that other countries also have admissions systems.

Comparisons are most commonly is drawn to the United States, but much closer to home is a PQO system that mirrors some of the proposals that have emanated from UCAS, UUK and DfE.

When talking about the Irish university application system, it’s worth noting that there are in fact two systems. Though in UCAS we’re used to one system where fee status then changes how applications are processed, in Ireland students have to first work out their fee status and then apply via the appropriate pathway. International students (those who don’t qualify for EU fees) apply directly to each university on a rolling-admissions timeline, with requirements specific to each university. Those who pay the EU fees apply through the Central Applications Office, the CAO, with a highly regulated process and clear requirements.

So simple you may not know you have applied…

The CAO is best understood as an application clearing house, rather than a strict comparator to UCAS. The system in Ireland is what the UK is now terming PQO: post qualification offers. The CAO is the organisation that runs this process, administering the matching of students to degree courses and providing a series of sometimes baffling guidance documents.

To apply via the CAO, students enter their biographical information and choices online before February 1st of the year in which they intend to enter university. For reasons that will become clear, there is no option to defer entry. In May, students are able to enter any ‘Change of Mind’ changes.

When completing the CAO, very little information is required on an applicant. Like a long weekend in Dublin, all memory of even spending time on the application may fade into the ether. Applicants provide their personal and contact details, the qualifications they are studying, and then their course choices. For this last stage, students have the ability to list 20 choices: ten at Level 8 (Honours Bachelor Degree, at what would be termed a ‘research university’ in other systems) and ten at Level 6 or Level 7, taught at Institutes of Technology. Crucially, students must enter these courses in order of preference.

There is no personal statement and no reference, so students are not tied to one particular subject area: each of their 20 choices could be for a different subject area of study.

TCD, UCC, UCD or DCU?

When students are choosing where to apply from the sea of acronyms, beyond their desire to study a particular subject or subject combination and their preference for a specific university or location, students will also assess their competitiveness for a programme based on two factors:

  • Minimum entry requirements will be specified for many courses, and in the National University of Ireland these will include requirements to have studied Irish;
  • The CAO points cut-off for previous years

With up to 20 choices to play with, however, students can choose to be very ambitious with some of their choices, something they are aided in by the CAO Points system. History and TCD, Sport Science at GMIT and the enticing Brewing and Distilling at IT Carlow can all make up one form.

Points mean places

CAO points, like the UCAS tariff, take a range of qualifications and convert them to a centralised points system. Unlike UCAS, the equivalencies can be debated (such as the matching of a 45 IB to a 600 on the Leaving Cert), but are as set in stone as the infamous Cloch na Blarnan.

Various grades within the Irish Leaving Certificate lead to a certain number of points, which are then be used for offer-making. Students applying to university will have a sense of what they may achieve in the Leaving Certificate, and thus can apply to courses that cover this range, though predicted grades don’t exist in the Irish system. It’s perhaps for this reason that 18% of all Irish students making university applications apply to UCD, and 16% to Trinity – there’s very little penalty to being speculative.

Unlike UCAS, however, the points form the only way in which offers are made: points mean places. Rather than being entry requirements, they specify the lowest points score that gained a place in the previous cycle. When looking at options, students thus need to be aware that this grade can vary wildly from year to year, as the process is based on supply and demand. For example, Social Science at University College Cork had a cut off score of 412 points in 2020, 391 points in 2019, and 387 in 2018.

That score figure does not specify a minimum requirement, it is the exact figure gained by the last person who gained a spot on that course. If a course has 48 places, those places to the 48 highest-scoring students who placed that course at the top of their list of places. The student ranked 49 doesn’t get made an offer. The system is explained in detail in this video.

The price is right – higher or lower?

These ‘Round One Offers’ are issued from the CAO to students in August, following the release of the Irish Leaving Certificate. The nature of the supply and demand system means that the order of preference becomes all important. In Round One, students will be given a place on the course that ranks highest on their list of preferences, with all places below automatically denied. Then, as the rounds progress throughout August and early September, students can be made offers from their higher-ranked preferences, if they open up based on the decisions of other students.

For students applying for medicine, an additional process is needed. Students will take the HPAT, and based on the range of points scored on the Leaving Certificate and the range on the HPAT, a new score will be calculated, from which offers will be based for medicine.

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