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There's always an alternative route to college

There's always an alternative route to college

“Your CAO points don’t define you”

Leaving Cert results day is supposed to be filled with a sense of achievement and promise for the future. But when Christina Prendergast opened her envelope, she found herself facing disappointing results.

Her achieved grades were way below her expectations and ability, and the crushing realization that she hadn’t achieved the required points for her college course hit her.

Christina wishes she knew then what she knows now, that points don’t define you or your abilities, and that CAO is just one of many paths that people may take to achieve their goals.

The pressure of the Leaving Cert and not achieving your goals

Christina speaks openly about her high-achieving nature, and the pressure she put on herself to live up to her and her teachers’ expectations.

“The desire to achieve the highest points possible was something that ended up weighing me down a lot during my final two years of school. I completely wore myself out and ended up missing a lot of school due to stress-related illnesses. I’d put so much pressure on myself to do the best I could that I stopped hearing the people around me telling me to get more sleep and take some downtime. In the end, I sat those exams while running on empty and even though I didn’t do badly, I didn’t get the results that I’d work towards.”

Christina wonders if the Leaving Cert and CAO system is flawed.

“People keep telling you that if you keep putting in the work, it’ll all pay off in the end– but what they fail to mention is that the system fails so many bright young people who put their everything into those exams and it’s still not good enough. It truly was a devastating feeling at the time. “

An incorrectly filled out CAO form

Christina didn’t perform badly in her Leaving Cert by any means, and she achieved high enough results to be offered her second choice on CAO. But like many students, she realized she had filled out her CAO form too quickly and under pressure, and hadn’t put down courses that she actually wanted to do. 

“The course I was offered shouldn’t have been down as my second choice, but as with many Leaving Cert students, you put down those options to fill empty spaces “in case you don’t get your first choice”. “

Christina decided not to accept her CAO offer, as it wasn’t what she wanted to study. She felt alone and left behind, as she watched her friends head off to college without her. Until she found CareersPortal.

PLC route into college and a second application to CAO

It was time for Christina to come up with a Plan B.

“After a summer of thinking about what I wanted to do, I started searching CareersPortal for photography and media courses that might still have places available. My Guidance Counsellor had directed me to the site before, so I knew it would have all the information I needed to try and get into a course.

I found and applied for a PLC course using the website, and after a short interview the following week, I was offered a place on a Media Production course with specialist modules in photography. Because I was studying something I already knew I truly loved, I felt more in control of my studies and all the pressure I’d felt during the Leaving Cert years was no longer present.”

Christina ended up getting the highest grade possible in every module of her PLC course. She applied to CAO again the following year, and in Round Zero, she was offered her top choice in DCU studying Communication Studies.

To search your own PLC link course, use our coursefinder here.

A dream career

Although Christina had a later start than her classmates and entered college through an alternative route, her career is now flourishing.

“I’m lucky enough to be working as an English Copywriter and Content Specialist in Finland. My job involves me creating marketing material for international clients and allows me to make use of not only my writing skills, but also my love of visual communication and content strategy. I’m also taking Swedish classes; something I never thought I’d do!”

Reflections on her journey 

Christina admits now that she wouldn’t change a thing about her career journey, and that not getting her college place first time around may have been the best thing in the long run.

“Initially, it felt like the worst thing that could ever happen to me. When you’ve spent your whole life in education being told that you’ll have “no problem” getting to where you want to be, it’s easy to overlook the fact that exam pressure can change a lot about your performance. Looking back, not getting my first choice was the best thing for me, as it allowed me to reevaluate what I wanted and where I wanted to go”

Christina’s advice to students who are disappointed with results or CAO offers

“My main piece of advice is not to panic. That time helped me to think for myself for the first time since I’d started studying for my Leaving Cert. Some students thrive under exam pressure, but others like me don’t. The system doesn’t suit everyone, but it’s the one we have and there are ways of making it work for you – even if you take a different path to others. 

I’d also recommend applying for PLC courses as early as possible because in my case, even though I happened to get lucky with a last-minute place, I had left it extremely late to only be looking into that option for the first time. Talk to people who have done the courses that appeal to you the most and if you figure out that it’s the course for you – you’ll find a way into it, even if it takes a bit longer than you’d hoped.”

A final note on never giving up

It’s important to remember that there are options and resources out there for everyone, and the door is never closed to you, as Christina quickly discovered.

“CareersPortal helped me to find options that I didn’t even know existed, and maybe if I’d known that these alternative routes existed – I wouldn’t have felt so much pressure throughout the whole Leaving Cert process. Your CAO points don’t define you and that’s something that’s so easy to forget when it feels like the Leaving Cert is the thing that’s going to determine the rest of your life. There are always other options and I’m a lot happier in myself since I figured that out.”

To investigate all options available, including CAO courses, PLC and Apprenticeships, see CareersPortal.ie


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