The Central Applications Office (CAO) in the Republic of Ireland performs a very similar job to the one UCAS does in the UK. It exists to turn normal, moderately intelligent teenagers into students. They have a far simpler job to do than UCAS however, with fewer students to place. As a result there are a large number of differences that they hope will be to the students' advantage.
Applying Through the CAO
The first advantage you have is a later final application date for university places; February rather than January. This means a better chance you will have sat mock exams, and so will know what you want to study or at least what you are good at. The handbook is considerably smaller, allowing it to be read in a matter of hours rather than weeks, and contains all the relevant information including course codes and instructions on the application procedure.
Studying The Form
Another major advantage is the number of places you can apply for: up to ten degree courses and another ten at diploma/certificate level. You can cover a larger number of courses and can apply for different types, reflecting the range of grades or range of tastes you might have by the time you finish secondary level education.
There are no offers made until after you get your exam results, so you have to be aware that you might not get what you are hoping for, and as the grade requirements are demand-determined, the grades that would have got you in last year may not be sufficient for this year's application. It does have the advantage that no university will reject you, so you are guaranteed an attempt at getting a place wherever you want to go. Whether you actually get in is down to your performance in comparison with all the other students applying to that course. However, you need to be sure of your favoured courses before applying as you have to put the courses you apply to in the order of preference: changing your mind later is difficult.
The application forms all go off to Galway, home of the CAO. It is suggested that they are sent by registered post, and there is a list of places to be stamped at the back of the CAO handbook. Then it's sit back and wait. Or alternatively sit back and do your exams.
In exam results season, you may be aware of newspapers releasing all sorts of tables with lists of numbers. Not the Lotto results or the machinations of the stock market this time, but a list of all those courses, and the points scores you are going to need to get onto them.
Just asking for particular grades would be too easy, they have to be turned to mathematical values to scare off all but the most numerate people. Across the six subjects that you are allowed to count at leaving cert1, the maximum points score possible is 600: 100 points for every A+, 95 for an A in the Honours papers and down to a simple Pass, which scores a maximum of 60 points.
The number of points required for entrance varies greatly depending on what you want to study and where. In 1999, applicants to study Law at Trinity needed 525 points; Polymer Technology at Athlone Institute of Technology required just 205. However, those numbers will also vary from year to year depending not only on the popularity of the course, but also on the performance of the other applicants for it.
To make it more confusing, there are different points interpretations for overseas applicants. For example, students from England will have A-level results which are to a greater depth but over a narrower range than the leaving cert. A-level candidates take their best three results and give them points ranging from 150 points for an A grade down to 60 points for a D. There is a 75 point bonus for straight A grades in a single sitting, but even that only just qualifies the applicant for the most in-demand courses - which means that getting on a course back in the UK will probably be an easier prospect.
Remember to actually tell them you're coming if you get the right results to get in. Otherwise you may be in for a surprise when you discover that they've given your place to someone else.