Oct Guide

How the CAO works

Welcome back to ‘Your Path through the Leaving Cert Year’

Hopefully so far so good with your teen and you. The year is only starting and the heavy lifting has really yet to begin and hopefully you have been able to manage the stress levels thus far.

With the CAO opening for registration for Leaving Cert 2022 in November, now is the best time to get to grips with what it is and how the whole thing works. I will bring you through the different phases the CAO goes through and how you can encourage your teen to get the best out of their CAO application. As you go through this, make a note of any questions that may arise. If these are not answered by the end, bring them to the live Q&A session during month.

What is the CAO?

The CAO (Central Applications Office) is the organisation that is responsible for managing the applications of all prospective entrants into most third level education institutions in the Republic of Ireland, or HEI’s (Higher Education Institutions). It is a limited company wholly owned by the participating universities and Institutes of Technology and other education institutions. It works on the basis of self-funding through applicant fees but is not-for-profit. That is, all profits are re-invested into upgrading its services.

How does it work?

The purpose of this summary is to give you the parents, a good understanding of how your teen’s application will be handled and what you can expect when that application is processed with your teen’s Leaving Cert results. This summary is no way exhaustive, and any particular points can be checked with their Handbook – click here. In fact, it is a good idea to read this handbook so that you have a very good understanding of how it operates.

The CAO operates most of the year with a few key phases:

  • Registration 5th November – 1st February

The applicant registers on the CAO website from 5th November and ends on the 1st February. If the applicant registers before 20th January, they will pay a reduced fee of €30 and from 21st January to 1st February the fee is €45.

During the registration phase, the applicant indicates if they are applying for the HEAR/DARE schemes as wells as SUSI, the grant and maintenance fee authority. You can refer back to HEAR/DARE schemes in the September guide here.

1st February represents a hard deadline for those applying for what the CAO call Restricted Courses. These are courses that require additional means of evaluation for acceptance onto the course over and above the Leaving Cert. These requirements include HPAT for Medicine, a portfolio for creative type courses, Garda vetting or interviews. Check the courses that your teen may be applying for these additional requirements. We will explore these courses more thoroughly in November’s guide.

  • Restricted Phase 5th February – 5th May

During this phase for most applicants, there is little or no interaction with the CAO. However, students who are applying to restricted courses will be sitting the HPAT, attending interviews, or submitting their portfolios, etc. Applicants for normal courses may amend their course choices or apply for a restricted course for a fee of €10 but can hold off until 5th May when they can do so for free.

  • Change of Mind Phase 5th May – 1st July

During this phase, the applicant can change their preference lists as many times as they like free of charge. However, the exception is adding a restricted course onto their list for the first time. If they have added a restricted course before the 1st February, they may change the positioning of the course on their list.

  • Closing Date 1st July

Consider this to be the hard deadline. Late changes will be accepted for a fee, but the student may lose out on consideration for a place if that course is over subscribed with applicants who have applied on time.

  • Offer phase August – October

Within 1 week of the Leaving Cert results being issued, the CAO will commence offering their first round places. The applicant will be given a number of days to accept this place. If the place is not their first preference, they may receive another offer (2nd round) mid-September for another place higher up on their preference list. The applicant may accept the new offer or decline it, retaining the offer on the first round. There is a third round of offers, but this normally occurs after the start of the academic year and students may decide to proceed with what they have already started. However, they can still choose to take the 3rd offer and transition to that course.

Available Places

Before the second round places are offered, the CAO will open a section on their website called Available Places. These are courses that have not been filled on the first round offers. An applicant may select one of these courses if they are not happy with the offer they did receive.

What are the important elements to know?

Two lists of choices

When filling in the CAO application, the applicant has two lists that they can fill. The first list is for Level 8 Honours Degrees. This list has up to 10 spaces for preferences meaning that the applicant will be considered for up to 10 college places if they are filled in. They do not have to fill in all of the places, they could have one or none if they are focusing on the Level 6/7 list only.

The second list is for Level 7 (Ordinary Degrees) and Level 6 (Higher Certificates), both going on the one list. Again, there are up to 10 places on this list but not all have to be filled in or none if the applicant is only focused on Level 8 courses.

As a part of a good choice strategy, I highly recommend that both lists are used. No matter the outcome of the Leaving Cert Results or grade inflation, by having choices on both lists that the student is happy to take, it will mean the student keeps moving forward to achieve their goal.

Both lists operate independently of each other. If both are filled in, the student will get an offer from both lists and they can choose which they want.


It is very important to understand that the CAO works on a preference basis. If the student wants a particular course that this is put at the top of the preference list and the list is continued to be filled in order of preference. Do not try to second guess the system by putting courses with higher points at the top of the list if that is not the preference.

The CAO algorithm starts at the top of each list and moves down to the highest course that the student has sufficient points for. All other courses below that course are removed and are no longer open to the student. If the student gets their first choice, that is the end of offers for them. However, if they are offered their second or lower preference choice, then the choices higher on that list are still possibilities for second or third round offers. In all cases, the offer should be accepted before the deadline, even if the student is uncertain about taking it and is considering alternative non-CAO options. If the offer is not accepted by the deadline, the CAO application is now closed, and the student is no longer considered for 2nd or 3rd round offers.


Michael fills out his CAO form as follows, deciding that he only wants to fill in 6 places. When his points are calculated after his Leaving Cert, he gets 475 points. Because he has enough points for his top choice, this will be his offer (highlighted in red).

*Please note that courses/points in the tables are not real

All choices below the offer are removed (shown in grey) and he will get no further offers in his second round.

An Alternative Scenario:

Michael gets 475 points in his Leaving Cert and has the following CAO choice. Because he does not have 500 points for his top choice, he is offered his second choice. The choices below the offer are no longer available (shown in grey) but the choice above is still a possibility in 2nd or 3rd round offers. Even though his third choice was 475 points and he achieved 475 points, he is offered a higher preference course because he has sufficient points for this. His third preference is now removed from his list.


*Please note that courses/points in the tables are not real

Even if they are disappointed and don’t want the course that they are offered, they should accept it anyway to remain in the running for subsequent offers.

A common mistake students make is second guessing the system and their results. They will put a course with higher points as their first choice thinking that they won’t get the points, but sometimes they do! They are offered their first choice but actually wanted their second choice which is now, no longer available to them.


When considering choices, it is really important that every course on their list are courses that they are actually happy to take, even if not their first choice. Or maybe it is a Level 7 and not Level 8 as they had wanted. 

Every year, the points for each course changes due to supply and demand for those places. Points go up but also down depending on the demand for each course. If the course is over-subscribed, and there are many students on the same number of points, the CAO system will randomly select applicants just enough to fill the places. This means that other students with the exact same points will not get a place – unless someone else does not take up their offer and that place is awarded to another student in the 2nd round.

Each year, stories abound of students who didn’t get their number 1 choice and get offered a place on a course that they don’t want to do. This was not a good use of their application and begs the question as to why they had put the course on the list if they didn’t want it!

A good strategy consists of a good selection of courses of varying levels (6,7 and 8) that have varying points to get into it. Each of these courses should lead, directly or indirectly to the career the student wishes. It does take some research to find these courses, but it does pay off in the long run, especially, if the student is trying to get into very popular courses that have very high points.

Calculating Points

For each grade in the Leaving Cert results, a number of points are allocated to that grade. For a H1 (Top mark in an Honours level paper) 100 points is allocated and reducing points for each lower grade. See the table below. The exception is for Honours Maths which is awarded a bonus of 25 points for H6 and above. Only six subjects will be used for calculating the number of points, the CAO will automatically select the highest points for this calculation.

The maximum points score achievable is 625 which means that the student got six H1’s in their Leaving Cert, even though they may have taken seven or more subjects.

Further Reading

There is more information available on the CAO website which I could encourage everyone to read.

Information for Parents – click here

Leaving Cert Points table – click here

Points Calculator – click here

Application Form

The application form runs over a number of pages and while the CAO have streamlined it somewhat, it is still a bit tricky. Although the career choice decision is completely with your teen (it is their life after all!), I still recommend that you sit with your teen while they fill it in. It’s a major application form, it may be the first one they have ever filled out and the consequences of getting it wrong are enormous.

The CAO have a demo application form that can be used as a trial run before filling in the real thing. You can check that out here.

Key dates

The CAO has some key dates that every Leaving Cert student (and their parents!) should be aware of:

5th November: Registration for CAO opens

1st February: Registration closes, application for restricted courses close.

5th May:        Change of mind facility (free of charge) opens

1st July:         Change of mind facility closes (Hard deadline)

August:         1st Round offers (5-7 days after the Leaving Cert Results are issued)

While these are the most important dates for the CAO year, I would encourage all parents and students to print off the full list of dates and highlight the ones that are most relevant to your situation. You can find that list here.


It is important to understand the phases, opening and closing dates of the CAO so that your teen avoids last minute decisions and potentially messing up their application. There is plenty of time for all decisions, encourage them to get to them early.

Understand how the CAO algorithm works. The key point is that the student puts their Number 1 preference in the Number 1 place. Do not try to second guess the system as the allocation of places only moves up the order of preference, not down.

Ensure that any choice of course put into the CAO is one the student will actually be happy to do, even if they are disappointed that they didn’t get their first choice. By choosing courses at various levels (6, 7 and 8), they will have options if their exams didn’t go to plan or the points for their preferred course rise out of their reach.

Sit with your teenager while they fill in the application form to ensure that they fill it in correctly. A second pair of experienced eyes will eliminate any mistakes.

Finally, the education system in Ireland and society in general seem to gear our teenagers towards higher education and therefore the CAO. Do remember that there are other pathways to a fabulous career such as apprenticeships, PLC’s or work. Ask your teen to consider other options in their overall plan.