Why The 2023 CAO System Is Broken.

The 2023 CAO system is broken. Inflated course points bias students into selecting the wrong course. The reality is this: if you get high points, you should do a high points course. It's subconscious bias. It's the wrong way to start the rest of your adult life. And here's why.........

The 2023 CAO system is broken. And the problem is getting worse. In this article, I’ll discuss my experiences with the CAO and contrast and compare Ireland’s CAO system with that of Finland (which has half the University dropout rate as Ireland).

My CAO Experience

It was all the way back in 2012 when I applied to the CAO. I still remember the confusion. I mean, how was I supposed to know what I would do for the rest of my life. Not only that, but I was tossing up between doing Veterinary Medicine or Agricultural Science. The points difference was huge—Veterinary was 580 points, while Ag Science in UCD was 430 points. I put down Veterinary Medicine #1 on the CAO, as it was the higher points course. Correct decision, yeah?

Not at all. It was completely the wrong way to think about the CAO. I was being biased by the prestige of attaining a high points course. I was not thinking about the consequences of actually achieving the course, doing 5 gruelling university years and then completing a 40-year career as a Vet. My god, was I naive.

Low and behold, I achieved 600 points (beyond my expectations) and I was off to UCD doing veterinary. I didn’t stop to think that summer about the consequences of my CAO choice. I was secure in my choice, it was a high points course and I’d have the validation from all around me that I was “bright”.

But oh how reality sets in when you land into UCD. I never wanted to be a vet. I chose the course because of the points. The Channel 4 Super Vet was safe; I was not destined to be a Veterinarian.

So, I took the brave decision to drop out of University after 1 month. I cleaned dishes in a restaurant for 7 months. I took my time. I studied the CAO options and actually picked the course that was right for my interests. 

But I maintain, the problem was caused by the false, sub-conscious “guidance” of the CAO system.

The 2023 CAO Stats That Will Shock You

As Shakira once said, “My hips don’t lie”. Well, the CAO statistics don’t lie either.

  • 54% of candidates receive their first preference.
  • Over 93% of candidates suffer anxiety over the CAO decision
  • Ireland’s University drop out rate has increased 50% in the past 5 years.  About 1 in 8 students drop out of courses each year.
  • Some STEM courses have upwards of 80% dropout rates.

Let’s soak that in for a second. So, roughly, 1 in 2 candidates will be forced to do a course that they won’t have had their hearts set on. That means a complete re-boot of thinking during from August 30th roughly to when University starts a week later. You’ve got to go and find expensive and had sought after accommodation from somewhere. You’ve got to scrap your new-found part-time job in your village, as you may be forced to move to a different part of Ireland for college. And then, as is often the case, you may well be doing a course in an entirely different field to what you first envisaged. 

And you wonder why 93% of 1st year college students had anxiety around the whole CAO system?

The CAO Is Like A Box Of Celebrations

You know at Christmas time, when the celebrations get passed around, and at the end of the night all that is left are the Bounty treats?  It’s similar to the CAO system. It’s a popularity contest for certain courses.

Students see high points courses and sub consciously want to do it for the validation. Take Economics and Finance in UCD at 625 points. Is it really the best course in the country or do some people choose that course ahead of others, simply because it is a high points course? It’s just one of many course examples. The statistics show that 60% of all University dropouts are caused by students selecting the wrong CAO course.

I believe the subconscious pressure from the points validation of the CAO system causes most of these issues. A large chunk of students choose courses based on points they will achieve and a feint interest in the course, rather than a deep-seated desire and understanding of the course they chose.

The CAO vs Finland’s System

I’ve explored other University entrance systems across the globe and I’m impressed by one country in particular: Finland.

Finland’s 1st year dropout rate is 7% vs. Ireland’s 15% dropout rate. They have a more equitable, less pressurized University entrance system.

Just like in Ireland, Finland has an equivalent style Leaving Cert exam.  Final year exams that are broad spectrum and standardized are critical. It’s what allows any university around the world to assess the performance of a student vis a vis their own native student applicants. The A-Levels, the Leaving Cert, the SAT scores… they are all standardised across the globe. But the final exam alone is not what gets you into University in Finland.

In Finland, every University takes charge of its independent admissions’ system. The can use school exam scores, student interviews and specific course entrance tests to measure the suitability of a candidate for a course. Almost all Finish Universities use their final year exam scores with their specific entrance exams. 

The CAO, in comparison, is a one size fits all approach. You get the points, you get the course. The CAO focuses Irish students on maximizing their points. The Finish system focuses students on identifying the course they really want to do. Students are focussed on the course, not the points.

The CAO Is A Pressure Cooker

This statistic on students between 14 -18 years suffering with a mental health disorder will shock you: it’s 1 in 3 students. So, you have a pressure cooker situation in Ireland. With over 60,000 students doing their Leaving Cert each year, it’s a giant social pressure cooker.

You force students into a race that rewards students’ ability to rote learn and become test savvy. Intelligence comes in all shapes and sizes. The CAO points system caters for students who are organised and focussed. Andy Warhol wouldn’t have a hope in the CAO system. We miss out on the true, creative intelligence.

So, where does this creative talent go? Yes, art colleges do exist. But, the unsaid truth is that society can look down on these courses. Because they are low points courses. As all your friends are high-flying, getting 600+ points, you are left explaining the virtues of a 300 odd point course. And you’ve got to repeat that message to your friends, family, distant relatives all throughout the year as you prepare for the exam…………. it’s a pressure-cooker of a set up.


The CAO should not be the be all and end all. Having taught 1,000’s of students over the last 10 years, I know that the CAO is the issue that causes the most stress to students. It’s inherent with biases that suede students into courses just because they “got the points”.  I read a stat recently that over 80% of your life outcomes are determined by the time you reach 35 years old. Your career will form the backbone of your day-day life. Why, then, are we relying on one metric to decide on the living, working and social future of our students?

Time for change.

T.J – CEO of Breakthrough Maths.