- 25 Jan 21
In the run-up to the CAO deadline on February 1, we’re sharing some words of wisdom from students who have been through the process – and lived to tell the tale.
Emily Duggan, Fine Art (Sculpture and Expanded Practice) and Critical Cultures, NCAD
The most difficult thing about the Leaving Cert is its ability to present itself as infallible – it feels like the single most important, life-defining, worth-measuring event in your life. It exists as an enormous wall in front of you, that you must scale in a certain timeframe, no matter what, with no space to interpret how you might like to do it yourself. When I was in that position, it seemed like my whole life had been leading up to it, and I felt massive pressure to make the ‘right’ decision when it came to filling out my CAO form.
As a person with broad interests, I ended up with a CAO form that looked like a random number generator had filled it out. I had pretty much one of everything on my list, and swapped their positions regularly approaching the deadline. The weight of what seemed like the most pivotal decision of my life, on top of the stress of those looming exams, was close to unbearable, yet it seemed to be normal – a rite of passage, or something that everyone just has to do.
My older brother, who had dropped out of a general science course in first year and then reapplied to a social sciences course he loved the following year, sat me down one evening to talk about some subjects he had studied. When it became clear that I didn’t know what I wanted to do, he suggested taking a year off before university. I remember thinking that was simply not an option, but after a brief detour in a physics course, that is exactly what I ended up doing – and I am so glad for it.
In fact, I ended up taking two years off before starting in NCAD, where I feel so broadly stimulated, personally grown and extremely happy now. To be honest, using the phrase ‘take a year off’ is problematic in itself, and points to the issue with the Leaving Cert and the CAO that is so difficult to see when you’re steeped in it. The Leaving Cert and the CAO are essentially competitions which favour those lucky ones who fall into a certain bracket of learning. Additionally, they serve to set your idea of life up accordingly – that it is some sort of race for an abstract success against your peers, and that any diversion from the standard route is a set-back. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Your gut feeling, and the things you get enjoyment and meaning from, are important and valid – even if they don’t fit into the standard academic route.
My diversion from the standard route allowed me to work, travel, write, make art and set up a business, Síolta Kitchen. The Leaving Cert and CAO (and the narrative that they promote) don’t define you or your future, and reminding yourself of that is vital.
Keep an eye on hotpress.com for more words of wisdom during the countdown to the CAO.