Don’t rush into college

Having to pick a path that will lead you to the rest of your life is a terrifying and bizarre idea.

The law states that you must attend school until the age of 16 or until you have completed three years of secondary education. After that point, you’re free to go. Most students today, however, stay  on to sit the Leaving and finish secondary school at 18 or 19. At this point, the average person will  have been in the education system for 14 years.

After the Leaving Cert, for those who can access/afford it, there is the option of third level education. This is, for many, the first opportunity they have to make a major life decision for themselves.  Students who decide to go on to third level tend to do so directly after sixth year, beginning a period of further education that usually sees them finish with their schooling at some point in their twenties. An overwhelming majority of our undergraduates finish their university career having spent nearly their entire life in school. On entering the “real world” for the first time they are actually entering the real world for the first time.

Gap year

Gap years, seen as a break from schooling and an opportunity to experience the real world for a  year before returning to the formal education system, are becoming more common in Ireland.  However, the gap year itself is quickly becoming part of the system of education itself, a prescribed year of “self-learning” that boosts your CV and is undertaken with the same end result of “entering the workforce”.

In recent years, third-level education has been portrayed as the route into life in 21st century Ireland. The path of secondary school followed by university followed by a career has become so  entrenched in our society that the idea of a “gap year” still seems for many to be an absurd waste of  time, a delaying of the system.

14 years of education offers a very limited exposure to the world and means that most secondary students decide on their undergraduate path with little to no experience of life outside of an enclosed environment of education.

False guarantees

Choosing to go to university at 18 with the intention of picking a path that will lead you to the rest of your life is a terrifying and bizarre idea. Why then is it considered the right thing to do? Why are young people discouraged from delaying their entry to third level in favour of life experience?

Going on to third-level education in Ireland is held up as a guarantee of employment and stability. If young people were to flourish outside of that system, it would disrupt the primacy of systematic education and the possibility of success outside of the designated “channels to success”.

Unfortunately, this fear is swallowed by second-level students ignorant of life outside of education, who see third level as the next designated and safe step in life. The desire to go straight to college after secondary school is symptomatic of the infantile society. It’s a want to sustain the sense of sheltered protection that is all we know from the first day of primary school.

This fear of leaving the nest has been seized, encouraged, and rebranded as a positive. Students who fear what might be found off the beaten track (the very opposite of entrepreneurship, the buzzword and darling of modern Irish education) are promoted as a driven young demographic eager to quickly stake their place in the workforce.

Taking a gap year, though it is only a delay of a year, is considered a major break with the norm, though it seems strange that anyone would want to go anywhere near third level education at 18 and with such limited life experience. A 10-year gap sounds more appropriate to get a better idea of the world we live in. 30 seems a much sounder age to choose what route to take to sustain one’s life. 18 is the right time to leave the bubble and try the world.

The odds are that after university, however long you spend there, you won’t have the same enthusiasm and willingness/naivety to give it a lash that you will on first leaving secondary school. You’re much more likely to try things, fail, and not worry about their impact on your chances at employability.

How can anyone really know what they want to do at 18, having had such limited exposure to the world? And even if students are sure that they want to pursue third level education and even know what they want to study, why must they rush into it? Those who know what they want to do would benefit from real life exposure just as much as those who have no idea of what course of study they want to take.


For those for whom university is an impossibility, the option is to enter the real world, whether in Ireland or abroad. Work and travel become immediate realities. They are faced with making it work, without a safety net. For the thousands of students who have the means to go to university, why go straight away if the money is there? If the option of third level is secured, then surely there is no rush to get there?

Take off for 10 years, and if you don’t make something of yourself then come back and if nothing else you’ll have given your parents an extra ten years to save for your education. You might even bring some money to the table yourself.

Mature students (anyone 23 or older on January of the year of application to the CAO) don’t have to abide by the CAO points system. This itself is telling of a system that assumes that mature students are just that, more informed as to the decision they are making and therefore shouldn’t be subjected to the affront to humanity that is the Leaving Cert points race. Anyone will testify to the confidence of mature students speaking in class compared to those fresh out of secondary school.


One year of university is enough for anyone to realise that it’s a bubble. It’s a bubble that is only different from secondary and even primary school by degree. To go straight into this bubble and then out into the world, knowing nothing but the inside of the education system is a disservice to oneself.

The rush to get to university is really a desire to extend the safety of childhood, one that is reinforced by the perception that third-level education is the only path to success. Modern Irish society is one in which a university degree is seen as a safety net that offers a  qualification that can be held up to say “look I tried” if things don’t turn out well. With the ease of access that we have to third level today, before committing to university, students should get out and actually see and experience the world and not just for a gap year.

D. Joyce-Ahearne

D is former Contributing Editor of Trinity News and Trinity Graduate.