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Medical student Martin O’Donnell examines what drives people’s decisions around the CAO, why high-point achievers are pushed towards Medicine, and why we need to rethink our current paradigms


“Students should be encouraged to think critically about what they want in life”

The Leaving Cert holds a special place in Irish society. The media has a morbid fascination with it, expressed in supplement after supplement in newspapers and with story after story on radio and television. This doesn’t really help my personal attempts to suppress my own Leaving Cert years – years filled with mindless study, unrelenting anxiety, and total lack of a social life.

It becomes easier with time, and I had avoided thinking of the dreaded era for quite some time until I discussed the CAO with my cousin at Christmas (although I refrained from recounting my own experience for obvious reasons).

At the time, the CAO seemed secondary to actual Leaving Cert — and if I’m being honest, amid the stress, it was an afterthought. I had a rough idea of what I was going to put down – not the exact order, but I had the “gist” of a significant life decision.

Each student in my school had one meeting with the school guidance counsellor in order to talk through their CAO choices before the February deadline. As he slowly went through the class, it seemed like he was spending roughly 20–35 minutes with each student. One morning I was called, and dutifully entered the room expecting to miss a class – although in my case, the meeting lasted a mere 10 minutes.

I rattled off my CAO choices, which he wrote down; he noted that I had a good chance of pulling off my first choice based on my Christmas exams; and then he asked me was I happy with my choices and my backups… and, well, that was it.

The brevity of our meeting is something that always puzzles me as it was the only meeting I had with a guidance counsellor during sixth year. Surely a life decision of such gravity required more than 10 minutes? Maybe he was in a hurry? Maybe my “cool exterior” fooled him into thinking I was certain of my choices and he believed I could achieve them based on my previous results? Frankly, however, I suspect one of the main reasons for his brevity was that he actually approved of my choice: Medicine.

Medicine as a course perfectly embodies many of the things society views as important: it has a ‘noble’ career with a defined path towards secure employment that leads to good pay and a comfortable life. This was how it was sold to me by my parents, my teachers, and my guidance counsellor.

Most of these attractive features are true, and are probably the main reason Medicine has always been one of the highest-points courses in the country. However, this pitch omits one of the most significant drawbacks of Medicine: it takes several years of gruelling study, followed by many years of long hours and training, before these ideals come to be realised, if they in fact ever do.

Similar values and worth are ascribed to other health science courses and to professions such as law. The conventional “wisdom” is that if you can do one of these courses, or even have a chance of doing them, you should.

Adjusting our approach

This decision is a massive one for an individual to make at any point, because for many, their choice on the CAO form will play a large role in their later life. Blindly pushing anyone who gets 625 to do Medicine is clearly absurd, regardless of the motivations. Just because a person can do it doesn’t mean they should.

This sort of “snobbery” surrounding Medicine, which seems pervasive and undoubtedly drives some students to do the course, should really be abandoned. Instead, when choosing a course, students need to make informed choices. This doesn’t just apply to so-called “high achievers”, but to all students. In some schools, this may already be the case, but it is by no means a universal approach in Ireland.

Less emphasis needs to be placed on societal validation, and instead, I feel students should be encouraged to think critically about what they want in life. What are you passionate about? What do you want to explore more? What is important to you?

If a person is passionate about business, well then I hope they find their niche and are successful; if a person dreams of becoming a scientist to cure disease, I hope they find the next penicillin; and if a person longs to compose poetry, I hope they are the next Kavanagh or Plath.

In the end, it may be that what is important to an individual overlap with things that society and our parents believe are important, but students need to come to the decision of their own volition.

Importantly, if someone is passionate about and interested in something that doesn’t require a college degree – or even a Leaving Cert for that matter – they should be encouraged to push forward with their aspirations. I vividly remember a classmate in secondary school being told by a teacher to do a college degree instead of an apprenticeship, in spite of the fact he had no interest in college whatsoever. This advice serves nobody except schools looking to up their rankings in the league tables.

Similarly, others were told to avoid certain courses because ‘“there are not too many jobs in that area”. While admittedly future careers have to be taken into account, they should not be the “be-all and end-all” – satisfaction with studies surely deserves serious consideration too.

Some argue that age should be blamed for the lack of critical thinking – that seventeen- and eighteen-year olds are not ready to make such a major decision, and that people should pick a broad course first before deciding in later years to specialise further. However, this is simply kicking the can down the road. Many students do know what they want to do in the Leaving Cert year, and forcing them to wait is unfair.

Those who do not, or are uncertain, should not be encouraged to pursue something blindly. A cultural shift is required, and the idea of a “gap year” after the Leaving Cert perhaps needs to be encouraged more. This is not to say that certain courses have become too specialised, but that a moderate approach is required – we do not need to make courses too broad either.

As for myself, I did not end up altering my CAO course choices between February and the end of the year – so the “gist” of a life decision became the actual decision. At the time, I rationalised that I liked Medicine because I thought it would be stimulating, and I thought I would enjoy interacting with people on a day-to-day basis.

The problem is nearly any course fits that description, and I was quite interested in politics, maths, and Irish at the time. It would be naïve of me to think that I didn’t consider my parents’ and teachers’ approval when coming to my decision.

Yet, when asked by my cousin what I thought of Medicine, the answer was simple: I really enjoy it, and have since found many reasons to love the course, but I admitted I was lucky. Ultimately, I asked him: What do you want in life? It’s a big question, perhaps one that many of us still can’t answer, but considering the importance of the decision it is probably warranted. I wasn’t really expecting an answer on the spot.