Selecting the right subjects for the Leaving, and the level at which to take them, is a critical task faced by 60,000 second-level students every year. The wrong choice here can have unintended consequences in two years’ time, when students find paths into college are blocked by not having the right subjects required for entry into their chosen course.
There are good reasons why students tend to have a science subject and a third language in their arsenal and, as you will find if you read on, there are no “soft” options on the Leaving Cert exam.
When you are considering which subjects to take, remember this decision will have long-term consequences on what careers are open to you. A decision to drop all science subjects or continental languages will have major implications on the range of careers open to you later on.
The same does not apply to business subjects, as most business courses teach all subjects with the presumption that students know nothing. If a student is making subject choices and has not yet decided what career they wish to follow after school, I would advise them to keep all their options open by taking a science and continental language subject from among their four optional subjects.
The Most Important Piece of Advice
A pass in ordinary level maths is essential for entry to the majority of courses. The 5,000 students who fail to secure a grade D in ordinary level are in a particularly difficult situation. A further 5,000 students each year now choose foundation level maths, and there is a growing number of colleges and courses that offer places to students who secure a minimum of a grade A or B in maths at this level. Whatever you do over the next two years, don’t neglect your studies in this subject.
Frequently Asked Questions
HOW MANY SUBJECTS SHOULD I TAKE AND AT WHAT LEVEL?
Your schools will probably offer you the option of studying seven subjects. Your best six grades, achieved in one sitting of the Leaving Certificate or its equivalent, will be used to calculate your point score for entry purposes to college courses.
If you are taking more than one ordinary level paper from the beginning of your two-year Leaving Cert programme, you may want the option of having six higher-level papers for points purposes.
You can only achieve this by taking an extra subject either inside or outside school. You need to be very careful before considering this option. There is no such thing as an easy higher level paper and every subject requires considerable time commitment and effort on your part. Eight subjects are a major undertaking. If the additional subject is being studied outside school, you will have to factor in the time travelling to and from such a grind. All this time and effort eats into the time available to you to work on the seven subjects you are studying in school.
WHAT HAPPENS IF I DO NOT TAKE HIGHER LEVEL IRISH?
Apart from ruling out a number of honours degree programmes which have Irish as a core entry requirement, the main consequence of dropping higher level Irish is that you are precluded from studying to be a primary school teacher in any of the Irish training colleges.
WHAT HAPPENS IF I DO NOT TAKE HIGHER LEVEL MATHS?
There are many Level 8 degree programmes you can’t take if you don’t get a minimum of C3 in higher-level maths; engineering, computer science, science, information and computer technology courses and most degrees that include maths as a core subject.
If you are interested in any of these courses you could start your third level journey with a two-year higher certificate programme, which will require a minimum of a D3 in ordinary level maths. Provided you secure a minimum of 60 per cent in your various examinations, you can then progress on to ordinary degree level and from there to an honours bachelors degree. This entire process may add only one or two extra years to your studies, over and above those who secure a place on an honours bachelors degree programme, immediately after their Leaving Cert.
WHAT HAPPENS IF I DO NOT TAKE A LANGUAGE OTHER THAN IRISH AND ENGLISH?
The colleges of the National University of Ireland require a pass in a third language for entry into a large number of their courses. These colleges are NUI Maynooth, Dublin, Galway and Cork, and a range of associated constituent colleges, all of which are listed on the NUI website at nui.ie In recent years NUI colleges have dropped their third language requirement for engineering and science programmes. UCD has also dropped it for their agricultural programmes. Nursing at NUI colleges never required a third language. A third language must be included for arts, human sciences, law, social science, commerce, medicine and health sciences and some other degrees. A third language is also a requirement for entry into the cadetship in the army or air corps.
Trinity accepts Irish as a second language requirement. UL and DCU and the Institutes of Technology do not require a continental language for entry purposes to most of their courses, apart from those which involve the study of such a language.
WHAT’S THE EASIEST SUBJECT IN THE LEAVING CERT AND WHAT’S THE HARDEST?
No Leaving Cert subject is easy, but studying something you are really interested in will make it seem easier and as a result you will probably get higher marks in it. If you dislike a subject, you will have to work harder to achieve a good grade, and your motivation would need to be strong.
WHAT COMBINATIONS OF SUBJECTS WORK?
You should attempt to select a balanced range of subjects that will leave your further and higher education options open for as long as possible. Most students study Irish (unless exempted), English and Maths. A large majority of students also study a continental language, or for those students coming originally from outside the EU, a native language approved by the State Examination Commission.
In selecting your remaining three subjects, you should consider what third level courses you might be interested in when you leave school. If you have specific courses in mind, check that your subject choices and levels match the entry requirements for these courses. [go to CAO Search, select (click) your CAO course from the list, and follow links to Qualifax or College Website to find the entry requirements]
You may also want to check what courses you may be excluded from if you take or don't take a particular leaving cert subject.
Unless you have a specific career or course interest that is guiding your remaining subject choices, my advice is to spread your final three choices across the entire spectrum of business, scientific, humanities and practical subjects. You should also be mindful of the results of previous examinations and aptitudes test results when making these choices.