Routes to College

Routes to College

Find the right route for you

There are many routes to get into college. Not everyone has to enter college in the traditional way by completing the Leaving Certificate.

We list some of the entry routes on this page, with links to websites and helpful resources. Before you begin your journey, you can check your starting point. You can do this using the National Framework of Qualifications.

The National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) is a system of 10 levels. Each level is based on nationally agreed standards of knowledge, skill and competence. Every accredited course you do will be on a level of the National Framework of Qualifications.

The framework outlines qualification levels starting at levels designed for learners of any age who have no previous qualification, continuing on to Junior Certificate, Leaving Certificate/ QQI FETAC Level 5, Higher Certificate, Pass and Honours Degrees, Masters and Doctorates. This link provides a description of each level: Irish National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ)

Higher Education Access Route (HEAR) is for school leavers. You must be under 23 on the January 1 of the year you would like to start college. You must also reside in Ireland.

HEAR can allow you to get on the course of your choice even though you have fewer points than that required on the CAO (Central Applications Office) form. HEAR can also give you extra supports for your time in college like:

  • Academic support like help to develop writing skills
  • One-to-one support like coaching or mentoring
  • Financial assistance (when available).

To apply to HEAR, you must meet certain financial, social and cultural conditions. These are based on:

  1. Your household income
  2. Whether or not you have a medical card
  3. Whether or not you receive a social welfare payment based on your income
  4. The school you attended (a DEIS school – a designated disadvantaged school)
  5. The area that you are from.

If you want to check and see if you meet the requirement for the HEAR programme, check the HEAR eligibility criteria.

Disability Access Route to Education (DARE) is for school leavers with a disability. You must be under 23 on January 1 of the year you would like to start college. DARE may allow you to get on the course of your choice even though you have fewer points than that required for the course.

DARE can also offer extra supports for your time in college like:

  • Assistive technology like screen reading software and digital scribe pens
  • Exam supports like extra time during exams or doing an exam in a quiet room
  • Academic supports such as extra support in course requirements

To qualify for DARE, you must apply when completing your CAO college application, complete all related forms and supply supporting documentation. You must meet Evidence of a Disability and Educational Impact criteria which is outlined on the DARE website.

Education can play a vital role in a person's development. Education can give people an opportunity to reach their full potential and motivate others to reach theirs. As we are aware when people have access to education and avail of the opportunity our society can grow.

The Irish Refugee Council created an information handbook for people who are in the protection process. The main points of the information handbook are;

  • Accessing college
  • Routes to college
  • Grants and scholarships

Irish Refugee Council: Education in Ireland 

Mature students are classified as being at least 23 years old on or before January 1 of the year when they would like to start college. Colleges welcome mature students because they bring life experience and unique perspectives. Colleges across Ireland use different ways to select mature students.

Mature students can apply to colleges under a number of categories depending on their qualifications. These include the leaving certificate or QQIFETAC Level 5 .

The CAO web site is a useful resource. It provides information on the CAO process with lots of helpful tips to help you complete your application.

If you have any other questions, contact the Access Office/Admission Office in your chosen college.

Some mature students choose to complete an access course or foundation course. These courses can to help to find out what you want to study.

If you would like to enter college and do not have a Leaving Certificate, or did not get the points needed for a specific course, you can go through the Further Education and Training (FET) entry route.

To enter college this way you will need to have been awarded a full Major QQI Award at a minimum level 5. This will require the completion of 8 minor awards. College courses may require specific minor awards within the Major Award. You need to think about what college course you want to progress onto and then pick the right level 5 course.

Each college has a set number of places reserved for FET students. The specific FET entry requirements will be listed by the college for each course. It's important to contact your chosen college to find out the number of available FET reserved places.

Here is the NFQ diagram to show you where a level 5 sits on the framework.

If you do not have a level 5 qualification and would like to go to college, please contact your local Education and Training Board (ETB) to find out how you can apply for this qualification. Ask the Education and Training Board (ETB) for a meeting with their adult guidance service.

Here is a map to show your local Education and Training Board. Enter ‘adult guidance service’ in the search box of the relevant website.

These courses are aimed at adults who have been away from formal education for a number of years. They can help you to improve skills, confidence and knowledge so you can access a third-level course. They are helpful for people who may have faced learning barriers in the past but want to continue their education at third level. There are full-time or part-time options available.

These courses guide students with the structure and requirements of third-level education. They cover a range of subjects that gives students the opportunity to explore potential or specific areas of further study. They enables students to develop their academic skills. Courses might include:

  • A college tour
  • Academic writing and study skills
  • Maths
  • Time management
  • Information technology (IT) – Moodle (a software learning system)
  • Group work
  • Presentations

Preparatory courses can suit both mature students as well as young people who are returning into education.

Examples of access, preparation and foundation courses are:

The access course in AIT has been running for over 25 years. The course covers science, engineering, maths, business, social care, information technology, communications and career guidance. Students are supported with their college CAO application and grant/ scholarship applications.

AIT Contact details: Jenny Copper Burke,, 0906468123.

This Certificate level course is designed as a stepping stone for those who wish to return to study but have not studied in any formal way for a number of years.

Participants are given an opportunity to sample a number of academic subjects so that they can make a more informed choice when selecting subjects later.

Students who obtain final grade of 60% or above will automatically be offered a place on the Bachelor of Arts degree programme in Maynooth University.

MU Certificate in Returning to Learning contact details:

The Maynooth University Certificate in Science is a Level 6 foundation programme for mature students who wish to undertake a foundation year in preparation for degree studies in the science and engineering areas. In this one year full-time programme of study, students undertake modules on mathematics, engineering science, computer science, experimental physics, mathematical physics, biology and chemistry. There are a maximum of 25 places on the course each year, and students benefit from the collegial and supportive learning environment provided by the group.

MU Certificate in Science contact details:

The ‘Think About Teaching’ course hosted by Maynooth University is a one year pre-university foundation course which will prepare students who have experienced educational inequality for entry to teaching degrees here in Maynooth University.

Think about Teaching contact details: