Routes to College

The Leaving Cert is not the only way into college

Not everyone has to enter college in the traditional way by completing the Leaving Certification, getting enough points and entering. There are several ways to get into college.

Here are some of these entry routes, with links to their websites to help you along your journey to college. Before you begin your journey, you should check and see where you are on the National Framework of Qualification.

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.

Level 1 and 2 Designed for learners of any age who have no previous qualification.
Level 3 Junior Certificate.
Level 4-5 Leaving Cert or equivalent standard from the Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI).
Level 5 (which used to be called FETAC) up to Level 10 10 is the highest level of education, for example, when you have a PhD – a doctorate. You can have a doctorate in any subject, for example:

  • Doctor of history
  • Doctor of maths
  • Doctor of medicine.
Decide what level you are on and where you would like to go. This will help you figure out the best entry routes for you.

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 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.

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 meet Evidence of a Disability and Educational Impact criteria which is outlined on the DARE website. If you think this might be for you, you can get more information on how to apply on the DARE website.

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 to the campus college that they choose. Colleges across Ireland use different ways to select mature students.

The following table shows basic information on how mature students can get a place in the college of their choice.

A great resource created by is worth looking at. It provides information on the CAO application process, and the possible pitfalls that can happen when applying.

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

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

To enter college this way you will need to have been awarded a QQI certificate at a minimum level 5. Here is the NFQ diagram to show you where a level 5 sits on framework.

If you don’t 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 to get one. Tell the Education and Training Board (ETB) you would like to meet with its 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 primarily aimed at adults who have been away from formal education for a number of years and would like to improve their skills, confidence and knowledge so they can access a third-level course. They are for students who for various reasons have not yet realised their educational potential, but who have a deep desire to continue their education at third level. They may wish to do so either full-time or part-time.

These courses familiarise students with the structure and requirements of third-level education. They cover a range of subjects that allows students to look at potential or specific areas of further study. They allow 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

These can be aspects of college that first year students may struggle with.

Courses should also provide enough learning and skills development to help you find employment. 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: