CAO 2021 applicants: Essential advice and mistakes to avoid

Education correspondent Jess Casey looks at essential advice for anyone applying to the CAO this year, and some of the common mistakes you should make sure to avoid

Take the strain out of completing your #CAO 2021 application, follow this essential advice.

Every year, preventable mistakes can and do happen during the CAO application process, so careful planning is really crucial when it comes time to get the ball rolling.

Essential advice for students completing their CAO 2021 applications.

All of the above information is in the CAO 2021 handbook, where you can read the guidance in longer format and higher resolution. 

Gathering the required documents and details together usually also takes a bit more time than you'd expect.

So, with this in mind, candidates are advised to begin well in advance of the annual February 1 deadline.

And this year more than ever, the CAO is urging any applicants required to submit supporting documents as part of their application to submit these well in advance of any deadlines.

“This advice is offered every year, but this year in particular, with uncertainty around future lockdowns and restrictions, we really need to reiterate this,” said Eileen Keleghan, communications officer with the CAO.

The CAO closing dates for the submission of documents are agreed with Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) and informed by the work they do in processing and assessing the documents once received, she added.

"Timely receipt of documentation is essential,” says Eileen Keleghan of the CAO. 

“There is very little room in the processing schedule as all must be complete in time for the offer season, so the timely receipt of documentation is essential.

 “Applicants often rely on third parties to provide information to support their application, particularly in the case of the HEAR and DARE schemes.

“For example, applicants to DARE will require their Educational Impact Statement to be completed and signed by their schools, consultant reports may also be required.

 “For the HEAR scheme, applicants may be required to obtain documents from the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Social Welfare.” 

If you haven’t yet begun your application, there’s no reason to delay.

Before you get started, every applicant should first read the CAO Handbook in its entirety before beginning the process.

This handbook, available to download at, walks candidates through the important requirements of their application and highlights each of the upcoming, crucial deadlines.

In the student resources section of the CAO website, you will also find the demo application facility and video guides to walk you through the entire application process.

When it comes time to begin the CAO application process, candidates should register on the system as soon as possible to get their CAO application number.

To do this, you will be asked to submit your personal details on, select the relevant qualifications and assessments section and pay the application fee.

Make sure that you submit a valid email address and that your personal information is submitted correctly at this stage. An incorrect detail could result in trouble down the line.

For example, an applicant could miss out on important information or email correspondence or risk getting locked out of their account as a date of birth, application number, and password are required to log in.

Candidates are also strongly advised to begin their application and register well in advance of any final deadlines in order to avoid the stress of having an issue crop up at the last minute.

Remember, putting off registering or completing your application until the last minute does not leave sufficient time to deal with unexpected problems like failing the internet, or a payment not processing, or getting locked out of your account.

Candidates should also remember to enter their name as it appears on their birth certificate or passport.

Higher education institutions will require proof of ID at registration if a candidate wishes to apply under a different name.

Once a CAO candidate is registered on the system, they will receive their CAO application number which they will need to reference in all communications with CAO.

A guide to applying for CAO college places this year, as well as important dates for application deadlines.

Once you're registered, you can also log on to your online CAO account where you can proceed with editing and submitting your 2020 application. From here you can add your course choices.

It’s a good idea to enter course choices at this stage but applicants will be able to log in to their account to add, remove or change the order of their courses as many times as they like up to February 1, for no extra charge.

As part of the process, applicants will also be asked to provide additional information about the qualifications and assessments section, or sections selected during registration.

Prospective applicants are strongly advised to ensure each of their qualifications are listed correctly.

There are eight boxes presented on the CAO application form and some applicants may need to select more than one box to inform CAO of all relevant qualifications.

Some applicants will also have to send supporting documents to CAO within ten working days of making an application.

Those who are applying for a restricted course, which may require a portfolio, admissions test or interview, are reminded to include that course in the list of their choices before the main February 1 deadline.

According to the CAO, restricted courses must be included on your choices list by that date, or added to your application using the Change of Course Choices facility for a fee of €10 before 1 March at 5:15 pm.

Prospective students are advised to inform the CAO of any exemptions you are eligible for.

Applicants are also strongly advised to double-check their statement of application record when it is sent out to everyone in May.

Candidates must check that all of their personal, examination, exemption, and course choices are recorded correctly, taking particular care to check their Leaving Certificate exam number is correct.

Failure to do so can result in an applicant missing out on a place at the relevant Offer Round, according to the CAO.

If you notice any errors or that information is incorrect, notify the CAO immediately.

Other key areas candidates are reminded to take note of include each course’s entry requirements or restrictions.

The CAO website has a number of really helpful guides to help guide you through the process.

These include demos and step-by-step videos, as well as downloadable guides for parents and guardians, and for mature students.

You can also download the common points scale from 2017 and explainers on how offers are issued and on accepting an offer.

Changes to your course choices can be made up to February 1 for no extra charge.

A Change of Course Choices facility is available in February for a fee of €10; this can be used to add any restricted courses not listed on your application, or for mature students who need to make changes to their courses. This facility is open until March 1, at 5:15 pm.

The CAO Change of Mind facility opens on May 5 and closes on July 1 at 5:15 pm, which can be used to add, remove or rearrange courses for no extra charge.

However, restrictions do apply to certain courses.

Round A offers are due to be issued in July, Round 0 offers go to candidates usually in early August. By mid-August should be available at

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