How to ace your CAO ‘genuine order of preference’

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Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

If you want a positive start to summer it’s important you know you would like to do every single one of the 20 courses listed on your CAO application

Before 5.15pm on 1 July CAO applicants have one job to do and that is to make sure that their CAO Level 8 and Level 7/6 lists are in ‘genuine order of preference’.

Getting the genuine order of preference right takes a bit of contemplation – and thinking things out, imagining the future. Here’s some scenarios to think about (and don’t leave it to the last minute).

Imagine your CAO offers

  • What’s your dream? What would you really be delighted to go on to study/work at? Do your course choices reflect that? Will they help you achieve that dream?
  • What offer would you be disappointed with?
  • What if you get offered your first choice and didn’t think you would, and you realise you don’t really want it?
  • Imagine you get offered the second course on your list. Will you be disappointed for any reason you haven’t been offered number 4, or number 10?
  • What if number 3 is on your list because that’s where your best friend is planning on going, and you get offered that and they don’t?
  • What if you don’t get offered what you really want on your Level 8 list and haven’t filled out the Level 7/6 list which may have a progression route into the same Level 8 course?
  • What if your offer means moving away from home?
  • What if your offer means living at home?


You have one job

Use as much of the time available before 1 July as you can – research each and every course that should make it on to both your Level 8 and Level 7/6 lists.

Once the  CAO offers are made don’t make yourself the candidate for a ‘you had one job’ meme by getting offered your first choice but really wanting your second or third. (This happens, and there’s nothing that can be done, you can’t get offered anything in Round 2 that is lower down the list of what you got offered in Round 1, for example).

How to refine your genuine order of preference

Pros and cons

If you’re struggling about the order of 1, 2 and 3 or indeed 8, 9 and 10, list out each course and put some pros and cons beside each. Score each on certain things that are important to you. How important is availability of accommodation? How important is work placement? How did you like the campus? What had students or graduates to say about the course? Look at the worksheets in our How to research your CAO options booklet (http//

Location, location, location

If you are fairly fixed on a certain course topic you would like to study and are filling the 10 places on each list with a version of that course run in different colleges one of the things to consider is how likely you are to attend each college – have you visited it (whether virtually or in person), is it in budget, is it far away (and are you happy with that?)

Have honest conversations

Whether or not you find it easy to talk to your family about your choices, understand they play an important role in your life and they want the best for you. (The best for you is to choose a topic you’re interested in studying for a number of years which will lead you to the type of job or workplace you’d see yourself in).

There may be some things like family finances or how realistic it is for you to live in or commute to certain places to consider or discuss – and it’s much better to have this before the change of mind deadline rather than on the day of the CAO offers. These don’t have to be negative conversations – who knows what positives may come out of it! We recommend you hand a copy – or send the link to our Parent’s Guide to CAO Choices first so family members have a good idea how to help.


If you have picked a course because you liked the title rather than reading what’s involved you might well get a shock when you try and concentrate in class. Go to and download and print out, or just browse our How to research your CAO options booklet for tips on how to research your CAO options.

Minimum entry requirements

Check the minimum entry requirements for each course on your list. If you don’t meet them, then it doesn’t matter how many points you’ll get, you won’t get offered a place.

Points race

Don’t think you’ll get the points? That’s not a good enough reason to not put what you really want on your list – what if you do really well? What if there are less applicants for that course this year? What if you would have had the points and didn’t have the course on your list in your genuine order of preference?

Are you a high points student? Do you feel pressured to put courses with high points on your CAO list? The most important thing is that you really want to do the course, not what last year’s points were.

Plan B

What’s your Plan B?

For some people any choice below number 1 is plan B.

For others, Level 7/6 is Plan B.

Other Plan Bs to consider are further education courses that have progression routes into the course or field you are interested in.

Furthermore there are options such doing an apprenticeship or other form of learning or route into a desired career.

One of the best Plan Bs (if you’re keen on starting college this September) is to be confident you would like to do every single one of the 20 courses listed on your CAO by 1 July at 5.15pm. It takes a bit of time to figure out, but it’s not mission impossible. Best of luck!

Five ways WIT helps CAO applicants and their parents

1. CAO booklets with worksheets for parents and students at

2. CAO information hub at

3. Informative course web pages

4. Online student/graduate stories hub

5. Helpful articles on social media and news section in run up to CAO deadlines – check back regularly for new articles or search social media for #StudyatWIT or #HelloWIT

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