As one cohort of students begin their first year in college a whole new batch are embarking on their final school year. Somewhere along the way this year they need to fill in a form to apply for college places.
In Ireland the university and college applications process is centralised by a government body called the Central Applications Office. So you will hear Irish kids talk about their CAO form and their CAO choices.
For the vast majority of Irish kids the system is entirely meritocratic. It is a points based scoring system. If you get sufficient points in your exams you get the place in college. There is no opportunity to sway the opinions of a “selection” committee with a jazzy video or a fat donation. There are some sensible exceptions. Places for art schools generally involve an additional points allocation based on your portfolio. Music schools award separate points for musical ability, awards and prizes. But for the most part the selection is based on the results of your secondary school leaving certificate exam.
So in Ireland, when the Leaving Certificate results come out you will hear conversations about the “points race” and the “CAO Points”. For reasons of social etiquette it is gauche to ask what points someone (or their child) received. It is OK to ask “did they get their first choice?” A high performing kid might get 525 points and be disappointed because they needed 550 to get into Law. Another kid might be over the moon because they got the 300 points they needed to secure their first choice course.
These days it is possible to recover from a terrible leaving certificate and negotiate alternate routes into third level education. But the leaving certificate remains the simplest and fastest way to get from school through college and into the workplace.
Hence the Venn diagram at the top of the article. Confucius is supposed to have said that if you do something you love you will never work a day in your life. It’s a nice idea and it is certainly wonderful to have a job you love. It makes your days fly by and every morning is an engaging challenge rather than a depressing trudge to a workplace that seems like a prison. The modern equivalent of the “dark satanic mills”.
Putting an old head on 18 year old shoulders is a challenge. When I see a college course in data science I see a future of possibility, interesting work and excellent pay. My 18 year old sees a lot of boring stuff on the syllabus.
Which brings me to the TV jobs farce. When you look at TV what are the exciting jobs?
Lots of TV shows glamorise a law career. Those sharp clothes, beautiful people, shiny courtrooms, exciting cases, sexy colleagues. It all seems such a rush. For me “Better Call Saul” is probably a fairer view of a law career. There is glamour and excitement, for the senior partners. For the grunts there are long days of work that is often boring and tedious, with risk of severe criticism for any mistake.
Law is categorised (Freakonomics: Dubner & Levitt) as a career that is structured as a tournament. You have a very wide entry base and a very narrow apex of the pyramid. Those at the top, the partners, reap huge rewards from the work of their teams. It is a microcosm of the capitalist system. You get rich by taking the value of the work of your low paid staff. Careers structured as tournaments are great if you win. Not so great if you lose. Either you spend your life being paid less than you are worth, or you depart from the competition to accept a more stable position, having given your best years to a senior partner.
Big 4 accounting firms are similarly structured as tournaments. Kids need to be aware that if they enter that race they need to be up for the long haul. 20 years of 50 to 60 hour weeks, breakfast and lunch at the computer, working weekends, cancelling holidays, having kids who think the mobile phone is called “daddy”.
TV is also pretty good at glamorising jobs that do not pay. TV is filled with interior design shows. It seems there must be a booming career for interior designers. But riddle me this, the last time you did a home makeover, how much did you spend with your interior designer? What? You didn’t use one? Why ever not? Oh, they cost too much.
So you have a handful of well connected interior designers who work for millionaires, who are probably the sons or daughters of millionaires themselves. You then have a handful of designers who are connected to the right industries, such as hotels or restaurants, but they seem to get ALL the work in those industries. Each year hundreds of young hopefuls enter college to study interior design and end up working in the restaurant business serving food instead of designing rooms.
My advice to young people selecting a college place, for what it is worth, is this.
- Use the Venn diagram above. Be honest with yourself. If you get 50% in Maths and you really love maths, but you get 80% in Spanish, you are better at Spanish, even if you hate it.
- Add up your points from the last set of exams you sat. That is your base working assumption. Unless you plan to really, really work really really hard, you are looking at a good approximation of your final marks. Look at the courses in that points range.
- Search job sites, and the kind of job you would eventually like to have. Look at the qualifications they specify as mandatory requirements.
- If you are selecting a career speak to some people who actually work in that career. Don’t fall for the corporate literature or what you see on TV. For instance a recent survey found that most US college students in nuclear physics learned most of what they knew about the subject from watching the Simpsons.
- Keep your options as open as you can early in your college life. What I mean here is select the general rather than the specific. If you have a choice of “General Science” or “Food science” go with the General and you will find that there are options to specialise all along the way. If you go too specific too early it can be hard to back out if you hate it.
- Finally, don’t stress about it. Most people end up working in a career that has little or nothing to do with their undergraduate college course. Life takes you in some strange directions. Whatever you do choose, stick with it. Complete the course and get the degree. Employers are impressed by people who finish what they start, not by people who found themselves on a beach in Thailand instead of sitting their finals.