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The Leaving Certificate (commonly abbreviated to Leaving Cert.) is the final exam sat by all Irish students before they leave school, and is also the means by which the majority of admissions into third-level education are controlled. Cause of the infamous 'Leaving Cert results night', the debauchery, intoxication and public outcry of which can only be surpassed by the Junior Cert results night.

In this respect it is similar to the American 'SAT' exams (although more difficult; the SAT exams are routinely given to 14 year old Irish students in some summer schools). The exam is based on a 2-year course of various subjects, of which Mathematics and English are compulsory. Other subjects may be taken at leisure from an increasingly diverse range, including such languages as Arabic.

However in practice, most students take Irish (since it is essential for entry to almost all colleges in Ireland, Trinity College Dublin being a notable exception) and a foreign language (also essential for most courses). Many other requirements are set by colleges themselves on a course-by-course basis; for example, a Science subject is necessary for most Science-based courses, and Music or Art are compulsory for entry to their respective courses.

Apart from these so-called 'matriculation' requirements however, the major feature of the Leaving Cert. is the 'points system'. Points are allocated on a scale from 0 to 100 for each of the six best results attained by students. This results in a final total of between 0 and 600. Some colleges offer additional 'bonus' points for more difficult subjects such as Mathematics, with an A1 receiving eg. 130 points instead of the usual 100, but this practice has been phased out in recent years.

The points are allocated in such a way that a result of 90% or more earns 100 points, 85% or greater earns 90 points, and thereafter continues in 5-point decrements.

Each subject can be sat at various levels of difficulty - Honours, Ordinary, and Foundation. An A1 at Honours level garners 100 points; at Ordinary, 60 points and at Foundation, 30 points. Thereafter the decrease in points remains as for the Honours level given above. There is often a dramatic difference between the levels, with Foundation level exams sometimes intended for mildly retarded students, or special situations (for example, foreign nationals taking the Foundation Level Irish exam).

One common and oft-cited complaint about the points system is the fact that the whole set of exams are taken in a very short space of time, meaning that a bad day can throw some people off completely. Additionally, many say that the system is unfair to lower social classes, who may not have access to the best teachers and resources. Many also complain that many of the exams encourage rote learning at the expense of creative thought; this is indeed true of some exams but not all.

The exams are generally sat near the beginning of June, and continue for about a month. Oral and practical exams (such as those for foreign languages, Music and Art) are held between February and May. The students' results are given priority over those of the Junior Cert students', and appear around the middle of August (incidentally, this year they appeared today).

The plight of students as they wait to see which courses they are offered on the basis of their results is covered in increasingly excruciating detail by the media every year, without fail. Typically, each newspaper or TV channel chooses a typical student, and follows them throughout their Leaving Cert 'journey', thereby hoping to personalise the drudgery of the exams.

Students will have chosen their degree courses in order of preference from 1 to 10, and, in a separate section, their diploma courses in the same way. Although the points requirements for each course generally fluctuate from year to year, students generally broadly base their choices on expectations of their performance. This results in many above-average students choosing Law or Medicine simply because they know they can get the required 550+ points, and also results in their less academically-minded peers being forced to pay for their education in a private college (public college education in Ireland is 'free') because they were 5 points short of getting Dentistry.

The Central Admissions Office (CAO) sets points levels for each course based on the number of places available, the number of students applying, and the results of those students. It then posts out offers to every eligible student based on their results, in what is called 'Round 1' of the offers process. Many students will write back, accepting their offers, but many will either change their mind about going to college, or hold out in the hope that they will be offered a choice higher up in their list of preferences.

'Round 2' of the offers occurs several weeks later, and here the points for some courses generally go down, as students take up alternative courses to their initially chosen choices. Although students cannot select a course lower on their list of preferences than that which they were initially offered, they can wait in the hope that they'll be offered a higher preference.

Additional rounds are held as necessary, until all available college places have been filled up. Students may also defer their place for a year, meaning that they can take a 'year out' before going to college, and be guaranteed a place in that course next year, regardless of whether the points increase.

Students with a 'perfect' result of 600 points are invited to a conference, where they're showered with book vouchers and money and whatnot (but I don't know this from personal experience, hence the sketchy details).

It would be impossible to cover every aspect of the Leaving Cert exams in detail; I've tried to give a general summary of the workings of the system, but inevitably there will be some areas I've neglected to mention. The Leaving Cert is undergoing (or is in the process of undergoing; we do everything very slowly here in Ireland) radical change, due to many of the complaints I outlined above. But for now, it's considered the fairest system available to determine how best to fit the tens of thousands of students into the limited college places available.

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