Most universities and institutes of technology run programmes to support students from sectors of society that are under-represented at third level in accessing higher education. As well as that, the vast majority of institutions also participate in the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR) scheme.

HEAR allows applicants from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds to enter third level on reduced points. Additionally, a variety of supports may be offered. For example, some colleges provide academic support in certain subjects, while others prioritise HEAR students for on-campus accommodation. Orientation programmes, academic guidance and bursaries and scholarships are also commonplace.

Applicants must meet a number of criteria in order to qualify for this scheme. They must first meet the criterion for family income and, if this is not met, there is no point proceeding to the others.

As an example, family income should be no more than €45,790 if there are fewer than four children in the family. As well as income, a combination of other criteria are used from a selection that includes holding a medical card, a parent/guardian in receipt of means-tested social welfare payments, attending a DEIS school or coming from an under-represented socio-economic group or area. There is more information about the criteria and the acceptable combinations on accesscollege.ie.

In addition, children who are, or have previously been, in the care of the State will qualify for this scheme.

If a CAO applicant wishes to be considered for HEAR, they must indicate this in the relevant section of the CAO form no later that February 1. Once they a have done this, they will gain access to a supplementary information form, which will ask them to share information about the members of their family, social welfare payments and income. This must be completed by March 1.

As the form is related to income and social welfare payments, it is helpful to complete it with the assistance of a parent/guardian. The website will generate a personalised list of supporting documentation, which must be received by the CAO no later than April 1.

Candidates will be advised in June as to whether or not they were successful, and unsuccessful applicants will be entered into the normal CAO process. Once a student arrives to college, their HEAR status will not be general knowledge.

This may seem like a daunting process but the benefits for successful applicants far outweigh the work involved in the short-term.

HEAR staff will be available to answer questions at national advice clinics taking place around the country on January 19.

Aoife Walsh is a guidance counsellor at Malahide Community School, Co Dublin