Once again the deadline for CAO applications is almost upon us, a red letter date for the tens of thousands of applicants whose hopes and dreams are wrapped up in this one small document. And precious though these hopes and dreams are, the reality is that CAO 2011 will be an even more competitive process than it has been in previous years, with more candidates and more stages of their lives coming from more areas of society than at any time during the boom years of the Celtic Tiger.

But even if the process was not competitive - and it always has been – proper completion of the CAO form should never be taken lightly. It is a simple document, but it's also easy enough to mess it up, and a messed up document can go a long way to messing up your immediate academic future. On-line applications have eliminated some of the basic errors (the digital form will know that you weren't born in 2011) but it can't do anything to stop people from applying for courses in a manner that actually gives them one of their last choices – or worse, no choice at all.

"Students need to make an informed choice about their applications," said Michael Gleeson, National PRO of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors. "They need to have researched the courses and preferably have spoken to somebody who is currently doing the course. They should also have spoken to a guidance counsellor about what it is that they hope to do, as well as ensuring that they have the requisite skills to do the course in question – and they can use the aptitude tests that they might have done in school to see what skills they have. And if they are still unsure, they should phone the college or department to ask about the course content and future career prospects."

Gleeson also suggests that students check out a number of useful websites before applying, including Qualifax.ie. Careersportal.ie and, if they have any special requirements or needs, Accesscollege.ie. Indeed, if people do have special requirements, whether economic or disability-based, they should get make their applications the CAO early so that they can get any information regarding what documents might be required to take advantage of the HEAR (Higher Education Access Route) or DARE (Disability Access Route to Education) programmes.

HEAR and DARE are both innovative schemes designed to create a more level playing field for students who, in the past, may have felt excluded from higher education due to socio-economic or disability issues. And while students who apply under these programmes are still in the minority, they are nevertheless a significant minority – for example, last year almost 8,500 people applied under HEAR, while 2,325 applied under DARE.

Of course, the advice for people to get their applications in early does not simply apply to those entering the process under a specific programme. The sooner people have an application in, the sooner they will be in the system – and it is always possible to change your mind, as often as you like, free of charge, until July 1 (assuming that you are not applying to a restricted application programme).

"Always apply for what you want, in the order that you want it," said Gleeson. "What you want is always more important that what points you think a course is going to be. Applicants tend to focus on the courses with the highest points requirements, but they forget about their satisfaction needs."

Essentially, this means that there's little point in applying to medicine if you hate it when you get there. Choose what it is that you actually want to do, but do give yourself some leeway – so if you want to study medicine, you might settle for something in a related field (Nursing, Science) just in case your Leaving Certificate performance does not match up with your lofty ambitions.