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Choosing what to study

Choosing Scottish Highers and Advanced Highers

We show you how to approach and choose your Scottish Highers, Baccalaureate or Advanced Highers, and what to consider for university.

Young students sitting for exams with teacher invigilating


  1. What are Scottish Highers?

  2. What are Advanced Highers?

  3. Choosing Highers

  4. Scottish Baccalaureate

What are Scottish Highers?

Scottish students normally study towards four or five Highers in the fifth year of secondary school (S5), although they may also take Highers in any year of the Senior Phase (S4S6).

The qualifications consist of a mix of work set and marked by teachers as well as an external examination. Highers are aimed at pupils who've achieved passes in the National 5 qualifications and are normally needed for entry into university.

Depending on the results at the end of S5, you can take extra Highers or Advanced Highers in the sixth year (S6).

Scottish Highers needed to get into university

There's some variety between programmes but it's likely you'll need a minimum of four Highers, ideally taken in one set of exams. If you take Highers in more than one year, some universities will ask you to have taken at least three Highers in one year of the Senior Phase (S4S6)

If you haven’t met the entry requirements by the end of S5, what you take in S6 can often be taken into consideration. However, the overall requirements are likely to increase. For more competitive programmes, you’re likely to need to achieve five Highers from S5 and additional qualifications from S6.   

Achieving all the required Highers and grades by the end of S5 may result in an unconditional offer when you apply. S6 can then be used to take recommended or preferred subjects to Advanced Higher, or to pick up other subjects to add to what you have to offer. It's also a chance to develop and obtain relevant skills and experience through work experience and volunteering.

What are Advanced Highers?

If you stay in school for a sixth year, you may be able to take the Advanced Higher qualifications. These are aimed at those who've passed Highers and want to extend their skills and knowledge.

How universities see Advanced Highers

In Scottish universities Advanced Highers aren't usually needed for entry, and generally it's more important to achieve the Highers required for entry level first before considering Advanced Highers.

For more competitive programmes (Medicine, Dentistry or Veterinary Medicine), you're likely to need five Highers achieved in the fifth year and two Advanced Highers and an additional Higher in the sixth year. In certain cases (especially with science programmes), Advanced Highers may give you direct entry to a second year of a university programme.

If you don’t get the set of Highers you want in the fifth year, Advanced Highers (or a mixture of Highers and Advanced Highers) may make it more likely for a conditional offer to be made. For example, if you're wanting to compensate for a low Higher grade, a university may regard a C grade Advanced Higher as equal to a B grade Higher, and a B grade Advanced Higher as equal to an A grade Higher.

It’s important to always check specific entry requirements and talk directly to the universities if you have any doubts or questions about Advanced Highers or the combination of Highers and Advanced Highers you're considering in your sixth year. Don't hesitate to contact university admissions or school liaison teams and ask.

Some universities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland accept Highers for entry to their degree programmes but many other institutions will ask for up to three Advanced Highers in addition. It's crucial to check entry requirements as early as possible with each university you're considering.

Group of teenage students studying together in art class

Choosing Highers

How you approach your choice of Highers and/or Advanced Highers will often depend on which degree programme you're thinking about applying for. Certain degree programmes will need you to have specific subjects to be accepted into the programme. This is to make sure you have the background knowledge needed to study the particular degree.

It's important to show a range of study as Scottish institutions traditionally consider this good preparation for the first year of university because of their broad structure.

If you don’t know what you want to study

  • Get help and advice from teachers and careers advisers to think about where your strengths, abilities and preferences lie
  • Take time to research potential career options and university programmes to develop a clearer understanding of what the best subjects are for you  if you know, think about the career or broad sectors you'd like to work in
  • Attend higher education conventions, university open days and events at school to get as much information as you can
  • Choose subjects you enjoy and are confident you can get the required grades for
  • Universities in Scotland publish ‘minimum’ entry requirements for widening access students, and ‘standard’ entry requirements for all other students  you can check with the university to find out if you'd be considered a widening access student
  • If you decide not to study a subject at Higher make sure you consider the implications  what doors, if any, you're closing by not having a higher qualification in that subject
  • Be careful taking on too many new subjects and take time to get familiar with course content before making any final choices
  • Some Scottish universities have a list of approved Highers available on their websites, so if you’re unsure about a certain Higher choice you might find it useful to check for this

If you know what you want to study

  • You should start your research by looking at courses at various universities – always check and confirm entry requirements before making choices in S5 or S6
  • Look at degree content as even degrees with the same or similar names can vary in content between universities
  • Find out as much as you can about career choices you're considering and the routes into these areas
  • Some courses need a certain set of Highers (such as Engineering or Science degrees) while others won't have specific subject requirements  contact university recruitment and admission offices to get advice and any clarification
  • English and Maths Highers aren't automatically needed for every programme, so if they're not your strength it’s important to confirm what's needed by the programmes you’re considering to apply for
  • As well as choosing required Highers, consider subjects that'll build relevant skills, e.g. essay-based subjects for Social Sciences or Business degrees
  • Some programmes may also include a requirement for a National 5, for example in English, Maths or Science, so make sure you’re aware of this in addition to any specific Higher requirements
  • Certain programmes (such as Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, Art and Design, Performing Arts, and Social Work) are likely to look for evidence of your interest and/or ability in the subject – S6 is an important year to build experience, portfolios and insight, and to take any opportunities to meet specific requirements

Scottish Baccalaureate

In some schools, S6 students may have the option to study for one of four Scottish Baccalaureates:

  • Expressive Arts
  • Languages
  • Science
  • Social Sciences

This consists of a relevant group of current Higher and Advanced Higher qualifications in combination with an Interdisciplinary Project.

Universities value the Scottish Baccalaureate, particularly where applicants have already met the S5 standard entry requirements. It’s considered beneficial in making sure the most is made of S6. The level of work may also help prepare you for a successful transition to university.

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