When will my child apply for college or university?

Pupils can apply to their chosen college or university course during their senior phase of secondary school, with pupils typically applying during S6. It is possible however to apply to college from S4 and to university from S5 if pupils wish to do so.

What is the first step to applying for a college or university course?

The first step for your young person is to decide which course they would like to study and at what level. When it comes to Higher Education there are three main qualification levels to consider:

LevelQualification TitleCourse DurationProvider
SCQF Level 7*

*For info, Highers are SCQF Level 6 and Advanced Highers are SCQF Level 7, so it’s more of a progression than a jump.
Higher National Certificate (HNC)1 yearCollege
SCQF Level 8Higher National Diploma (HND)2 yearsCollege
SCQF Level 9Undergraduate Bachelors/Honours Degree4 years (or 3 years to exit with ordinary bachelor's degree)University

Pupils can choose to apply straight to university from school or they also have the option to first study a HNC and or HND at college and thereafter progress to university (this doesn’t always mean extra time spent getting a degree). For more information on the different routes to higher education please see here on our Focus Point site.

Choosing a course and level to study can be a difficult decision, and the subjects a pupil has taken along with the grades they have received or are predicted to get can influence course choice.

The reason subject choices and grades play a large part in deciding on a suitable post-school destination is because every college and university course has specific entry requirements. These entry requirements are based on Higher level and or National 5 qualifications and vary depending on the course and institution.

The below table illustrates the curriculum followed in Scotland’s secondary schools to help parents/carers understand the subjects and qualifications pupils will study at each stage of their education and the relevance of subject choices in respect to future college and university applications.

YearCurriculumRelevance to Higher Education
S1Pupils follow a broad general education, following courses across all areas of the curriculum: English, Maths, Modern Languages, Social Subjects, Science and Technologies, Expressive Arts, Health & Well-being and Religious and Moral Education.
S2The broad general education continues but pupils are asked to identify subject interests and strengths as in S3 greater personalisation and choice is introduced to the curriculum. Pupils typically select their S3 subjects during the second term of S2; they will be asked to choose six/seven* subjects within each of the curricular areas in addition to compulsory English, Maths, and a Modern Language.Identifying subject strengths and interests in S2 is important as the subjects studied in S3 provide a foundation for progression in the senior phase. While a balanced course choice is encouraged, pupils with a particular career path in mind should choose subjects necessary for their chosen career (e.g., pupils aspiring to work in the medical field should choose two sciences at this stage)
S3By the end of S3 pupils are asked to refine their subject choices further for S4 as they prepare to start National Qualifications. At this stage pupils select four/five* subjects in addition to compulsory English and Maths.
S4Pupils begin working towards National 4 or National 5 level qualifications in their chosen subjects. At the end of S4 pupils will sit their first examinations and the grades they achieve will determine whether they are ready to progress to the next level of certification which is Highers . S4, S5 and S6 are crucial years as the subjects studied and grades achieved can determine what college/university courses pupils can apply for. Typically, higher education courses at college will ask for one or two Highers whereas universities ask for upwards of 4 Highers. Advanced Highers are not necessary for entry to most courses (with the exception of Dentistry, Medicine, and Veterinary Medicine)
S5Depending on examination results pupils will continue with National 4/5 qualifications or begin their Highers. Pupils choose five subjects, and it is advised that pupils build on subjects from the previous year at a higher level to allow for a natural progression. It is also possible to pick up new subjects at this stage.
S6In S6, pupils can choose to study 4/5* subjects. Depending on examination results pupils may choose to progress to Advanced Higher level, pick up Highers or Nat 5’s they have not yet studied or re-sit certain subjects.

*Exact number of subjects pupils can study each year will vary slightly for each secondary school

Application Process: Next Steps

Once pupils have selected their chosen course and are confident that they have met or can achieve the necessary entry requirements they are ready to begin their application. Pupils will be provided with support from school and FOCUS West during S5/S6 to complete their application. The below table summarises the different application processes for college and university to help parents/carers understand key dates and requirements during a pupil’s higher education application journey.


Step 1:
Pupils wishing to apply to a degree course at university must register an account and apply through UCAS. Pupils will register and work on their application during the first term of S6 as the deadline to submit is January of each application year

Early deadline of October for pupils applying to Medicine, Dentistry, Vet Med, Oxbridge and some Music course applicants.
Pupils wishing to apply to a HNC/HND at college must register an account and apply directly through the college’s own website. College applications open in the January of each application year. College courses have no set submission deadline and instead operate on a ‘first come, first served’ basis.

Step 2:
Pupils are allowed to choose 5 university courses to apply to. These courses should be similar to one another however as applicants have to write one personal statement which is sent to all of their choices.

The personal statement is an essay the applicant writes about their interest and suitability for the course. The limit for this statement is 4,000 characters and 47 lines (roughly one side of A4).
There is no limit on how many colleges pupils can apply to and typically pupils can apply to up to 2 different courses at the same college if they wish.

College applicants also have to submit a personal statement, usually around 300-500 words depending on the course and college.

Step 3:
Await offers
Following submission, UCAS sends applications to the applicants 5 choices. Overtime, applicants may be invited to an interview and will hear back from universities with either an unconditional offer, a conditional offer or a rejection. Once applicants have heard back from all the Universities they applied to, they make a firm (first choice) and insurance (second choice) choice. If a conditional offer has been received, applicants need to wait until results day to see if they have met the conditions. Colleges will contact applicants directly to advise whether they have been invited to an interview. Following an interview applicants will receive one of four responses: an unconditional offer, a conditional offer, a place on the waiting list or a rejection. If pupils have been successful in gaining a place on more than one college course, they will be expected to choose one to commit to.

Additional Helpful Resources

  • Further information on National Qualifications can be found here on the SQA website.
  • For specific information on the subject choices available at your child’s school please visit the respective school website.
  • For help related to choosing school subjects and thinking ahead to college and university options see FOCUS Point.
  • To explore degree courses, see UCAS.
  • To explore college courses, follow the college links on the Partners section of our website.