Admissions Processes to Higher Education, International Insights

  • Brigid FreemanEmail author
Living reference work entry


Admissions processes consider secondary school preparation, examinations, application documentation, and/or previous degree achievements and involve various selection methods (including any affirmative action processes) to determine the eligibility of applicants for entry into higher education generally, specific higher education sectors, institutions, or educational programs.



This entry provides international insights into admissions processes to higher education. As the number of people entering higher education has grown, and the role of higher education systems has expanded, greater attention has been focused on admissions processes that facilitate and enable this transition. Concurrently, credentialism has increased the stakes for admission as demand for qualifications, and the benefits such qualifications confer have both grown. Recognition of the role of higher education in elite reproduction and upward mobility (Bathmaker et al. 2016; Savage et al. 2015; Waller et al. 2018) has also ensured that attention has been given to the degree to which admissions processes support inclusivity of different social groups and address social justice imperatives.

Systemic Influences on Admissions Processes

The near universalization of primary education and growth in secondary school participation globally are reflected in the growing cohort of school graduates who aspire to higher education, notwithstanding continuing school participation challenges in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. This trend is exacerbated in countries with large youth populations, most notably including India, Indonesia, South Africa, and the Philippines (United Nations 2014). Higher education systems have grown, and with the exception of Sub-Saharan Africa, and massified such that gross tertiary enrolment ratios (GTERs) typically exceed 15%. North America and most Western European countries as well as many Central and Eastern European countries have achieved universal status (i.e., GTERs exceeding 50%) using Trow’s (1974) classification. This tendency toward high participation systems is global (Marginson 2016a).

Despite capacity growth, unmet demand remains a challenge in some developing countries (e.g., India), particularly where senior secondary graduation rates have experienced dramatic increases. Most higher education systems now comprise a hierarchy of institutions (see Marginson 2016b). This vertical stratification increases competition for admission to elite institutions and has consequences for the internal diversification of admission processes within national higher education systems. These admissions processes tend to vary depending on the higher education sector (public, private), the category or type of higher education institution, and the discipline in question (science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or humanities, arts and social sciences).

Higher education systems, and higher education institutions within these systems, have approached admissions processes in various ways. There is variation between and within countries with respect to the use of examinations (secondary leaving, national entrance, institution-specific), stand-alone or supplementary admissions tests (aptitude tests), as well as alternative selection methods. Regulatory or accreditation authorities frequently apply additional admissions requirements for regulated professions, typically including health, accountancy, engineering, law, and teaching. Admissions examinations and tests attest different abilities (Watanabe, 2015) including but not limited to academic capability, aptitude, and potential to succeed in higher education.

While some admissions processes are highly centralized and regulated, others are decentralized and more flexible. Centralization is more likely at the undergraduate level given the highly regulated nature of senior secondary education examinations and certifications. Some admissions processes are standardized, others ad hoc. Some are managed by government or government instrumentalities; others rely heavily on higher education institutions operationalizing institution-specific requirements, processes, and decision-making involving a high degree of autonomy. Increasingly, dual issues of equity for underrepresented social groups, fairness, and meritorious selection drive admissions system reform (Freeman 2015).

Types of Higher Education Admissions Processes: Undergraduate Programs

There are discrete types of higher education admissions processes. The dominant types identified in the research literature primarily concern entry into higher education directly from senior secondary education; however, higher education systems and institutions increasingly accommodate applicants not proceeding directly from senior secondary education (e.g., mature entrants and school non-completers) and applicants seeking entry into postgraduate programs. Different higher education system or institutional authorities may separately administer admissions for domestic and international applicants.

Helms (2008) identified five dominant types of undergraduate admissions processes after analyzing publicly available data regarding a large number of diverse higher education systems in Europe, North and South America, the Middle East, Asia, Anglosphere countries, and Africa. The dominant types include “secondary leaving examinations,” “entrance examinations,” “multiple examinations,” “standardized aptitude tests,” and “no examinations.” Examinations or tests include those undertaken to complete senior secondary schooling or gain entry into higher education. Importantly, Helms’ typology categorizes countries according to the dominant type of admissions processes, noting that in many instances, a supplementary type of examination or test is also employed.

In each instance, higher education systems or individual higher education institutions establish program eligibility requirements that typically include disciplinary prerequisites such as school-level mathematics and science subjects and language proficiency requirements. In addition to the various examinations and tests identified, secondary school preparation, application materials, and demographic features may be considered. The extent to which some or all of these are taken into consideration varies considerably between and within countries.

The first type of admissions process, secondary leaving examinations, is predominantly based on an applicant’s performance in secondary school leaving examinations. Admissions decisions may be based solely on scores achieved in national, regional, or state secondary leaving examinations or on a combination of inputs including both examinations scores and other performance information (e.g., grade point average results). Secondary leaving examinations aim to measure knowledge acquired in senior secondary school. The second type of admissions process, entrance examinations, is predominantly based on an applicant’s performance in one or more national, regional, or institutional entrance examinations. National or regional examinations are frequently administered centrally by government, while institution-specific entrance examinations are administered by individual higher education institutions or groups of similar higher education institutions. Like secondary leaving examinations, entrance examinations aim to measure knowledge acquired in senior secondary school. Admissions decisions may be based solely on scores achieved in one such entrance examination or on a combination of inputs including senior secondary school academic performance.

The third type of admissions process, standardized aptitude tests, is predominantly based on an applicant’s performance in aptitude tests that measure general cognitive abilities in contrast to examinations that assess achievement. Admissions decisions may be based solely on scores achieved in one or more standardized aptitude tests or on knowledge acquired during or after secondary school (i.e., academic performance). Standardized aptitude test results may also be considered in conjunction with other materials, such as an application dossier. The fourth type of admissions process, multiple examinations, is based on an applicant’s performance in more than one type of examination or test (e.g., secondary leaving examination as well as an entrance examination and/or standardized aptitude test). In some instances, consideration may also be given to senior secondary school academic performance (e.g., grade point average). The final type, no examinations, occurs in systems where admissions processes generally consider academic performance in senior secondary school (e.g., grade point average results) or an application dossier rather than secondary leaving or entrance examinations, or standardized aptitude tests (Helms 2008).

Dominance of type frequently reflects scope of government authority regarding secondary education examinations and higher education admissions. Where a school education system features standardized secondary leaving examinations, centralized government education authorities typically administer such examinations. In such instances, government authorities may also administer higher education admissions processes to allocate applicants to places or seats. Similarly, where national entrance examinations represent the dominant admissions type, centralized government authorities are typically responsible for their conduct. Admissions decisions are then taken either centrally by an administering government authority (i.e., where applicants are allocated to institutions on the basis of the entrance examination outcome) or by autonomous individual institutions. Where standardized aptitude tests are predominantly used, typically a set range of tests and testing organizations are relied upon (e.g., the US-based Educational Testing Service and American College Testing Inc.). Where multiple examinations represent the dominant admissions type, centralized government authorities are typically responsible for at least some elements of the admissions process, be that administration of secondary leaving examinations or entrance examinations.

Furthering Helm’s admissions typology, Abouchedid (2010) analyzed admissions processes in seven countries across the four geographical regions of East Asia, North America, Europe, and Eurasia. Abouchedid’s four types incorporate both examinations and tests and the extent to which administration of these tests is centralized or decentralized. The four types of admissions processes, again which relate predominantly to undergraduate admissions, include “secondary school-leaving test results” which may or may not be centrally administered, “centralized national entrance tests,” “decentralized entrance tests” such as aptitude tests administered by a variety of organizations, and “additional entrance tests administered locally by higher education institutions” (i.e., multiple examinations or tests) (Abouchedid 2010). Higher education systems may use more than one type of admissions process. In a separate exercise, Coates et al. (2010) identified discipline-specific admissions tests, particularly those relating to medical and health sciences, law, engineering, history, and mathematics. Some of these discipline-specific admissions tests are used within the respective country system-wide, whereas others are used by select institutions.

Admissions processes reliant on single examination/test results tend to be more objective than processes reliant on multiple examination/test results and/or a variety of application materials (Helms 2015). As admissions processes aim to predict the likelihood of successful higher education program completion, scholars have examined the predictive validity and reliability of school completion examinations, higher education entrance examinations, and aptitude tests. This work has contributed to ongoing reforms, most notably to secondary curriculum and examinations.

In addition to the discrete types of admissions processes, higher education systems and individual institutions have introduced affirmative action measures supportive of increased social groups historically underrepresented in higher education. For example, public Indian higher education institutions have comprehensive “reservation” or affirmative action quota systems. The research literature has extensively examined systems that operate to preclude different social groups from higher education on the basis of race and ethnicity (see Bowen and Bok 2016; Flores et al. 2017), socioeconomic background (see Walpole 2003), and gender (see Leathwood and Read 2008). The literature has also examined the lived experiences of particular social groups, including working class students, entering higher education (see Coulson et al. 2018).

Higher Education Admissions Processes: Postgraduate Programs

As is the case with admissions processes relating to entry into undergraduate programs, admission into postgraduate programs typically relies on an applicant’s performance at the immediately preceding level of education (e.g., examinations and/or grade point average results relating to undergraduate programs). In addition, entrance examinations and/or standardized aptitude tests may be administered. For example, the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) assessment administered by the Educational Testing Service is a standardized aptitude test used by many US graduate schools.

At the postgraduate level, higher education institutions may require specific application documentation such as recommendation letters and use a variety of selection methods, such as interviews. Admissions processes at the postgraduate level have received far less scholarly attention than those at the undergraduate level. This literature has focused on disciplinary practices (e.g., entry into medicine programs), motivations of applicants in selecting postgraduate studies, and entry into particular types of programs, such as doctoral degrees (see Brailsford 2010). As participation in postgraduate level higher education increases, it is anticipated that greater scholarly attention will be given to this matter.

Where admissions processes at the postgraduate level involve examinations, these may be discipline specific, particularly for regulated professions or fields of education where enrolments are restricted. Elite higher education institutions are typically more selective, and this is reflected in higher education admissions processes for postgraduate programs. While admission to undergraduate-level programs involves consideration of achievement in school-level science and mathematics, and proficiency in the language of instruction, admission to postgraduate programs may require completion of an undergraduate program or honors year in a relevant discipline, particularly STEM disciplines, languages, and creative arts. Admission to postgraduate programs may involve consideration of equivalent knowledge, skills, and capabilities developed through relevant work experience and internships, particularly for mature age applicants. Applicants for postgraduate programs in regulated professions may need to meet additional requirements specified by regulatory or accreditation authorities or professional councils. Higher degree by research students may be required to submit a detailed application including a research proposal.

Prevalence of Different Types: An International Perspective

Secondary leaving examinations represent the dominant type for senior secondary school graduates seeking admission directly into undergraduate higher education. In some instances, secondary leaving examinations provide entry broadly into higher education, while in other instances, such examinations provide entry into specific programs, particularly where such programs have more selective eligibility criteria or otherwise restricted entry. Secondary leaving examinations represent the dominant type of admissions process for entry to higher education institutions in Asia (Malaysia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, South Korea), the Anglosphere (Australia, Ireland, United Kingdom), Europe (Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands), and Africa (Tanzania, South Africa) (Helms 2008; Freeman 2015). In many of these higher education systems, while secondary leaving examinations are clearly the dominant type, admissions processes consider achievement on secondary leaving examinations in conjunction with other tests (e.g., standardized aptitude tests) and supplementary information derived from sources such as letters of recommendation, creative arts/performance portfolios, dossiers, and personal statements. For example, in Indonesia, results from the senior secondary certificate (STTB-SMA or Certificate of Completion of Academic Secondary School) are considered for applicants to national universities in conjunction with the national selection process, Selection of National State University Entrance (SNMPTN) (International Association of Universities 2015). In Sweden, the senior secondary school certificate (Slutbetyg från Gymnasieskolan) is required for higher education admission, and in addition, the Swedish Council for Higher Education administers the Swedish Scholastic Aptitude Test (SweSAT).

National, standardized entrance examinations are implemented as the dominant type for senior secondary school graduates seeking admission directly into undergraduate higher education in a small number of countries in Africa (Ethiopia, Nigeria), the Middle East (Turkey, Iran), Europe (Georgia, Spain), as well as China (Helms 2008; Freeman 2015). Frequently, admissions processes in these countries take into consideration both performances on various standardized entrance examinations as well as supplementary or contextual information derived from other sources.

There are few examples where multiple examinations are formally used, despite the global trend toward convergence of admissions processes and selection methods reflecting growing competition and stratification and tension between equity, fairness, and meritorious selection (Freeman 2015). Examples include Japan, Finland, Israel, several BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India), Mexico, and the Philippines (Helms 2008; Freeman 2015). Multiple examinations appear to be dominant in those higher education systems that have great diversity at the senior secondary school level in terms of qualifications and examinations. At least in some cases, this type applies where there is also variable quality. It is likely that the prevalence of admissions processes predominantly involving multiple examinations or nuanced admissions systems is understated, and this is suggested by the reliance on supplementary types in many if not most examples provided. Similarly, there are few examples of higher education systems predominantly involving no examinations, other than Canada. As a federation with a highly decentralized higher education system, there is no countrywide standardized, senior secondary school certificate or national admissions examination, notwithstanding some coordinated provincial or territorial admissions center operations, in-province privileging of applicants, and province-level secondary leaving examinations.

Admissions Challenges

There is increasing performance pressure on school students aspiring to higher education. This has contributed to growth in shadow education that complements school education, and other forms of out-of-school coaching and examination preparation. There is a high degree of competition for admission in many systems, particularly admission to prestigious institutions. Similarly, admission to some high-status regulated professions (e.g., medical science) may be limited. Within this context, there are growing concerns regarding the “high stakes” nature of secondary leaving examinations.

Higher education admissions processes influence school curriculum and pedagogy (e.g., “teaching to the test”), including emphasis on critical thinking and student engagement. Admissions processes remain subject to scrutiny with respect to what they assess, their capacity to predict future success (i.e., predictive validity), and the potential for overreliance on one admissions process. Where admissions processes allow multiple inputs, institutions may consider potential in addition to, or rather than, prior academic achievement. Increasingly, admissions decision-makers at system- or institutional-level benefit from more than one input. Admissions processes may also accommodate exceptional applicants from special groups (e.g., elite athletes, and veterans).


Admissions processes are by definition the “archetypal…gatekeeper” (Polesel and Freeman 2015, p. 5) of higher education. While there is a small range of types, academic performance on secondary leaving examinations is the principal basis on which school graduates are admitted directly to higher education. However, admissions processes are increasingly nuanced and based on a variety of considerations including single, dual, or multiple assessments (secondary leaving and entrance examinations and aptitude tests) and supplementary information aimed at diversifying access to and within higher education.



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© Springer Nature B.V. 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Australia India InstituteThe University of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia

Section editors and affiliations

  • Gaële Goastellec
    • 1
  1. 1.OSPS, LACCUSUniversity of LausanneLausanneSwitzerland