Upper Secondary Education

Upper secondary education begins at 16 or 17 and lasts three to four years (roughly corresponding to the last two years of American high school plus what in the USA would be a two-year Community or Junior College). It is not compulsory. Finnish upper secondary students may choose whether to undergo occupational training to develop vocational competence and/or to prepare them for a polytechnic institute or to enter an academic upper school focusing on preparation for university studies and post-graduate professional degrees in fields such as law, medicine, science, education, and the humanities. Admissions to academic upper schools are based on GPA, and in some cases academic tests and interviews. For example, during the year 2007, 51% of the age group were enrolled in the academic upper school.

The system is not rigid, however and vocational school graduates may formally qualify for university of applied sciences or, in some cases, university education; and academic secondary school graduates may enroll into vocational education programs. It is also possible to attend both vocational and academic secondary schools at the same time. Tuition is free, and vocational and academic students are entitled to school health care and a free lunch. However, they must buy their own books and materials.

Upon graduation, vocational school graduates receive a vocational school certificate. Academic upper secondary school graduates receive both secondary school certification and undergo a nationally graded matriculation examination (Finnish: Ylioppilastutkinto). This was originally the entrance examination to the University of Helsinki, and its high prestige survives to this day. Students in special programs may receive a vocational school certificate and take the matriculation examination (kaksoistutkinto) or all of the three certifications (kolmoistutkinto). Approximately 83% of the upper academic school students, or 42% of the age group, complete the matriculation examination.

Polytechnic institutes require school certification for admission, whereas the matriculation examination is more important in university admissions. However, some tertiary education programmes have their own admission examinations, and many use a mixture of both.

Advanced curricula in the upper academic school
In mathematics, the second national language, and foreign languages, a student can choose their curriculum from different levels. The choice of level must be done both in the beginning of the school to select the appropriate courses, and again when registering for the matriculation exam, to select the appropriate exam. These two choices are not directly linked, but commonly students keep the level the same for the matriculation exam. Common exception to this rule of thumb is whenever a student has barely finished the higher level courses and is unsure of their performance in the matriculation exam. In those cases, a student may elect to take the easier exam.

In mathematics, the advanced level is in practice a pre-requisite for the more competitive university science programs, such as those of the universities of technology, other university mathematical science programs, and medicine. In mathematics, 20% of the matriculation examinees take the advanced level. The nationwide matriculation exam together with entirely percentile-based grading provides an easy way to objectively classify each student based on their mathematical ability, regardless of the year when the exam was taken. For example, assuming that the best mathematical students are selected first to the upper academic school and then to the advanced mathematics curriculum, the students achieving laudatur would comprise the mathematically best 0.4% of the age group, comparable to 800 SAT mathematics section. The percentile equality does not, however, mean that the absolute level of a laudatur student in the advanced mathematics in Finland is equal to that of an 800 SAT student in the USA, due to differences in the mean quality of the population.