The three-week-long university entrance exam is the single event that defines a Greek student’s success – or failure – in the Greek educational system. The pressure to score high in tough tests, one day after the other, in combination with Greek society’s view that every student should obtain a University degree, makes the ‘Panellinies’ a traumatic event for many Greek youngsters.
The suicide of an 18-year-old high school student in May, who jumped off an apartment building the day he was due to take university entrance exams, showed how intense is the pressure to get into Greece’s colleges, and which leaves many applicants unable to eat or sleep right until they know the results.
The head of the local branch of the National Health Operations Center (EKEPY), Tzina Leptokaridou, linked the apparent suicide to pending exams. “Instead of going to school, he climbed to the fourth floor of a nearby building and jumped, ending his life,” she said. The irony is that all the pressure on Greek students is to get into college because there’s literally none after, when they can stay as “eternal students” for decades if they want, don’t have to attend classes, don’t have to graduate and don’t have to take exams, but are still listed as students.
But for most graduating high school seniors, the Panhellenic Exams are one of the most trying periods of their lives, physically and emotionally, as they get worn down by studying, preparing – including with private tutoring or at Frontistiria and prep schools – as they want to excel in competition for the annual allotted slots at state schools.
This year, there were about 105,000 students taking part in the exams, but only 70,305 spots open at state schools around the country, with the University of Athens among the most in demand.
Greek colleges fare poorly in world rankings because the standards are so low once students are admitted and the universities are run by politically-oriented groups aligned with the country’s notoriously divisive parties – as is the faculty.
Students can be admitted to universities with what would be failing grades on their exams in countries such as the United States. Grades are given on a basis of 0-20, and Greek students are generally required to have results of what would be 50 out of 100 to be admitted. While it’s not hard to be admitted to a University, it is hard to enter to the University of their choice. Good schools and popular majors that are in high demand fill their spots quickly leaving behind a lot of average students to fight for a seat in a college they don’t even want to go to. Some with scores as low as 19 out of 100 have been allowed to attend technical schools or those such as teaching them to be ferry boat captains.
There are two waves of exams, the first with basic subjects such as math, composition, economics and history, and a second test of specialty subjects such as foreign languages, architecture, music, and others leading to professions.
Modern Greek was the subject on the first day of exams this year in May with high school seniors asked to develop their ideas on humanism.
The senior students’ performance in the exams will determine whether they will get into their university or a technical college of choice, and whether it’s near where they live.
The pressure even reaches teachers monitoring the taking of the exams and there have been cheating scandals when test questions were revealed.
Adonis Kalafatis, 17, wants to study economics and management and said he had to study incessantly, even skipping school to make sure he was prepared in the competition with his peers.
“I was irritable and I didn’t sleep well because before I went to bed I was thinking of the exams and what I had to study,” he told the Greek Reporter. “In some subjects I was more confident but in some that were more difficult I knew I wouldn’t do well and I didn’t.” Now he has to wait to see where he will land. “I try not to think of it now and just try to relax,” he said. His first choice is the University of Athens. “But depending on the school I might have to go to another city,” he said.
He and his friends would get together to discuss the exams and on the weekends, even when they were out trying to take it easy, couldn’t stop talking about it, the exams always on their minds.
“It’s very tiring. I had to take my entrance exams and then I had to go back to take my school exams too,” he said, the pressure on two fronts to succeed. “It was tedious, I had to go Frontistirio and school and study,” he added.
“If I don’t get the school I want with the grades I get, I might go to another school if the topic is interesting. Otherwise, I’ll re-sit the exams,” he said.
FREE FOR ALL
All the subjects tested on a written basis, either at school level or on national scale, are equivalent and play an equal role in the establishment of the general average of the leaving certificate (apolytirio) . However, as regards admission to university education, only the subjects tested on a written basis on national scale are taken into account.
The results of the exams are posted on boards at the student’s schools, usually by the end of July, and are an annual scene of frenzy and worry as they gather around looking to see what score is next to their name.
The highest scoring students get first crack at the most desired majors, such as law and medicine, and those seeking to be, for example, teachers, have to see how they fared compared to competitors and how many slots are open for that subject, making the head-to-head rivalry even more worrying.
The major opposition Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) party said it’s too much for the students to compete and it wants open admissions for all students to attend universities – which are free – even if they can barely spell their names.
Some students bypass the state schools, opting to go to universities in other countries, such as the United Kingdom or the United States, where the competition to get in – and stay in – is far more difficult, but which produces degrees that are more valuable – except in Greece.
In violation of European Union law, Greece does not recognize degrees from private universities for state positions, which means graduates of American Ivy League colleges can’t find jobs as clerks if they want.
The anxiety over scoring marks good enough to get first choice for schools and subjects is nerve-wracking for many students and teachers say they notice that many of their classes empty out after Easter and before the exams so that the students can prepare, and they take as many absences as they are allowed.
The success of candidates and their admission to a higher education department results from the combination of their marks in the test, the order or precedence in which they declared preferences, and the number of places available in each department.
For admission to certain faculties and departments whose subject requires specialized knowledge or skills, special admission exams are necessary in one or more special courses, such as architecture, photography, music studies, translation and interpretation, foreign languages and literature, or preparatory tests (health, sports, psycho-technical) as for military schools and the police academy, or sports tests for those wanting to go into physical education and sports.