College entrance exams: ‘Exam hell’ now not so hot

Student-starved schools lower the bar as pool of applicants dries up
JAN 20, 2009 Japan Times

The annual university entrance examination season kicked off Saturday and Sunday as some 540,000 high school students and graduates nationwide took the standardized National Center Test for University Admissions.

The next several weeks will be tense for examinees as they prepare for the individual exams scheduled at public and private universities.

The tough competition used to be known as “examination hell” as applicants crammed with the goal of getting into the best schools to ensure the best career opportunities.

Now that the population is in decline, the competition is changing. Universities are struggling to survive and they need to ensure they enroll enough students to do so.

Following are some facts about the university entrance exams:

What is the National Center Test for University Admissions and how does it function?

Often referred to as the “center test,” it is made up of standardized exams that are required for applicants to the 82 national universities and 74 municipal universities as the first stage of the screening process.

These days, many private institutions also offer the exams.

Applicants are tested on five subjects, as well as subtopics: Japanese, social studies (Japanese history, world history, geography and civics), and foreign language (English, French, German, Chinese and Korean,) science (biology, physics and chemistry) and mathematics.

The tests are multiple choice, but the English exam, which is taken by a large majority of applicants, includes a listening comprehension segment.

According to the National Center for University Entrance Examinations, which arranges the exams, the center test “primarily aims to measure the level of basic academic achievement of prospective students upon concluding their high school education.”

All universities using the center test decide and apply their own criteria to measure the aptitude of examinees. Applicants must make sure they take tests in all the subjects that are required by their targeted institutions.

What happens after the center test?

The answers of the tests are announced by 9 p.m. on exam day on NCUEE’s Web site. Thus examinees already know how well they did.

Examinees afterward apply for individual examinations at public universities by submitting their center test scores as well as their high school records.

The total score of the standardized test is important because many universities set the minimum points necessary to take their individual exams.

The individual tests are no longer simply multiple choice. Some institutions also require applicants to write essays and be interviewed.

Public universities are scheduled to hold their exams on two separate occasions, in late February and early March. Decisions will be based on the combined score of the center test and the exams from the universities.

How do private universities select prospective students? Why are private schools also utilizing the center test?

Private universities, whose student bodies account for more than 70 percent of all Japanese college students, generally screen their applicants through their own exams. A large majority of their prospective students go through this process. If applicants are only interested in private universities, there is no need for them to take the center test.

But with the decline in the number of young people, more private institutions are offering different admission processes to accept students. Utilizing the center test is one such process. It allows private schools to acquire students at an early stage.

This year, 487 private universities are using the center test standardized exams, a record number.

Some schools combine the center test results and their individual exams, or even screen students simply by center test results.

What other ways can a high school student enter a university?

Some universities accept students who make early decisions to apply. Usually, high schools recommend students with good grades and reputations to universities, and the students proceed to take a special exam.

Some institutions also accept students with special talents, including sports or arts.

How much do college entrance exams cost?

University entrance exams come at a price. Applicants for the center test must pay ¥12,000 if they are taking two or fewer subjects. For those taking three or more subjects, the fee is ¥18,000.

For those who apply to public universities, each school will charge ¥17,000 for the individual exams. Students can apply to up to two public institutions.

Private schools charge about ¥30,000 to ¥35,000 for each department to which a student applies, according to Obunsha Co.’s Web site Pass Navi, which provides information on college entrance exams.

Because there is no limit to how many private schools and their departments students can apply to, the cost varies depending on the applicant. A survey by the Tokyo Federation of Private University Faculty and Staff Unions showed that among nearly 4,300 private university students polled in May 2007, the average amount spent on exam-related expenses came to ¥231,900. This included transportation and hotel accommodations.

Japan’s tough college entrance exam competition was once known as “examination hell.” Is it still?

Competition remains fairly stiff for those aiming for top universities, but many schools have become much easier to enter these days, observers say.

The competition intensified between the 1960s and 1980s due to Japan’s high economic growth. During this period, companies, with their lifetime employment system, hired graduates from good schools, which meant one’s future was decided at age 18, according to Koichi Nakai, author of “The History of University Entrance Exams in the Post-World War II Era.”

Because more people wanted to receive higher education, deregulation in the 1990s triggered a rise in new universities.

However, the population of 18-year-olds peaked in 1992 and has been declining since.

At the same time, more than half of 18-year-olds are attending a university or junior college today.

As a consequence, many private schools are starting to suffer student shortages.

A poll released in August by the Promotion and Mutual Aid Corporation for Private Schools of Japan showed that 47 percent of 565 private universities suffered applicant shortages and did not meet their admissions targets in 2008.

Nakai writes that university entrance exams are increasingly becoming easier because many schools need to do whatever they can to acquire enough students to keep them running financially.

If students were willing to attend schools other than their top choices, there are enough places for everyone who applies, he writes.

The Weekly FYI appears Tuesdays (Wednesday in some areas). Readers are encouraged to send ideas, questions and opinions to National News Desk


Show time: University hopefuls prepare to take unified college entrance exams Saturday in a classroom on the University of Tokyo’s Hongo campus. | KYODO PHOTO

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