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The Finnish version of the matriculation examination is called ylioppilastutkinto. To analyse the word by its components, tutkinto stands for "examination". Ylioppilas is literally "upper student", but this could also be translated as "university student", for an ylioppilas studies in a university, called yliopisto, "upper school".

The examination is the usual way to end the Finnish upper secondary school called lukio. To graduate from lukio the exam is not required, but graduating lukio is required to complete the exam, and lukio courses are needed to be eligible for the exam.

The exam is often used to rate university applicants, but depending on the subject universities often arrange their own entrance exams. Virtually all lukio graduates take the matriculation exam, and it's a central part of the curriculum.

The history of the exam begins in 1852, when the entrance examination of the Academy of Turku was tied in to the curriculum of lukio. At first the exam was taken at the Academy, but from 1874 they have been held at the respective schools of the students. Oral exams were an integral part of it until 1919. The exams are arranged in both spring (February-March) and autumn (September-October), these two occasions are called "examination times".

To graduate a student must reach all requirements, i.e. pass the mandatory exams, during three examination times, so completing the exam can take roughly one and a half years. Six hours per day are reserved for a single subject exam, and only one subject exam is arranged in a day. There is always a free day between exams, and it takes two to three weeks for a single examination time to pass.

In the 1800's Finland was under Russian rule, and perhaps to thumbnose the Czar the examination was modeled after Swedish and German matriculation exams. For example, a student about to take or taking the exam, and generally a third year student in lukio, is not called a senior, but an abiturientti, based on the German word Abiturient, and the examination is not unlike the Abitur in nature.

The biannual (formerly annual) examination is controlled by the ylioppilastutkintolautakunta, the Board of the Matriculation Examination, the heads of which are appointed by the Ministry of Education. The Board designs and grades the exams, and it is the ultimate authority on the exam. Each examination time costs 20 euros for the examinee, and 21 euros for each individual subject. For 30 euros a regrading request can be made, should one be unhappy with one's results: if the grade changes the money will be returned. The Board is funded by these payments and the taxpayers.

The matriculation exam is standardized: all examinees of the same exam are graded against each other on a curve. The grades are from best to worst:

  • Laudatur cum laude approbatur ("Praised, accepted with praise" in Latin): granted to the highest 5 percent of scores, or, scores above the 95th percentile
  • Eximia cum laude approbatur (Excellent, accepted with praise): 15 percent
  • Magna cum laude approbatur (Great, accepted with praise): 20 percent
  • Cum laude approbatur (Accepted with praise): 24 percent
  • Lubenter approbatur (Accepted with pleasure): 20 percent
  • Approbatur (Accepted): 11 percent
  • improbatur (Not accepted): lowest 5 percent

In common usage the "cum laude approbatur" part is discarded, and the grades are thus laudatur (shortened to L), eximia (E), magna (M), cum laude (C), lubenter (B), approbatur (A) and improbatur (i).

Universities can then be assured that when they let in a student with a laudatur from English in the batch of spring 2005, they are taking in someone who is in the best five percent of the group that took the same exam, which is mostly the same group that is applying for entrance that year.

Structure

The different subjects of the matriculation examination are:

Exams are divided to levels of difficulty. A low level exam requires basic knowledge and is e.g. a language one has started to study in lukio. A high level exam is for a language that has been studied for nearly ten years.

The first language and general knowledge exams are only on one level. The second Finnish language is available in three levels, high, medium and low. Mathematics, English and Latin are available in high and low levels. The rest of the foreign languages are available only as a low level exam.

Finnish or Swedish as a first language

The first language exam tests analytical and creative writing skills. The exam is taken in two parts on separate days separated by about a week. On the first day, a composition must be written based on a list of topics and materials supplied by the Board. On the second day, the composition must be written under a simple headline chosen from a selection. A recommended length for a text is from four to eight pages.

Of the two compositions the one with a better score is used to count the grade. This exam is often controversial, as the scores can be very subjective. It is not uncommon for a preliminary laudatur, given by the local teacher, to become an improbatur when the Board actually grades it, but after a regrading request the grade will bounce back to laudatur. Aspiring examinees are always hoping for the sensor, as they are called, grading their paper to be on a particularly good mood.

As of spring 2007 the exam will be different. Instead of a list of topics, on the first day a batch of source material is provided, and five different assignments must be completed based on the materials. These measure the ability to think critically and to analyze texts. Each response to an assignment will be about one to two pages long.

The second day exam will be more like the first old exam, with a leaflet of topics and materials. A composition, generally an essay, will be written, to measure the ability to express oneself in writing and to think holistically.

Second and foreign languages

Foreign language tests have two parts: text and audio. The former contains a reading comprehension exercise, an exercise in writing, and a third grammatical exercise, often a multiple choice assignment. The writing exercise is usually on bland topics, the presentation must be grammatically correct with rich vocabulary, not bestseller material.

The audio part is a listening comprehension exercise. Responses are given in multiple choice or in writing, to reply to questions based on what is heard on the tape. These questions often include strange logical tricks and bizarre reasoning to make guessing and glarking more difficult, but after plodding through them a few times in prep class you start to learn the different rules of the game, sending everyone back to square one.

For instance, people speaking are seldom bigoted or stupid, if they have committed crimes it has been due to unfortunate circumstances or honour, and so on: basically the Board has a certain set of core values of society it wants to casually promote, which can get difficult for asocial people, particularly in portions based on small talk or the like. The logical tricks are usually buried in the wording of the questions, creating an experience of understanding the tape but not understanding the questions.

Mathematics

Mathematics is a more clear cut affair. From a number of usually 15 assignments no more than 10 must be completed. Six points are given for every completely correctly done assignment, so the maximum score is 60. High math is mostly the calculus, low math is more basic stuff like simple probabilities and the most advanced thing in algebra is the quadratic formula, although qubic equations can and are solved with a little kluging.

Math tests aren't multiple choice ones, though, so there can be arguments over the form of the art, i.e. how the thought process from question to answer is formulated and put down on paper. Just an answer will be worth 0 points.

General Studies

Called reaali in Finnish (from the Latin realis, "relevant facts"), in the General Studies exam you can answer to questions on any of the following subjects:

There is no rule on what you can or can't answer on, save for the denominational choice, which must be made before taking the exam. The denominational choice is entirely independent of your actual beliefs, and you can take the Lutheran questions even if you are not a member of the Finnish Lutheran Church.

Each response is given a maximum of 6 points, and you are to answer to eight of them for a maximum total of 48 points. Most subjects have 9 to 15 questions per exam, although biology, chemistry and geography have only 7. There are also "joker questions", one for each subject (two for history etc.) which require indepth knowledge of several subjects. Joker questions are graded on a scale of 1 to 9 points, meaning the maximum possible score from the General Studies exam is actually 56. To paraphrase a friend, accomplishing that would give you the right to climb up to the roof of the school building and shout "I'm God" to the world.

Because you only have six hours to answer, and because questions in psychology or history may require a lot of effort per response, it's common for many students to take some basic courses in other subjects like Chemistry where they can grab a few points with a simple equation.

That'll change when the GS exam is altered as of spring 2006, however. In the new reaali examination, a student is only allowed to answer the questions of two subjects per examination time (i.e. two subjects per autumn or spring). The exams will be arranged on two separate days, and on the same day you can only take one of the subjects available on that day. On the first day the subjects are Physics, History, Psychology, Philosophy, and Biology. On the second, they are Political Science (now separate from History), Health Studies (a new subject), the three denominational subjects, Chemistry, and Geography.

Therefore, you can not take both Chemistry and Geography in the exam, but you can take Chemistry and Physics. To take both Chemistry and Geography you will have to take GK on two separate examination times. All of these new specific exams will have six to eight questions each and each separate exam will be graded like the original GK, e.g. you can have an eximia from Psychology but not from reaali as a whole.

Examples of GK questions:

"The significance of a parent in childhood development" (Psychology)

"Water" (Chemistry)

"How did the economical system of the ancient Roman Empire work, and why did its economy collapse?" (History)

"How can microbes be used to process waste?" (Biology)

Taking the Exam

The exams begin at 9:00 in the morning, you must be present about 20 minutes before that. The place is the same for everyone in the same school taking the same exam, a large locale, usually the gym hall. To make the environment as equal and quiet as possible, there is an intricate protocol to doing things to prevent cheating and extraneous distraction.

The places the students wills it in are drawn at random before the exam. Calculators are allowed, but they must be inspected by the teachers the day before, and high-end calculators like the TI-92 are not allowed: the TI-85 and 86 are often favourites. In math and the GK exam you are allowed to have with you a so-called "table book", a book published by the Finnish association of science teachers, which contains all the important formulae for math, chemistry and physics. This helps to make these subjects more a matter of application than memorization. These books too must be inspected beforehand.

The time allotted for a single exam is six hours. In that time, you are bound to get a bit peckish. You can bring your own food, but all wrappers are forbidden, and text on cans must be covered with duct tape. Candy bars must be unwrapped before entering the hall. A good way to transport your goods is a clear, completely transparent plastic box and bottle. Anything at all which could hide a note is not allowed. Even fruit must be peeled beforehand.

The audio parts of language exams only take a couple of hours, however, so no lunch is allowed there. The students are usually split to two parts since the special studio class used to take the exam isn't large enough to accommodate all of them. While the other half does the exam, the other half must remain in "quarantine", isolated in a classroom, fortunately not for 40 days, but for the duration of the exam.

No one can be actually forced to change their clothes, but it's highly recommended to wear clothing that is as quiet and as comfortable as possible. Accessories like hanging chains are often confiscated since they can be noisy. Clothing with a lot of text, especially in a foreign language, is forbidden.

No cell phones are allowed inside the hall or the studio. If you are found with one you are immediately disqualified. You can't bring your own handkerchiefs either, there will be checked ones in the hall. Only one student at a time is allowed to go to the toilet, and one of the monitors must follow them, but not inside the toilet of course.

Monitors are teachers of the same school the students are in. In the case that a student taking the exam is the close relative of a teacher, that teacher can not monitor the exam. This can make for tricky schedules when a single year of students can have several sons and daughters of teachers in a small town.

The protocol may seem ridiculous at times, but it's understandable when one considers that in the modern world there are hardly any mystical rituals. All these rules and procedures give the exam an air of mystery and religiousness, to perhaps satisfy a certain basic human need. It also contributes to the aura of respect the examination, and the people who have completed it, have. You are no longer just anybody... you are an ylioppilas! You will be able to apply for university, you get to wear a nice white cap, and your relatives will shower you with gifts.

How to Pass

Theory

However to become an ylioppilas, you can't just pick an exam there and an exam here. Your examination must include a passed exam in four subjects. One of them must be your first language. The other three must be picked from the set:

  • A foreign language
  • Mathematics
  • General knowledge
  • Second Finnish language

In other words, one of these four can be left out. Additionally, one exam must be of high level difficulty, usually this is the foreign language or mathematics.

An improbatur does not mean automatically a failed exam and crushed dreams, however. Through a system called compensation, it is possible to cover for a poor grade if other grades are good. There are varying degrees of grade i, they are i+, i, i- and i--. For each passing grade, compensation points are awarded: 7 for laudatur, 6 for eximia, 5 for magna, 4 for cum laude, 3 for lubenter and 2 for approbatur. To pass with an improbatur, you need a certain amount of compensation points: 18 for i--, 16 for i-, 14 for i and 12 for i+. E.g. if you get a plain i from Swedish but have an L from English, an L from math and a magna from GK, you are all set.

Also to graduate, you must be able to graduate from lukio: you must have all 45 to 49 of the mandatory courses completed, and on top of them enough courses to have a total of 75. A single lukio course is 30 times 45 minutes long.

Practice

Personally, I have identified two distinct strategies to preparing for the exam. It is often reflective of the way a person handles a single course and its exam.

The first way is to take lukio as it is with a stride, and then read like mad before the actual exam. The problem with this approach is that if you haven't bothered to study for the courses in the first place, it is doubtful you'll manage the exams either unless you are a prodigy of some kind (and trust me, you aren't).

The second, far superior method, is to be alert and studious during the entire period of lukio. Think of it this way: you will be studying two years for the exam instead of two weeks. Before the exams it might be a good idea to revise some stuff from the earlier courses, but any sort of cramming won't be required.

Before actual exam day it's a good idea to not study at all and to let your brains take a rest. Have a walk, chat up with some friends, hang around on E2, that sort of thing. If you get nervous easily and think you won't be able to sleep well the night before the exam, don't sleep at all in the night before the day before the exam, so that you'll be too tired to be nervous about it.

Of course, everyone has their own method for studying and as long as its effective, stick to it. And remember, noding and reading writeups is a perfect way to improve your English and general knowledge.

Criticism

A standardized test without clearly defined answers, like one with multiple choice, is always problematic when it comes to grading: this has already been mentioned regarding the first language test.

What's also troublesome is that against the principle of non scholae, sed vitae, most of the time an abiturientti is practicing how to take the exam, not the skills tested in the exam. In fact, it can be argued that the exam measures the skill of taking the exam, nothing more nothing less. The English exams, for example, are notorious for tolerating only highly formal and strict language, which may have no bearing whatsoever on actual, hands-on English.

Also because of the official and efficient nature of the exam, a person who is very skilled in a subject can become crushed by the wheels of bureaucracy, resulting in a poor grade due to glossing over a simple formality. While for the Board it is but a statistic, for the student it feels like their entire life has collapsed on them.

On the other hand, strict procedure and efficiency is required when over 30,000 students take the exam every examination time. A high unquestionable authority is needed to lend the examination credibility, and universities can always arrange their own if they feel that the matriculation exam is not sufficient. The lack of multiple choice questions also means that the tests require a good bit of deeper, analytical knowledge instead of simple memorization.

The biggest peeve I have had on the exam has been its bias on languages. With a good grasp of the natural sciences, you can only get two grades. The new GK exam will fortunately change this. Until now to get the coveted string of seven or more laudaturs you have had to study a whopping three extra languages, but with the new General Knowledge exam a person well versed in the natural sciences can grab as many separate grades as a person good with languages.

What has made the standardized test so viable is the Finnish situation: all schools are publicly funded, and are in no way under pressure to produce as good results from the exams as possible. Universities also use both the matriculation exam and their own entrance exams, so that neither will become obsolete or meaningless.

There is a danger that this will change in the future, though, as the television channel MTV3 is already annually compiling lists of results from different lukios to try to figure out which schools are superior to others. Schools high on these lists will attract more students, and funds are granted by the student. Time will tell.


Sources:
http://www.minedu.fi/yo-tutkinto/
http://www.ylioppilastutkinto.fi/english.html
and the endless prepping lectures by my teachers.

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