Most high school students spend the academic year counting down the days until their long summer break. This is not the case for rising high school seniors in Greece. The first thing 17-year-old Maria Kyrozi tells me when we meet at the end of July is how relieved she feels now that she can finally get a decent night of sleep. She has just finished summer school.
Whether students like Kyrozi come from public or private high schools, the overwhelming majority also attend after-school programs at special schools called frontistiria. Other families hire private tutors to help their children prepare for their final exams. Some students begin their extra schooling as early as freshman year. Kyrozi, who registered for frontistiria her junior year, says she was "late" compared to her peers.
According to the state's constitution, Greek universities are public and free-of-charge institutions. Degrees from private or foreign universities are not officially recognized, and applying to Greek university does not require a personal statement, an essay, letters of recommendation, or lists of extracurricular activities.
Instead, at the end of their final year in school, university candidates partake in a national entrance competition – a series of exams known as the PanHellenic Examination. A single, final grade determines whether or not a student is accepted to his or her desired college. It leaves little room for error. Those who fail have few options: going abroad is just as expensive as waiting another full year to retake the exams. And not everyone can deal with the stress: "If I fail I won't try to retake the exams next year. I couldn't handle that," Kyrozi says.
Kyrozi aims at scoring 18.5 out of 20 in the PanHellenic exams. The grades required to become accepted into various university departments vary and they also help determine the prestige of the department. Students scoring the highest grades often choose to study law or medicine simply because those are the most selective areas and are considered the most prestigious.
The PanHellenic exams do not resemble standardized tests like the SAT. They were, however, designed to produce objective, quantitative measures for acceptance into public higher education and thus have become increasingly standardized. Students often complain that even the essay section is no longer an honest expression of their thoughts, since they are forced to follow strict guidelines concerning its structure and even what view to support.
Tutoring programs do not necessarily compensate for the regular school system's shortcomings. Instead they teach students the "tricks" for acing the exams. "It's one thing when you have a 45-minute class at school with 20 other students, and another when there are only five students in a 55-minute class at a frontistirio," Kyrozi says when asked to compare the two.
One would assume studying diligently should suffice. But ask any student and they will describe "working hard" as an understatement. Kyrozi's summer school schedule consisted of five hours of class per day, with hardly any breaks, and many hours of homework afterward. Similarly, during the rest of the year, tutoring sessions at the frontistiria entailed four hours of class everyday after school and sometimes on weekends, in addition to extra homework.
"Going to school during senior year is pointless when all you do is review the things you learned during your tutoring session. Most people would prefer to use that time to study on their own," Kyrozi says.
Kyrozi first says she hopes to enter Athens's Philosophical School to study linguistics, but she admits that cinema is her real passion and she actually wants to become a film director. She explains that going to directing school in Athens would be too much of a risk, while graduating from university leaves her with better prospects for the future.
Kyrozi's connection to the film world is more than a teenage dream. She has already taken intensive acting classes and was cast in two Greek movies by the age of 16. She tells me she no longer has time for any other activities apart from studying, as all out-of-school commitments are put on hold.
Since Greece has become a highly service-based economy, nearly every family strives to send their child to university despite the sacrifices required. Families living in rural areas without tutoring schools often send their children to bigger cities to find one. Even students who lack a passion for academics aspire to attain a university degree; it is the only viable option after high school.
Although though various educational reforms have taken place over the years, none has managed to bring about drastic changes in the system. At the same time, when they want to demand change, Greek secondary students in public schools enjoy the unique privilege of going on "strike" – accompanied by a self-determined school "lockdown."
Kyrozi describes an incident, at the beginning of this year, when a group of students decided to shut down the school for a day to protest that the school had not distributed the books they needed for class. Even though the students' complaints were valid, the truth regarding the lack of books once again involved the bad state of the economy. After not receiving payment, publishers had held back on printing school books.
The strikes demonstrate students' willpower to actively engage in bringing about change, but finding alternative ways to direct their motivation to more productive initiatives could turn things around.
When asked what she would like to see change, Kyrozi suggested longer school days and better teacher evaluations. As the government tries to re-structure the economy, students raise questions about the two parallel school systems that must somehow converge into a more efficient arrangement.
Kyrozi considers the exhausting process of the PanHellenic exams one of the contributing factors to the youth unemployment problem since many students have become "burned out" by the end of the process.
"So many of the candidates either settle for university departments that are easier to get into or switch into better ones that are not their true first choice," Kyrozi adds. It seems that a degree and a job position rarely reflect a person's real interests and choices – despite the struggle to obtain them.