Story by Lauryn Paiva // Photos by Catherine Strong and Lauryn Paiva
Sally Zwairi’s accent is flawless. The 20-year-old English and literature major at the University of Jordan animatedly beckons behind her, gesturing to the distinguished campus buildings. Zwairi is fortunate enough to be studying a major of her own choosing – a direct result of her final score on her Tawjihi exam.
One of the most formative experiences in the life of a Jordanian student, Tawjihi is known simultaneously as the last year of high school in Jordan and as an exam that functions as both a high school exit test and a college entrance exam. It is the sole decisive factor in admission to Jordan’s 19 four-year universities.
“We have to take the test in order to be a university student,” explains Zwairi.
The test is broken into separate sections, assessing the students’ knowledge of Arabic, English, math, science, geography and ancient history. When the test grades are calculated, the students are then placed into different fields of study based on their score. The majors, classified in order of most to least exalted, include science, information technology, literature, religion, and industry occupations such as childcare, hotel administration or agriculture.
“Most families want their children to study in the scientific field because of the high prestige,” said Zwairi.
The difference between being placed into a certain major sometimes hinges on a percentage of a point. In order to study medicine, a student must score a 99 percent on the exam. The discrepancy in scores more often than not results in an undesirable placement for students.
“I got a 94.8 percent,” said Hadeel, a 19-year-old student also studying English and literature. She asked that her full name not be used. “Some people got a 90 and can’t study literature.”
Unlike the globally-recognized SAT and the A-level exams used in England and Scotland, Tawjihi – pronounced toe-zhee-hee – acts as the irrefutable verdict in university admission. While SAT scores are a vital component in admission decisions, other critical factors such as high school academics, extracurricular activities and recommendations are taken into consideration by admissions offices.
Also, the SAT tests only in the areas of reading, writing and math. The highest possible score a student can obtain is a 2400. A-levels consist of four (or six for natural sciences) modules studied over a two-year period and students receive a letter grade ranging from A to E. Both the SAT and A-level exams can be re-taken if the student does not receive a satisfactory score.
Taking the Tawjihi exam over again is not an option for Jordanian students who did not test well.
For some, it still works out. “I wasn’t happy with the grade I got, but was still somehow able to study what I wanted in the end,” admits Abd el-Rahman Afanch, a 19-year-old computer and information systems major at University of Jordan in Amman.
For an entire year preceding the exam, students are placed under strict guidelines by parents and teachers in order to be as prepared as possible. Hanging out with friends or leaving their homes is strictly forbidden. According to a study conducted earlier this month, students studying for the exam spend six to eight hours a day studying during their Tawjihi year.
“Students who test poorly face psychological pressure as a result of family pressure and nervous parents,” said Fida Al-Smadi, a Ministry of Education employee.
Tawjihi not only dictates what career a student will pursue, it also acts a mechanism for success in Jordanian society. Accomplishment is measured solely on the outcome of the Tawjihi. Failing the exam, or not placing into a major that is highly respected, discredits the student and his or her family.
“All of your relatives depend on you and you don’t want to let them down,” Zwairi asserted. “It is shameful if you don’t succeed.”
The extreme societal pressure placed upon students to successfully complete the Tawjihi exam sometimes culminates in acts of desperation, including attempted suicide. According to a study conducted in July of 2009 by the Centre for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, 5 percent of more than 4,000 students in their Tawjihi year said they would commit suicide if they did not receive their ideal score. Each year, after the Ministry of Education releases the Tawjihi results, a handful of suicide attempts are reported.
Students in their Tawjihi year share feelings of unrelenting stress and pressure, but also unanimously share the sentiment of relief after they receive their results.
“When somebody succeeds in Tawjihi, we have the greatest party in the world,” Zwairi said. “It is an even bigger celebration than graduating from university.”