The PSU from a personal perspective as student and teacher

The PSU or national exams have started in Chile. The results have a big influence on the chances of getting into a good university and are therefore often criticized. Chile Today´s Tomás Croquevielle writes about his own experience with the PSU.

As a high school student, a “pre-university” attendee, and a teacher, I have experienced many angles of the national Prueba de Selección Universitaria (University Selection Test or, PSU, as it is known by its Spanish acronym), the test that determines whether you are allowed to enter a good university or not. It is the most important, and sometimes only, criterion of selection for the different universities when they are choosing their students.

My experience with the PSU is not quite the same as most Chileans, but, as a teenager finishing high school, I did have to pass through many of the same things that others have had to navigate in this regard.

I went to a private high school, and that, in Chile, where education quality is stratified on a socio-economic basis, is a very big deal. But I did not go to one of the traditional private high schools, with a high level of academic requirement and performance.

Rather, I spent my high school years at a school qualified as “alternative,” where we did not have to wear a uniform (something strange in Chile) and where the relationships with teachers and school authorities were quite close and horizontal.

It is for this reason that the attainment of high scores on the PSU was not a priority for the school. That, however, did not exclude the possibility of having elective courses to prepare for the test.

Coming back from California and taking the PSU

In my case, during my senior year, I was coming back from a semester exchange in Mendocino County, California, USA, and my last semester was focused, almost exclusively, on courses focused or designed to prepare me for the PSU.

I did not have much expectations about the result. Although I had prepared myself with some “essays” that the school provided, upon my return I had not really had the time to prepare myself to make a satisfactory effort. I therefore thought, like some of my friends, to prepare myself in a better way to take the test again the following year.

After learning my results (as expected, I did well in the Social Sciences test, average in the Language test, and poorly in the Math test), I initially thought about entering one of the two degree programs where I was accepted: the International Studies degree program at the State University of Santiago or Political Science at the Alberto Hurtado University (a private Jesuit university).

Later, my idea was to persevere and take the test again the following year. My father wanted me to enter the second university degree program. My mother supported my idea. In the end, my will prevailed, and I decided to retake the test.

National exams: the PSU has started for nearly 300.000 Chilean students

Preparing for a year to retake the test

The following year, I was more prepared. I enrolled myself in a small but prestigious “pre-university” (a kind of educational institution that prepares students exclusively for the PSU), aiming to achieve my new objective: to be accepted into the Political Science program at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, one of the two most prestigious universities in the country.

For that I needed a good result in math, the subject that was the most difficult for me in high school. I worked hard throughout the year, with daily classes and practice tests once a week.

When I finally retook the famous test, I did not perform as I expected. First, during the Language test I got nervous and made some mistakes on my answer sheet, and then I only got more nervous when I feverishly tried to fix it with my eraser. As a result, I barely completed all of the questions. Time was up, and I had not given my best in one of the tests for which I prepared myself for the whole year.

The situation was similar with Maths: time was short, and, on that occasion, I could not answer all the questions.

Sensing that I would not reach the scores for the career I originally wanted, I started to consider other options. I had always been passionate about studying the history of my country and the world, so a History degree became a natural alternative.

Lastly, I obtained 50 to 60 points less than what I needed in the Language and Mathematics tests, but I achieved close to a perfect score in Social Sciences.

So, both by conviction and by necessity, I applied successfully for the History degree at the same university where I had previously hoped to study political science.

The funny thing is, next year I am enrolling in a master’s degree program in Political Science and International Relations in the same Faculty that I was hoping to join 11 years ago.

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A subsequent deep knowledge of the test

As a university student, I participated in different social “pre-universities,” giving Social Science classes, on a voluntary basis, to students who did not have money to pay for other types of preparation. I also had a private student whom I helped prepare for the Social Sciences PSU.

Having been in a “pre-university” for a year and having given classes for the PSU for more than two years, I realized two important things:  

  1. The different tests contain an absurd amount of content. In the case of Social Sciences, for example, there are subjects in the PSU curriculum that I, as a History degree student, never had to study.
  2. Obtaining high scores in the tests has much more to do with practice, and learning the logic and systems of the test, than with truly learning the material itself.

The necessity of a more decentralized system of selection

Considering the above, I think that the PSU is a poor mechanism for entering higher education, and too centralized and rigid for the current needs of the country and the vast supply of higher education.

It is unreasonable that, despite the different promises made in the past by the educational authorities, the PSU test can only be taken once a year. If that happens to be a bad day for someone, they must wait another year.

There have been some advances since I took the test. Now it is possible to save a score for one year; a person is no longer forced to jump immediately into a certain career or university program.

The implementation of generation cohort ranking as to the PSU has had mixed results. The change has benefited the good students of modest schools, where preparation opportunities are limited, but it has disadvantaged those who are from higher achieving high schools, where most of the students earn good grades.  

Another change, like the elimination of the rule that discounted a correct answer for every four incorrect answers, is only a superficial modification. Like earnings during inflation, if all the scores on the PSU increase, each one is worth less.

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I also think it is necessary to highlight initiatives such as “Talent plus Inclusion” from different faculties. In it, the different careers and degrees programs, increase the PSU score of talented and hardworking students who are from schools located in disadvantaged socio-cultural areas. It seems to me that this more decentralized approach is the right one.

Although in many countries there is a similar type of test to get to the university level, I think Chile must be one of the few where this single test has such a central weight.

Apart from the discriminating factor in terms of social class and gender of the PSU, it seems to me that this ultra-centralized approach homogenizes the types of student that enter the university and how the universities deal with them.

A more decentralized approach, in which each university had its own system of applying, based on something more than just the PSU, would promote a more informed selection, both, by the student and the university.

In this way, a university could choose its future students, consistent with their expectations, interests, and needs, while at the same time respecting its own priorities.

After 15 years of implementation, the PSU cannot remain a cornerstone of the gate to higher education, in the same way that the economic criterion cannot be the fundamental factor when determining the education of an individual.

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