Top-tier Japanese universities are notoriously difficult to enter. The overall average acceptance figures for national universities is 25%, public 20%, and private just 15%, and the competition among students for places is fierce. The university application process for Japanese nationals starts with the National Center Test for University Admissions (referred to as the Center Shiken)—a standardized examination that is used by national, public, and some private universities. It is held over two days in mid-January every year and is taken by over 500,000 students. There are 29 separate tests across 6 subjects—which ones the student takes are determined by the university they wish to enter. This is one reason why students must be strategic in their choice of universities.

In most cases the examination is only the first hurdle towards a place at university, as each university—especially the most prestigious ones—will set their own entrance examination, as well. The score from the Center Shiken is used either as a first-round screening process after which successful applicants are put back on a level playing field for the university specific entrance examination, or used in conjunction with a separate test where a final decision is made based on the results of both examinations.

The whole process is extremely rigorous and puts a lot of pressure on the students who realize that getting into university is the biggest step towards gaining a degree (once enrolled examinations as part of the course are far less demanding). Because of this there are estimated to be about 100,000 students who have either opted (because they didn’t get into their first-choice university) or have been forced (because they didn’t get in anywhere) to study for another year at specialist cram schools called juku with the hope of entering the following year. These students are referred to as ronin-sei, ronin being the term for samurai without a master who were forced to wander the country looking for work in pre-modern Japan. The cram school industry alone is estimated to be worth about $10 billion.

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