Even though the Abitur is often compared to a high school diploma in the United States, it is closer to the associate degree of a US college, as it in many states requires 13 years of study and enables the recipient to earn a Bachelor's degree in three years. However, the academic level of the Abitur is more comparable to the International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement tests — indeed, the study requirements for the International Baccalaureate differ little from the Finnish exam requirements. It is the only school-leaving certificate in all states of Germany that allows the graduate (or Abiturient) to directly commence studies at the university. The other school leaving certificates, the Hauptschulabschluss and the Realschulabschluss, do not allow their holders to matriculate at a university. Those granted certificates of "Hauptschulabschluss" or "Realschulabschluss" can gain a specialized "Fachabitur" or an Abitur if they graduate from a "Berufsschule" and then attend "Berufsoberschule".
The importance of the Abitur has grown beyond admission to the university, however, in that it has increasingly become a prerequisite to start an apprenticeship in some professions (e.g. banking). Therefore, career opportunities for Hauptschule or Realschule graduates who do not have the Abitur have almost universally seen a downturn in recent years. More than just being a leaving certificate, the Abitur is widely regarded as a matter of personal prestige as well. According to the Statistisches Bundesamt in 2003/2004 about 23% of all students leaving school graduated with an Abitur (Fachabitur [1.2%], Realschulabschluss [42.6%], Hauptschulabschluss [25.0%], without any degree [8.3%])
The official term for Abitur in Germany is Zeugnis der allgemeinen Hochschulreife (often translated as General Qualification for University Entrance or Certificate for Overall Maturity for Higher Education). The equivalent exam in Austria, Poland and other countries of continental Europe is the Matura; while in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Africa, Malta, and the West Indies, it is A-levels; and in Scotland, it is Advanced Higher Grade.
The marks obtained in these exams are combined with marks won during the last 2-3 years to a summary mark, like the US GPA. This, in turn, is important to be admitted to a German university for some fields of study, in particular medical schools ("Numerus clausus").
The final Abitur grade is a figure ranging from 1.0 (best) to 4.0. However, during their time of studies and at the end exams students receive only grades on a scale of 15 (best) to 0 points (failed). These points are weighted and then added up and converted to the final grade. If a student receives 14 points in all his/her courses and exams he will get a final grade of 1.0.
The composite score of the Abitur is between 280 and 840, though both borders are rarely awarded. Students with a score below 280 fail and will not receive the Abitur. There are some more conditions, the student has to meet in order to receive the abitur. The student has the possibility to omit courses (if he/she has taken more than necessary) from his/her composite score. At the moment, 768 points are equivalent to 1.0 - the highest grade achievable in the lessons.
Fachabitur was used up until the 1970s in all of Germany for a variation of the Abitur. The official term for this German qualification is fachgebundene Hochschulreife. This qualification includes only one foreign language (in most cases English). The Abitur, in contrast, mostly includes two foreign languages. This school leaving certificate also allows the graduate to start studying at a university. However, he is limited to a specified range of majors. The range of majors depends on the specific subjects covered in his Abitur examinations. But the graduate is allowed to study all majors at a Fachhochschule (University of Applied Sciences, in some ways comparable to polytechnics). Today this school leaving certificate is called fachgebundenes Abitur.
Now the term Fachabitur is used in most parts of Germany for the Fachhochschulreife. This school leaving certificate was introduced in West Germany in the 1970s together with the Fachhochschulen. It enables the graduate to start studying at a Fachhochschule, and in Hesse also at a university within the state. In the Gymnasiums of some states it is reached in the year before the Abitur is reached. However, the normal way to receive the Fachhochschulreife is the graduation from a German Fachoberschule, a vocational high school also introduced in the 1970s.
The term Notabitur is used for a qualification which existed only during World War I and World War II. It was granted to male German Students who freely enlisted for military service before graduation. The Notabitur during WWI included an examination, roughly equivalent to the Abitur exam. The WWII Notabitur, in contrast, was granted without any examinations. After the war this was a major disadvantage for Germans with this qualification since it was, unlike its WWI counterpart, generally not recognised in West Germany and never recognised in East Germany.
Successful completion formerly legally entitled one to enrol as a university student (hence "matriculation"). Although the legal requirement has been lifted, matriculation without the doing the test is still an exception. The universities are now free to arrange their own entrance examinations in addition to considering scores from the Matriculation Examination. Thus, universities accept students based both on entrance exam points, matriculation exam points, and also by a combined score from the two. Matriculation entitles one to wear the student cap.
Each examinee is required to participate in at least four tests in order to matriculate. As of 2005 the only mandatory part of the test is that of Äidinkieli ("mother tongue"; Finnish for most students, Swedish or Sámi for some), including a composition test. The student then has to choose three other subjects from
The exam takes place at schools according to minute regulations laid out by the national board. Each exam takes six hours. After the exam, the teachers grade the papers and send the graded papers to the national board which then re-grades every paper. The grading of the exam may be appealed against. In this case, the board re-examines the grading. The result of the re-examination is final and cannot be appealed to any authority.
The score of each test varies with the subject. For example, the maximum score for the test in Finnish or Swedish as a first language is 114 points, in mathematics 66 points and in foreign languages 299 points. The tests are graded according to normal distribution into seven verbal grades with Latin names: Improbatur (I), Approbatur (A), Lubenter Approbatur (B) Cum Laude Approbatur (C), Magna Cum Laude Approbatur (M) Eximia Cum Laude Approbatur (E) and Laudatur (L), from bottom to top. In general, at least the grade A is required for the test to be passed. In every exam,
Traditionally, the test is taken in the spring, but it is also arranged every autumn and may be taken in up to three parts. Thus taking the matriculation exam may take up to one and half years. Usually, the last set of exams is taken at the end of the third year in upper secondary school. The exams take place in late March, but for the school-leavers, the school ends in mid-February, giving the students ample time to prepare for the test in solitary study. This occasion is celebrated by the traditional festivity of penkkarit.
If the student receives an improbatur in any of the obligatory exams, the whole exam is failed. However, a single failed obligatory exam may be compensated by good results from other exams. For this purpose, there is a compensation system where the total exam result of the student is calculated and it is compared to the result of the failed test. In order to get his/her diploma accepted, student must gather enough compensation points from all the other exams. Improbatur is divided to four classes (i+,i, i-,i=), each descriping the deepness of student's failure (i+ being the least bad) and each class has its own number of compensation points to be reached for acceptable result (12, 14, 16 and 18 respectively). Points from accepted exams are awarded as follows: L 7 points, E 6, M 5, C 4, B 3 and A 2.