The Vestibular is a competitive examination and is the primary and widespread system used by Brazilian universities to select their students. The term derives from the word "vestíbulo" that in Portuguese means entrance hall. The Vestibular usually takes place from November to January, right before the start of school year in February or March, although certain universities hold it every semester. The exams often span several days, with different disciplines being tested each day.
Several Brazilian universities follow the FUVEST (University of São Paulo's entry exam) pattern, which is divided into two stages or "phases". The first stage consists of multiple choice questions, including subjects such as Portuguese Language, Portuguese and Brazilian Literature, Math, History, Geography, Biology, Physics, Chemistry and Foreign Language. The answers are marked on an answer card, and they are graded afterwards by an automated optical reader. The best scoring candidates from the multiple-choice stage proceed to the second stage, which contains write-in questions about subjects related to the candidate's major. Prospective engineering majors for example are tested in Math, Physics and Chemistry, whereas prospective Law students are required to take exams in History, Geography and Philosophy. The Portuguese language exam, which also includes a student-written essay, must be taken by all candidates irrespective of their intended majors. The exams are graded by a board of professors and candidates for each major are then classified in descending order according to their overall score in the two stages of the Vestibular. The top scorers up to the maximum number of vacancies for each field of study are allowed to enroll in their intended majors and begin college. In other universities, the Vestibular may include only one single-stage exam where the scores for each subject tested are adjusted by weights depending on the student's major of choice. Also, in a few universities like UFRJ or UNICAMP, only write-in exams are used. Conversely, students seeking admission into some private colleges take multiple-choice exams only. In some military engineering colleges such as ITA and IME, the Vestibular includes exams in Math, Physics, Chemistry, Portuguese and English only. Those exams are mostly write-in and demand more from the students when compared to ordinary vestibular exams of the same subjects by other universities, being heavily influenced by mathematics competitions questions. This is done in order to let the student focus on the subjects of the college's interest while preparing for the exams. University candidates must choose their majors by the time they sign in for the vestibular, and they cannot change their choice except through a very bureaucratic process of internal transfers within the university. Some exceptions exist, such as Engineering in some universities, where the engineering major is chosen only after a three or four semester period. Throughout the last decades, there has always been a gap between the few vacancies offered and the overwhelmingly high and growing demand for high quality and tuition-free public universities. The competition goes as far as having more than 100 candidates per vacancy for the most sought-after careers, such as medicine.
The Vestibular was implanted primarily as a way to prevent nepotism or some other form of unfair or beneficial selection of candidates. It was considered by law the only authorized selection method until 1996, when the new Education Law was passed.
While the Vestibular is generally considered to be a fair and unbiased system to select students, there are controversies. There is some criticism to the alleged standardization of the high school curriculum for the whole country to match the Vestibular agenda. As most types of academic evaluation, the vestibular suffers from the same limitations as a regular test; that is, factors such as stress come into play. It also seems to favor candidates that come from a wealthier background, who had access to better and deeper education in private schools, as opposed to the comparatively poor public high school educational system, although many university boards claim that it doesn't matter which background the candidates have, since their Vestibular aims to select the best students based solely on their knowledge. To ease this problem, some universities such as the Federal University of Minas Gerais, provide a 10-15% bonus for students who received their middle and high education in public schools.
Recently there have been discussions about racial and social quotas that are being systematically implemented by the government in public universities as part of a sort-of affirmative action policy. Some people consider this to be racist and unconstitutional, as it discriminates and gives extra rights to candidates of a certain background. This is also considered a step backwards in the sense of a politically independent university and in the concept of meritocracy. In August 2005, at Universidade Federal do Paraná, a student was granted by a federal court the right to be admitted at the university because she had a better score on the Vestibular than several other freshmen that took advantage of their quotas