Biti Sophia Soren, New Delhi
Education is considered one of the most crucial and an important part of one’s life. Many people believe that a good education is directly related to success. But can a single exam determine your life? Getting into one of the top universities in South Korea is often the most important goal of high school students and their parents. Before attending a university, South Korean students enrolled in secondary school must take the Suneung Exam (수능) that stands for (대학수학능력시험) an abbreviation for College Scholastic Aptitude Test (CSAT). It’s like the SATs in the United States, but three times as long. It is managed and conducted by the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation. The exam is conducted at the various selected centers throughout the country (South Korea). Recently, the exam took place on 17th November, 2022 and about half a million students undertook this exam. To know more about this exam, read ahead:
To exaggerate a bit, CSAT results determine the futures of Korean students. In South Korea, academics are literally the difference between life and death for students. Most universities select their students based largely on the test scores of the single standardized year-end exam. The test not only dictates whether the students will go to university, but can affect their job prospects, income, where they will live and even future relationships. Suneung is considered to be one of the most important exams in Korea that’s because getting into a prestigious university is often considered the pathway to success in life. And with so many students competing for limited spots for the best universities’ students are forced to over study and to out study one another to get the best score possible.
Many Korean students spend studying 16 hours or more a day at school and in after-class prep schools/cram schools, called “hagwons.” A students’ six years of elementary school, +3 years of middle school, +3 years of high school all gets culminated in this one exam. Suneung which is offered only once each year in November is a 9-hour long marathon of back-to-back exam. The test day is a big event in Korea with repercussions for the whole country.
On test day younger students and student’s family members gather outside testing sites to cheer them on. Almost all banks, businesses, including the stock market, open an hour late at 10:00 am to avoid traffic jams and allow students to get to the testing sites more easily. Large trucks are banned from driving near testing sites including military troops. In some cases, if students are running late for the test or forgot their identification card, then they can call the police for free escort to test site. The exam only takes place once a year so, if they miss it, their whole life will literally be delayed by a year.
Picture Credits: News1
Suneung consists of multiple choice and short answer questions (only for Mathematics). At the beginning of each test subject, inspectors hand out a large test booklet and OMR card answer sheet. The exam begins at 8:40 am starting with 80-minute Korean language section. Then students have a short 20-minute break and then 100-minute Maths section. Once it’s done, there’s a 50-minute lunch break. Then at 1:10 pm the notoriously difficult English section for 70-minute starts. During the English listening comprehension, all military exercise and flights are suspended for taking off and on for landing for 30-mintue for ultimate silence. Once the listening section is done, all the flights resume. Then, at 2:50pm Korean History section with research subject/other subjects continues. Finally, after the second foreign language section the exam sometimes end between 4:30pm to 5:40pm.
Picture Credits: Yonhap News
For the extremely rigorous and fateful college entrance exam that largely governs one’s future many Koreans follow a number of superstitions in hope of getting high score on the test like before taking any important exam. Such as, it’s a Korean tradition to avoid eating seaweed soup because there’s a belief that eating something slippery will make test-taker “slip” during the test and fail and avoid eating anything that contains cracked eggs as it’s believed to destroy the test result.
As a good luck charm many people give snacks like sticky rice cake, taffy and cholates as a gift for test-takers and even fork or a pair of tweezers to help them select the correct answers on the test. Many nervous parents spend the day crowding at Buddhist temple or Christian church, praying and holding special prayer sessions just for this exam. Many parents spend a large portion of their income to support their student’s education by spending around 600 USD per month for private tutor and about 20,000 USD per year for private high school. There are many Korean Dramas such as Sky Castle, School 2013, Moments at Eighteen and many more that shed light on the education system in Korea.
In fact, it’s hard to find any another country in the world that places greater emphasis on education than South Korea. In Korea, education is the key to social mobility, social importance and power. Graduates of Korea’s SKY universities (Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University) dominate the country and occupy the majority of high-ranking companies/government posts and management positions in powerful business conglomerates (chaebols).
Picture Credits: Seoul National University
How is the education system compared to your country? Tell us in the comments!