South Korea held its breath as nearly 650,000 high school seniors sat for the annual college entrance exam on Thursday , a moment so stressful that families and the country take extraordinary measures to make sure the students succeed. It’s a college entrance exam known as Suneung, and all South Korean high school seniors take it on the same day each year.
The Suneung is a standardized test much like the American SAT, only the five-part, multiple-choice exam takes nearly eight hours to complete, and the importance that Korean society places on it makes it far more intense.
Police escort students, younger students cheerlead, parents pray, businesses start late so students can commute easily to exam sites, and even commercial flights are left circling until key parts of the exam are over.
The national exam largely defines the future of students in this highly competitive society where more than 80 percent of high school graduates enter college. “A degree from a second-rate university is not enough,” said Minwoo Oh, who took the test for the fourth year and believes an entrance to a prominent university is crucial for his career. “I studied 11 hours every single day, slept only six hours or less.”
The big day started with tens of thousands of police patrolling the 1,257 exam centers nationwide. Business hours nationwide, including the stock market, began an hour late so that city traffic would clear up for students on the way to the exam sites. Students who did get stuck in traffic were allowed to call emergency numbers to request police escort rides before gates close at 8:10 a.m.
Sophomore and junior students, in accordance to tradition, lined up at the gates chanting good luck messages and handing out hot coffee or snacks. Churches and temples were filled with parents praying throughout the day for good results.
To ensure students take the test in a silent surrounding, South Korean military delayed or cancelled air force drills and live-firing exercises for the day. The Transportation Ministry also banned airport landings and departures for 40 minutes starting at 1 p.m., not to disturb students taking the English listening comprehension test.
Preparation for the exam start from an early age and parents invest enormous amount of time and money to provide extra education. Last year, South Korean parents spent $17.5 billion on additional tuition outside of the regular school curriculum, equivalent to almost 1.5 percent of the national GDP, according the Education Ministry.
Pressure for a college degree is so intense that news of students suffering from depression and committing suicide before and after the exam has been an annual ordeal. There were past reports of students jumping from apartments or hanging themselves during the week of the national exams, according to South Korean media.
The night after the exam is a festival for the students and their families with restaurants offering discounts and special menus, including McDonald’s “exam student package” of nine menus for just $10. Nightclubs waive entrance fees to all flashing their exam registration IDs.
- With Agency report