South Korea’s Suneung
November 22, 2022
On the third Thursday of November, the country collectively comes to silence with halted airports, military training and construction sites, delayed openings of the stock market, banks and local stores, and special lookouts by police and taxis. These momentary suspensions are enforced across South Korea in consideration for all the high school students taking the nine-hour college entrance exam, the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), most often referred to as “Suneung” (수능).
On this day, high school seniors head to school to take the notorious exam that will soon determine their future. With such a crucial test on the line, nationwide precautions and courtesies are shown throughout the community; taxis and police officers offer to drive tardy students and citizens start their day later to prevent traffic for the test takers. Sick or injured students are granted the opportunity to take the test in their relative hospitals with inspectors and nearby care. Parents and guardians of the students are often found in churches, temples or other religious buildings throughout the day, praying for their children.
The test promptly starts at 8:40 a.m. and ends at 5:45 p.m., a nine-hour test marathon. Suneung is divided into six sections: Korean, mathematics, English, Korean history, subordinate subjects and Chinese or a secondary language of choice.
Although the day may seem like an ordinary exam day, the preparations that come behind this test are quite abnormal. Behind this exam are years of prior planning and countless hours of studying. Simply attending and learning from school curricula will not do the job of receiving a recognized, or even accepted, score by colleges.
A significant part of a Korean student’s life involves Hagwon (하권), or private educational institutes. South Korean families spend over 18 trillion Won, or $15 billion, on private education annually, tripling the average country’s expenditure and marking its peak to any other country in the world. There are nearly 100,000 Hagwons in the country with over 80% of both primary and secondary students attending these private academies about six times a week.
Children are introduced to this strict academic lifestyle as early as elementary and middle school. Being placed with high expectations at such an early age, they begin preparing for this exam years ahead. A day in their life typically includes self-studying in the morning, classes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Hagwon to follow until 10 p.m. and self-studying at night.
Beyond their studies at school, at Hagwon and at home, the students must also build their endurance for the exam. As the exams test their test-taking abilities and time sensitivity, students must adapt to the long hours of focus and practice mock exams.
“[Test administrators] don’t make tests for kids to learn, they make tests for kids to fail,” says Yoobin Nam, a current Korean high school senior preparing to take the Suneung on November 17th, 2022. She comments on the great obstacles of adjusting from American to Korean education, believing education in the United States is fairly easy in comparison to the rigorous academic life in South Korea.
Suneung was created to differentiate the top of the class. As the test is designed to make it nearly impossible to earn full points, nine students of the half-million test takers have achieved perfect scores in the 2018 Suneung, highlighting the exceptional difficulty of the exam and its rarity of a perfect score.
With the exam primarily conducted for university admission, higher scores promise a higher chance of being admitted to a more prestigious college. Especially for those aiming for a perfect score, the top students strive and compete for the Sky universities: Seoul, Korea, and Yonsei University. These reputable schools are seen as the “Ivy League Universities” of South Korea.
With limited spots in the workforce of South Korea, universities ultimately determine students’ ease of finding a job, and therefore, as many see it, their future.
Having their future at risk, the cycle of academics for the students continues and is the greatest factor in causing teenagers stress and burden. It is no coincidence that suicide is now the number one leading cause of death for people between the ages of 10 to 30 in South Korea. The non-stop hours of studying and learning, the overwhelming pressure from parents and relatives and society’s academic standards all contribute to the overwhelming stress that the young community experiences.
This highly competitive reality all ties back to the nine-hour exam. And this accepted reality almost justifies the preparation they must build their entire lives for the exam. This exam is Suneung.