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The Korean Exam That Brings The Nation to a Halt

Every year in November, more than half a million high school students across South Korea sit for the examination of their life—the infamous Suneung or CSAT (College Scholastic Ability Test). It’s a grueling eight-hour session of back-to-back exams where students are tested on Korean, English, mathematics, social studies, history and sciences. It’s the single most important test any Korean student ever takes in their life. How they perform that day determines which university the student goes to, which in turn affects their job prospects, their income, where they live and even their marriage.

It’s such a critical exam that authorities try to accommodate as much as possible to make the day easier for the students. For that single day, the exam becomes the priority of the entire nation.

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Students take the annual College Scholastic Ability Test at a high school in Seoul. Photo credit: Ed Jones

On exam day, work start an hour late so that rush hour is delayed and roads are clear for students on their way to the exam. Sometimes police officers escort students to the examination centers. Shops, banks and even the stock market opens late. Air planes are grounded during the listening test so that students taking exams near the airport are not disturbed by planes taking off and landing. The entire country comes to a standstill.

Crowds of people, often younger classmates, teachers and friends line the streets to the exam center, singing and chanting, and offering chocolates and good luck tokens to the examinees. Nervous parents gather in temples and churches, clutching photos of their children and praying for their success.

The pressure to perform well in CSAT creates a frightening amount of stress and depression among students. Suicides are not unheard of.

“Most students do worse on the actual exam than the practice ones because there is so much pressure. Even students who did well on the practice tests will do badly on the day because of the nerves involved,” the 19-year-old Lee Yeon-soo told Aljazeera.


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Because there are only a handful of prestigious universities in the country, the competition is intense.

“The chances of getting into a really top school are the chances of you getting hit by lightning,” student Han Jae Kyung jokes.

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Students cheer for their seniors in front of a college entrance examination hall. Photo credit: Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

There is so much social pressure to attend the best colleges that many students take the test multiple times, which itself is a cause for shame as it indicates that the student is not intelligent enough.

Inability to perform according to their expectation, and sometimes to that of their parents, often drives students to suicides.

Preparing for the exam is a “life-consuming endeavour.”

“From 6pm to 10pm, we have after-school study sessions. We review what we learned that day and study for what we're going to learn the next day,” Lee Yeon-soo explains. “On the weekends, some of us have tuition. Some people go to five or six sessions. The government has made this law that the tuition centers should close by 10pm, but some still break the law and lock the doors after 10pm, but have university prep classes until 2am.”

"I feel like Koreans have a disease,” she laments. “The 'busy' disease. Students are busy studying all the time. They don't have a life away from studies. Schools have become a prison. I think this is a characteristic of being a Korean. It's like this for adults who work, too.”

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