수능: The Korean SAT

Today is one of the most important and also scariest days of a Korean child’s life. Today is the second Thursday of November. Today is the day of the Suneung (수능), the KSAT.

The exam lasts from 8am until 5pm and includes many subjects such as: Korean language, English, science, history, social studies, math, vocational education, and an additional foreign language.

Unlike the SAT in America, the KSAT is only offered once a year. Right now, high school seniors across the entire country are sitting in silent classrooms and completing the exam that will determine the rest of their lives. If you fail the exam–or fail by not being accepted into the university of your choice–then you must wait a whole year to take the exam again.

The entire country gives way to this exam

Schools and businesses are urged to delay their opening so that there are less people and less traffic on the roads while the students are hurrying to their testing locations (which are typically not their own schools).

The stock market opens an hour late.

Students running late to the exam can call the police for ride to their exam. Handicap students can call an ambulance for a ride. Taxi drivers and people on motor bikes also give rides to students.

Teachers, administrators, and parents driving their children to the exam will have signs on their cars and are given the right away, even driving through red lights is OK.

Everyone is quite. Drivers of cars and buses are asked to drive more carefully today to reduce honking. Coffee shops, cell phone shops, and makeup stores which are usually blasting music out their doors are quiet. Airplanes are grounded in the entire country for 30 minutes while students are taking the English listening portion of the exam.

Families of those taking the exam climb mountains to special Buddhist temples or sit in churches all day to pray.

Reach for the S.K.Y.

During the Busan International Film Festival, I watched a documentary called “Reach for the S.K.Y.” which followed three students as they prepared to take this exam. S.K.Y. stands for the top three universities in Korea: Seoul National University, Korea University, Yonsei University. SKY is Korea’s Ivy League.

Only 1% will be accepted to one of these universities. There is so much pressure from society on Korean students to enter one of the SKY schools. Anything less is a failure. This is a small country, and the job market is very, very competitive. Graduates can spend years trying to get a job, or even an internship. Being a graduate from a SKY school means you have a much better chance of getting a great job quickly.

During this movie I could feel the stress put on the students. I cried a number of times, including when one teacher told his student that he had failed the practice test and will fail the upcoming KSAT because he got one question wrong.

Repeaters (those who fail the exam the first time) can attend academies where they live in dorms with other repeaters and study all day for a whole year to prepare for the exam.

Below is the trailer for Reach for the S.K.Y. The trailer alone can give you a sense of the stress students feel because of the exam.

Good luck to all the high school seniors taking the exam today! Hwaiting!

Additional reading:

Korean Herald: Korea enters full ‘Suneung’ mode

Arirang News: Over 630,000 applicants to take college entrance exam on Thursday

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