The focus of Korean education is on preparing students for two important tests. One at the end of ninth grade determines whether a student goes to a vocational school, a first-rate public college-preparatory school, or an expensive private school. The other important test, which takes place at the end of the 12th grade, determines if a student will attend university, and decides which universities he or she will attend, and what subjects he or she can study there. The students with the highest scores attend the best universities and study subjects like medicine.

South Korea’s emphasis on education and taking tests has produced a formidable contingent of test takers as reflected by the high performance of South Korean students in global tests and rankings like PISA and TIMSS. Reeta Chakrabarti of the BBC wrote: “ As a quick test, a group of six teenagers — 15 and 16 year olds — from Ga-rak High School, Hye-Min's school, tried several questions from one of this year's GCSE maths papers. All of them finished the questions in half the expected time, four scored 100 percent, the other two dropped just one mark. They then went on to do some more questions just for fun. It's the sort of performance that makes education ministers in the UK and beyond look on with envy, and has them actively remodelling the curriculum and exams to try to emulate them. [Source: Reeta Chakrabarti, BBC News, December 2, 2013]

A college-bound high school student, in the late 1980s, typically rose at dawn, did a bit of studying before school began at 7:30 or 8:00 A.M., attended school until 5:00 P.M., had a quick dinner (often away from home), and then attended evening cramming classes that could last until 10:00 or 11:00 P.M. Sundays and holidays were devoted to more cramming. Because tests given in high school (generally once every two or four weeks) were almost as important in determining college entrance as the final entrance examinations, students had no opportunity to relax from the study routine. According to one contemporary account, a student had to memorize 60 to 100 pages of facts to do well on these periodic tests. Family and social life generally were sacrificed to the supreme end of getting into the best university possible. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

Getting Into University in South Korea

In the late 1980s, and still to a large degree today, the university a South Korean high school graduate attended was perhaps the single most important factor in determining his or her life chances. Thus, entrance into a prestigious institution was the focus of intense energy, dedication, and self-sacrifice. Prestigious institutions included the state-run Seoul National University, originally established by the Japanese as Seoul Imperial University in 1923, and a handful of private institutions such as Yonse University, Koryo University (more commonly called Korea University in English), and Ehwa Woman's University. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The university entrance exam is pretty much the sole criteria for getting into college: grades and extra curricular activities are ultimately not very important. The exams are multiple-choice achievement (not aptitude) tests presumably based on what they learned in 12 years of school. At one time only about half of all students pass the college entrance exam on their first try. Now they often don’t get a score good enough to get into the university they want to attend.

Many students who don’t get a high enough score to get into the university they want take the test again the next year. “I first felt ashamed,” Chung Yong-seok, 19, who is trying again for Korea University after being denied admission the previous year, told the New York Times. “I asked myself what I was doing in a place like this when all my friends were having a good time in college. But I consider a year in this place as an investment for a better future.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, August 16, 2008]

Because college entrance depends upon ranking high in objectively graded examinations, high school students face an "examination hell," a harsh regimen of endless cramming and rote memorization of facts (See Below). Unlike the Confucian civil service examinations of the Chosun Dynasty (also See Below), their modern reincarnation is a matter of importance not for an elite, but for the substantial portion of the population with middle-class aspirations. In the late 1980s, over one-third of college-age men and women (35.2 percent in 1989) succeeded in entering and attending institutions of higher education; those who failed faced dramatically reduced prospects for social and economic advancement.*

Anna Diamond wrote in The Atlantic: The Suneung (university entrance exam) “ isn’t the only way to get into university, but it is the most common and respected one. The alternative Susi process, not unlike the U.S. formula, usually requires “a good GPA, extracurricular activities (recognition, test scores, etc.), and either an interview [or] essay test,” explained Ye Dam. Dongyoung Shin, a 36-year-old who recently completed her masters at Yonsei, entered university through this non-traditional path, and said there’s a stigma associated with it; college acceptance via the Susi — and not the Suneung — is seen as the easy way in. [Source: Anna Diamond, The Atlantic November 17, 2016]

In the early 2000s, there was a scandal in which teachers were paid tens of thousands of dollars by parents to gain their children backdoor admission to some South Korea’s most prestigious universities. The scandal involved taking advantage of a special admission policy. In one case a teacher earned around US$500,000 in payments from 30 parents. Using forged certificates of graduation from overseas schools, the teacher was able to gain admittance of the students into South Korea best universities: Seoul National University, Yoneu University and Korea University.

History of Exams in South Korea

Anna Diamond wrote in The Atlantic: South Korea’s modern-day testing fixation has evolved over centuries, according to Michael Seth, the author of “Education Fever: Society, Politics, and the Pursuit of Schooling in South Korea” The Suneung has its roots in the civil-service exam that began in 10th-century Korea. Passing the exam and securing a job in the government guaranteed status. “Even if you weren’t attempting to enter into government service,” Seth said in an interview,“you wanted to be a degree holder to maintain the status of your family.” Informed by the special place Confucian scholars held in society, Seth explained, “education was a means to moral authority.” [Source: Anna Diamond, The Atlantic November 17, 2016]

The civil-service exam was abolished toward the end of the 19th century and, with the nation under Japanese colonial rule, Seth writes, “access to education beyond the elementary level was restricted as part of Korea’s subordinate status in the empire.” After the empire fell following World War II, illiteracy was widespread, with “less than 5 percent of the adult population [having] more than an elementary school education,” according to Education Fever. The only university in Korea at the time enrolled primarily Japanese students.

The modern form of the college-entrance exam came into being in the 1950s. And while the nation endured “political turmoil, economic chaos, and warfare,” Seth told me, it kept making progress in education. A large part of its success, he added, came from the state’s focused effort to raise its citizenry to a “shared standard of education” instead of focusing on its elite class, as had been the tradition before Japanese colonization. Within half-century after imperial rule ended, Seth writes, “90 percent [of students] graduated from high school. There were over 180 colleges and universities, and the proportion of college-age men and women enrolled in higher education was greater than in most European nations.”

Confucian Exam System

Korea puts a lot of emphasis on tests, a tradition established under Confucianism, which used tests of scholarship and philosophy to hire bureaucrats for the imperial court. In both the private sector and the public sector of modern Korea, promotions are often based on exams.

Donald N. Clark wrote in “Culture and Customs of Korea”: “In Confucian societies such as China and Korea, education was a prime qualification for leadership. This education was acquired at great effort and expense in village schools and in district schools under the stern discipline of learned teachers. In China, and also for almost a thousand years in Korea, the government staged examinations for students to test their mastery of the ideals they had studied in the Confucian classics. For most of the Chosun dynasty (1392-1910) there were lower examinations in the Confucian classics and in Chinese literary arts, the latter leading to a coveted chinsa ("presented scholar") degree. [Source: “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Greenwood Press, 2000]

Passers of the lower examinations next engaged in higher studies and took preliminary higher examinations in their respective provinces and then a capital examination in Seoul, at the end of which the top qualifiers were immediately appointed to government posts. The various civil examinations (munkwd) were held every three years and on additional occasions as needed. There were also military {mukwa) examinations. Passing the examinations, even at the lower or preliminary levels, was the chief qualification for membership in the aristocratic ruling class called the yangban.

“Any successful examination candidate was regarded with awe by family members and neighbors and enjoyed great social status, even if he did nothing more than reside in the ancestral village and teach in the local school, using his tuition income to buy land and maintain his family in comfort. Competitors for advancement in the higher levels of the examination system were objects of even more pride and celebration, with their yangban status rubbing off on relatives. Thus it was in everyone's interest to invest in education and success in the examinations. At the pinnacle of the system, official appointees were put into positions where they enjoyed substantial incomes from fees and gifts as well as their salaries, income that they typically reinvested in more land, increasing the basis of their family's wealth.

“The examination system was based on the Confucian idea that a society's most moral people should be its leaders, and that moral knowledge was best acquired through a study of philosophy, history, and literature. Becoming saturated with moral messages from the past was the best preparation for an uncertain future in which no one knew what would happen or what decisions would be required — except that in all things, the leaders would need to base their actions and decisions on sound moral judgment.

Exam Hell in South Korea

The long hours of study for university entrance exam is called "examination hell" and the expression "four hours pass, five hours fail" refers to the amount of sleep that can make or break a student studying for the test. During the years preceding the exam, students often lug home 20 pounds of books every day, study until 2:00am or 3:00am every night and wake up at 6:00am to do it again. Some students get grey hair when they are still in their teens. Others are pumped full of caffeine by their mothers at night and given apples printed with "I hope you pass."

Korean children study even harder than Japanese children. When I lived in South Korea, I was accompanied by uniformed school children on my bus when I left for work at 6:00am. When I worked in evenings and returned home at 10:00pm the same children I saw in morning were returning home from school. National Geographic journalist Boyd Gibbons describes children waiting in line a 4:00am on Sunday morning, not to buy ticket for a rock concert or sport event, but to get a ticket for a seat in a library.

The costs of the "examination hell" have been evident not only in a grim and joyless adolescence for many, if not most, young South Koreans. Also, the multiple choice format of periodic high school tests and university entrance examinations has left students little opportunity to develop their creative talents. A "facts only" orientation has promoted a cramped and unspontaneous view of the world that has tended to spill over into other areas of life than academic work. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990 *]

The pressure is often too much for some students. There are frequent reports of schoolchildren committing suicide. I personally read about an 18 year girl who hung herself on a roof, a 14-year-old girl who swallowed a bottle of insecticide and a 15-year-old boy who leaped from the top a 15-story building but landed on a the roof of a car and suffered only minor injuries. In 1995, there were 188 teenage suicide; in 1996, there were 191. Many of them were blamed on academic stress. Often suicides have been top achievers who despaired after experiencing a slump in test performance.

The New York Times reported: “In 2005, in the first rally of its kind, hundreds of high school students demonstrated in central Seoul, shouting, “We aren’t study machines!” They gathered to mourn 15 students from around the country who had killed themselves, apparently because of the intense pressure to succeed.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times, May 23, 2007]

Entrance Exams and Getting Middle School and High School in South Korea

Secondary school entrance exams were abolished because low-income voters complained they gave an advantage to children in rich families. According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “Traditionally, entrance examinations to individual high schools for most students were largely symbolic, as a middle school and high school carrying the same name were in effect a single entity sharing a single campus. Examinations were extremely challenging only for those who tried to move upward into a better-rated high school. The progress of a middle school graduate to high school was more the function of parents' financial ability. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“Entrance examinations by individual high schools were abolished in 1974. Instead, admission was based on middle school grade point average (GPA) and records and on the scores on the national qualifying or "selection" examination, established in order to limit the number of high school students.While successful applicants for general high schools are assigned to a school by a lottery system, applicants to vocational high schools compete based on the school's own examination or the student's middle school record.

“In actuality, however, the national selection examination has lately become meaningless, because the size of the group entering high school has been decreasing, thus no one is turned away from high school. In 1999, about 99.4 percent of middle school graduates advanced to high school, compared with 90.7 percent in 1985 (KNSO 61). The number of high school students, usually ages 15 to 18, in 1999 was 2,251,140, an increase of 5,590 percent over their total of 40,271 in 1951. (High school teachers numbered 105,304 in 1999 compared with 1,720 in 1951 — an increase of 6,122 percent.)

“Since 1995, high schools have been able to consider many factors besides selection examination scores in admissions. A new phenomenon for private schools is their right to self-governance, which allows for operation and maintenance by a school foundation and by student tuition and fees. Since 1998, private schools, if they so desire, have been given the right to set tuition and select students themselves; in such a case they would lose their customary government subsidy (MOE 2000, 62). Since 1998, some cities or provinces have started to admit new high school students based simply on their Middle School Activities Records. Students are also to have much greater opportunities in selecting their schools.

“In 1969 entrance examinations by individual middle schools were abolished and all applicants have been assigned to schools near their residence by lottery in an effort to democratize secondary education. Before then, middle schools had clearly been ranked. A person's eventual elite status was guaranteed upon his or her admission to a top-ranked middle school such as Kyonggi Boys' or Kyonggi Girls' Middle School in Seoul. The school bond continues to be so strong and prestigious that, even decades after abolition of the middle school entrance examination, an older person's worth is measured by the secondary school he or she attended.

University Entrance Exam in South Korea

The College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT, also abbreviated Suneung) is the standardized test recognized by South Korean universities that South Korean students take to get into college. Administered by the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation (KICE), the test is held annually on the third Thursday in November. Although it was originally designed to assess the scholastic ability required for college, the CSAT is currently a national graduation test for high-school students. It determines which university a student can enter and thus plays an important role in South Korean education and society. The test has crediting for being efficient and rewarding merit, and good international results. About 600,000 people take the test every year. Most but not all are high school seniors. Each year about 20 percent of those taking the test and high-school graduates who failed to achieve their desired result the previous year. [Source: Wikipedia ]

According to AFP: “Success in the exam — which teenage South Koreans spend years preparing for — means a place in one of the elite colleges seen as key to a future career and even marriage prospects. For most of their school lives, South Korean students study late into the night — often at costly, private cram schools — to stay ahead in the rat race for admission to top universities. The pressure to score well in the exam has been blamed for teenage depression and suicide rates that are among the highest in the world. One 18-year-old undergoing treatment for cancer insisted on leaving his hospital bed to take the test. [Source: Agence France-Presse, November 17, 2016]

The test lasts from around 8:40am to 5:00pm. By comparison, the major college-entrance tests in the United States, the SATs and ACTs, take about four hours each. The students in Korea mark their answers in multiple-choice answer sheets with pens rather than number 2 pencils. During the crucial listening part of the exam, planes are ordered not to take off or land, and buses and trains were ordered to stop running so that the students will not be disturbed by their noise. Even the American military pitches in by cancelling all exercises until the tests are over. Anxious mothers stand outside the testing center all day.

the examination itself is regarded as fair. Everyone takes the same test, which relies on the multiple choice system to prevent subjective marking. Security is very tight. The hundreds of people involved in making the exam are sequestered for more than a month in a secret location, and are only allowed to leave once the test has been taken. [Source: AFP, November 24, 2014]

A new exam is put together every year by a group of 150 or so university professors, high school teachers and educators who were sequestered in a hotel with 5,000 books for 30 days while the exam is prepared. Armed guards and barbed wire are placed around the hotel, elevators and stairways are sealed, all the phone lines are cut except for an emergency hot line, and no people are allowed in or out of the building unless they have thoroughly searched. Even the Minister of Education is frisked and test preparers are not allowed to leave the hotel until after the test has been administered.

Importance of the South Korean University Entrance Exam

Each year about 600,000 students take South Korea’s university entrance exam. In the late 1990s almost 900,000 students took it. Only 15,000 or so get a score good enough to into one of the top three schools. According to The Economist: The day of the university exams “is the most important day in most South Koreans' lives. The single set of multiple-choice tests that students take that day determines their future. Those who score well can enter one of Korea's best universities, which has traditionally guaranteed them a job-for-life as a high-flying bureaucrat or desk warrior at a chaebol (conglomerate). Those who score poorly are doomed to attend a lesser university, or no university at all. They will then have to join a less prestigious firm and, since switching employers is frowned upon, may be stuck there for the rest of their lives. Ticking a few wrong boxes, then, may mean that they are permanently locked out of the upper tier of Korean society. [Source: The Economist, December 17, 2011]

“Making so much depend on an exam has several advantages for Korea. It is efficient: a single set of tests identifies intelligent and diligent teenagers, and launches them into society's fast stream. It is meritocratic: poor but clever Koreans can rise to the top by studying very, very hard. The exam's importance prompts children to pay attention in class and parents to hound them about their homework; and that, in turn, ensures that Korea's educational results are the envy of the world. The country is pretty much the leading nation in the scoring system run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). In 2009 it came fourth after Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong, but those are cities rather than full-sized countries.

A poll by CLSA, a stockbroker, found that 100 percent of Korean parents want their children to go to university. Anna Diamond wrote in The Atlantic: “The best result: on the university entrance exam “ is admission to one of the country’s top universities: Seoul National University, Korea University, or Yonsei University. Those who don’t do well, don’t pass, or aren’t satisfied with their score can retake the test — in one year. That’s after 12 years of education spent preparing to take it the first time, the last three of which involve hours of extra study time daily in a sprint toward the Suneung. [Source: Anna Diamond, The Atlantic November 17, 2016]

Whereas for most South Korean students, the Suneung is the determining factor for where they go to college, in the United States, SAT or ACT test scores make up a smaller portion of the admissions decision — and there are hundreds of universities and colleges moving away from considering the scores at all. Given the stakes, the preparation for and discussion surrounding the Suneung in South Korea can be, as Ye Dam Yi, a recent college graduate who works for a trade company in Seoul, described it, apocalyptic. “Most teachers emphasize that if we failed Suneung, the rest of our lives would be failure, because the test is the first (and last) step to our successful lives,” said Sina Kim, a 25-year-old currently looking for a job. The exam is seen as “the final goal and final determinant of our lives. We thought that if we successfully finish the test, then the bright future would automatically follow.”

History of University Admissions and Entrance Exams in South Korea

In 1993, the government made multiple choice test the most important criteria for getting into university so that universities couldn’t set their own admission policies. It replaced exams that students took in each subject. In the early 2000s, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung called for an end to the standardized national entrance exams and allowing each university to set its own admission policies and take into consideration things like grades and extracurricular activities but the university entrance exam endured and if anything became more important.

According to the “World Education Encyclopedia”: “The college entrance examination is fiercely competitive, and Korea is probably the only country in which numbers of applicants to specific schools are announced daily by public media during the application period, as candidates are frantically calculating the probability of their matriculation at choice institutions. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

“The college entrance system has become a public issue, especially since the disappearance of entrance examinations for secondary schools. College admission policies have been changed more than 10 times since 1945. Initially (1945-1953), college admission was based uniquely on applicants' national test scores; later, high school grades were also considered. These criteria have put tremendous pressure on students and their parents, as whole families go through "examination hell." Students concentrate all their energy on test preparation, and families sacrifice much time and money to support their college preparatory students, trying to improve the study environment, provide private tutoring, and help in other ways.

“Since the early 1990s, higher educational institutions have generally used "total" or "comprehensive entrance examination scores," which include the results of aptitude tests and students' high school profiles. Until then, college admission was largely based on individual schools' achievement tests. In 1988, MOE embarked on reforming the college entrance examination system to reflect changes in the educational and social environments. In 1993, MOE started to administer the CSAT once a year nationally in an effort to provide reliable and objective data in selecting students for colleges and universities, hoping to improve the quality of high school education as a result (KICE). Since 1998, electives have been added, including mathematics, sciences, and foreign languages besides English. In general, the CSAT score is one of the most important pieces of data for college level admission, counting 40 percent of the total scores in the decision process.

“To promote the autonomy of higher educational institutions and to reform examination oriented high school education, a new entrance examination system went into effect in 1994. Public institutions obligatorily weighted high school grades at 40 percent but were allowed leeway concerning the CSAT and their own entrance examinations. As of 2002, the Korean Military Academy most heavily weighs CSAT scores (70 percent) in admissions, along with high school activity record (20 percent) and interview (10 percent).

“A special policy applies to foreigners and Korean nationals returning from a sojourn of longer than two years abroad. Each college or university may admit 2 to 10 percent of total incoming students from this pool; in 2000, 5,249 students at 127 colleges and universities benefited. Each institution sets its own criteria, but in general these students are exempt from certain subjects or allowed a lower passing score for such courses. Usually, subjects tested include Korean, mathematics, foreign languages, and expository writing (essay), with interviews part of the selection process. Information on this policy's implementation by institutions is collected and published by MOE and distributed to embassies, consulates, and overseas Korean schools (MOE).

Studying for the South Korean University Entrance Exam

On preparing for the South Korean university entrance exam, Anna Diamond wrote in The Atlantic: There is “intense pressure on all students, who according to Seth prepare “from kindergarten till they’re a senior in high school.” Once the students enter high school in 10th grade, the studying intensifies. A typical day, former South Korean students told me, consists of around 10 hours of school, a quick dinner break, and the rest of the evening spent in mandatory study halls until 10 p.m. Students might return home to continue studying or head to hagwons, cram schools. Se-Woong Koo worked at a cram school and described the experience in The New York Times: “Hagwons are soulless facilities, with room after room divided by thin walls, lit by long fluorescent bulbs, and stuffed with students memorizing English vocabulary, Korean grammar rules and math formulas.” [Source: Anna Diamond, The Atlantic November 17, 2016]

The Economist reported: “Two months before the day of his exams Kim Min-sung, a typical student, was monosyllabic and shy. All the joy seemed to have been squeezed out of him, to make room for facts. His classes lasted from 7am until 4pm, after which he headed straight for the library until midnight. He studied seven days a week. “You get used to it,” he mumbled. His parents have spent much of Min-sung's life worrying about his education. His father, a teacher, taught him how to manage his time: to draw up a plan and stick to it, so as to complete as much revision as possible without collapsing exhausted on the desk. His mother kept him fuelled with “delicious food” and urged him to “study more, but not too much”. [Source: The Economist, December 17, 2011]

“Min-sung says he doesn't particularly want to go to university, but he feels “social pressure” to do so. He dreams of getting a job as an agent for sports stars, which would not obviously require a university degree. But he reluctantly accepts that in Korea, “You can't get [any] job without a degree.” Min-sung's happiest time was playing football with his friends during the lunch hour. Every child in his school dashes to the cafeteria when the bell goes and gulps down the noodles like a wolf in a hurry. The quicker they eat, the more precious minutes of freedom each day will contain.”

The college entrance exam is usually held a few months before the school year is finished, which mean that for high school seniors little gets done in those final weeks. The students no longer have incentive to study and many of them skip class and go shopping and patronize arcades, restaurants and bars. Students retaking the college entrance exams in some cases do so using a public computer during recess at school;

Praying for Good Test Scores

Before the university entrance test in South Korea, to improve the odds of the children doing well, mothers make offerings at temples, pray to Buddha for a good score and buy chocolates with "pass the test" printed on them. According to one survey 40 percent of Korean parents refrain from sex while their children are preparing for the college entrance exam. Grandparents give the students two-foot-long chocolate axes and forks that help them “spear” the right answers.

For good luck male students keep women's underwear and steal chrome plated car letters ("S" for Seoul National University, South Korea's best, "V" for victory and "III" for 300, the best score). Girl students carry a lucky cushion, Buddhist rosary bracelets and charts drawn up by fortunetellers. At Buddhist temples lanterns are hung with the names and birthdays of students who will be taking the test.

Some mothers pray all night Buddhist temples in an effort to help the children get good score. Describing such a woman praying at a Buddhist temple Valerie Reitman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “Clasp hands in prayer, Bow. Down on knees. Head on floor, Back on haunches. Clasp hands in prayer. Begin again.. By midnight, Na had already bowed 2000 times, aching but determined to persevere.” Others at the temple had prayed every day for 100 days and the all-night session was the climax.

Test Day for South Korea’s University Entrance Exam

On test day of the South Korean university entrance exam, high schools seniors and others march off to the test centers before weeping mothers and younger children beating on gongs and shouting encouragement to them. Students running late are delivered to the test site by police and military vehicles with their siren running. Student laid up in the hospital, are given the test by a special examiner in the hospital. Anxious mothers stand outside the testing center all day.

Elise Hu of NPR wrote: “On the streets Thursday morning, you could hear more sirens than usual, because anyone running late to the competitive exam can call for a free police escort to rush them straight to the test site. The students are greeted at test centers by cheering squads of underclassmen, who carry signs and bang on pots and pans to support the students when they arrive. "I came here [at] 5:30 a.m.," said cheer squad leader Chansoo Park. He's junior class president at Ichon High School. "There's a lot of students so we have to take a good spot." The message the cheering squads give to their fellow students? "Relax and get good grades so they will not take the test again next year," Chansoo Park says. [Source: Elise Hu, All Things Considered, NPR.org, November 12, 2015]

Anna Diamond wrote in The Atlantic: “As students walked to the exam centers, well-wishers handed out “yut” — a type of taffy and a sign of good luck, so that test-takers would “stick” to the university they want. Some of the students’ parents prayed at churches and temples... Businesses delayed opening to keep traffic off the streets... It’s as if the entire nation of South Korea is focused on getting students to the test and making sure they do as well as they can. [Source: Anna Diamond, The Atlantic November 17, 2016]

AFP reported: The exam, which is being taken at 1,183 venues nationwide at about 9am, ends on Thursday evening. TV news channels showed nervous-looking students walking into the test venues after tearful hugs with parents, as hundreds of younger students cheered on their senior classmates. With so much at stake, thousands of parents have flocked to temples and churches to pray, with monks and pastors holding special sessions for students. News networks offered recipes for special lunches which are easily digestible and contain ingredients supposed to boost mental concentration. The three main candidates campaigning for South Korea's presidential election on December 19 each sent messages of encouragement to students. [Source: AFP, November 9, 2012; November 17, 2016]

Life Grinds to Halt on University Entrance Exam Day

On university entrance exam day in South Korea, offices and the stock market opens an hour late and the central bank has delayed interest rate-setting meetings. Drivers stay off the roads. The police are high alert for student-related emergencies. During the crucial listening part of the exam, planes are grounded — ordered not to take off or land — and buses and trains were ordered to stop running so that the students will not be disturbed by their noise. Even the American military pitches in by cancelling all exercises until the tests are over.

On test day 2016, AFP reported: “South Korea fell silent on Thursday with heavy trucks banned and businesses opening late as more than 600,000 students sat the annual college entrance exam, which could define their future in the ultra-competitive country. Transport authorities halted all airport landings and take-offs for 30 minutes in the afternoon to coincide with the main language listening test. Work at many construction sites was suspended and large trucks were banned from the roads near test venues. [Source: Agence France-Presse,November 17, 2016]

On test day 2012, AFP reported: “Military training was suspended, flights rescheduled and emergency calls reserved for latecomers as hundreds of thousands of South Korean students sat a crucial college entrance examination. Police cars and motorbikes in cities across South Korea were put on standby, available for any students needing to make a late dash to take their seats before the exam began at 8:40 am. In one case, police responded to a distress call from a father whose car had blown a tyre and hit a railing as he was driving his 18-year-old daughter to the test. The police took the student to a nearby hospital for treatment before rushing her to the exam center. [Source: AFP, November 9, 2012]

More than 668,500 students took the day-long standardised college scholastic ability test at 1191 centers nationwide, the education ministry said. Aviation authorities said 83 flights had been rescheduled to avoid noisy landings and take-offs during language listening tests in the morning and afternoon. The stockmarket's opening and closing was delayed by an hour while many government offices and private companies opened late to ease rush-hour traffic so that students could arrive at test centers on time.

Problems with the South Korean University Entrance Exam

South Korea’s university entrance exam takes its toll students and their parents — and arguably society as a whole. Elise Hu of NPR wrote: “Success is defined narrowly. Get a high score on the Suneung to get into a high-ranked school. Go to a good school to get hired at a South Korean chaebol — the term for a mighty mega-conglomerate, like Samsung. They power the Korean economy. "There is this sense that, 'Oh, you're going to fail at life unless you do well in this exam,'" said Daniel Tudor, a former Economist correspondent in South Korea and author of Korea: The Impossible Country. "To live in modern South Korea is to live with constant pressure. The Suneung exam, it's an emblem," he says. "I think I've been preparing since elementary school," says senior Im Hayoon. "I studied about10 hours every day." "Korea is very hierarchical, so if you're seen as someone who's not succeeded, you're really made to feel second class," he says. [Source: Elise Hu, All Things Considered, NPR.org, November 12, 2015]

Anna Diamond wrote in The Atlantic: “The government’s own survey found in 2014 that South Korean children were the least happy among those of 30 countries studied, most of them in the OECD, with the Health Ministry citing “academic stress” as “the most relevant factor.” In 2014, South Koreans spent US$18 billion on private education to better their children’s chances on the Suneung — an amount three times the OECD average. A South Korean newspaper, The Hankyoreh, noted that South Korea’s spending figure in 2014 marked the “the highest rate in the organization for a fourteenth straight year, and evidence of the country’s still-heavy reliance on private spending for public education.” [Source: Anna Diamond, The Atlantic November 17, 2016]

Another complaint is that the exam, the score, and university acceptance form such an acute focal point in the South Korean education system that all other aspects of scholarship seem to fall aside. Dongyoung recalls, “In my three years of high school, not once did any teacher ask me what I would like to do or what I would like to study in college. No one really cared about my interest or what I’d be better at.”

Evolution and Reforms the Exam System in South Korea

Lee Ju-ho, a minister of education until 2013, told the Washington Post: “All this late-night study” for the university entrance exam “could lead to problems in enhancing their other skills, like character, creativity and critical thinking. Hagwon is all about rote learning and memorization.” Lee said all the problems stem from the college admissions procedures, which have been slow in looking beyond test scores to other criteria such as extracurricular activities and personal essays, as is common in many Western countries. “We really need to change,” said Lee, who is now a professor at the Korea Development Institute’s School of Public Policy and Management. [Source: Anna Fifield, Washington Post, December 30, 2014]

In the early 2000s, Young-Key Kim-Renaud wrote in the “World Education Encyclopedia”: As students compete fiercely for limited college spots, studying for tests is far more important than trying to build one's character. In a major reform program, MOE thus proposed a new college entrance system called the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) to root out these problems and to cultivate students' individual talents and characteristics. The CSAT has three versions, one for students on the humanities track, the science track, and the sports and arts tracks. The new system has been conceived under the slogan of "diversification, specialization, and professionalization," which allows each university or college to develop its own admissions criteria. Each may require varying application materials from students to determine their talents, such as School Activities Records, essays, interviews, and letters of recommendation. Applicants with unusual circumstances, such as living in a rural area or fishing village, being an orphan, or winning prizes at concerts, may receive preference. This reform measure is intended to enhance creative and professional human resources, to ensure more flexible primary and secondary schooling, and to lessen the need for private tutoring. [Source: Young-Key Kim-Renaud, “World Education Encyclopedia”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

The traditionally way of thinking is that the great virtue of facts-based testing is its objectivity. Though harsh, the system is believed to be fair and impartial. The use of nonobjective criteria such as essays, personal recommendations, and the recognition of success in extracurricular activities or personal recommendations from teachers and others could open up all sorts of opportunities for corruption. In a society where social connections are extremely important, connections rather than merit might determine entry into a good university. Students who survive the numbing regimen of examinations under the modern system are at least universally acknowledged to have deserved their educational success. Top graduates who have assumed positions of responsibility in government and business have lent, through their talents, legitimacy to the whole system.*

Following the assumption of power by General Chun Doo Hwan in 1980, the Ministry of Education implemented a number of reforms designed to make the system more fair and to increase higher education opportunities for the population at large. In a very popular move, the ministry dramatically increased enrollment at large. The number of high school graduates accepted into colleges and universities was increased from almost 403,000 students in 1980 to more than 1.4 million in 1989. This reform decreased, temporarily, the acceptance ratio from one college place for every four applicants in 1980 to one for every three applicants in 1981. In 1980 the number of students attending all kinds of higher educational institutions was almost 600,000; that number grew almost 100 percent to 1,061,403 students by 1983. By 1987 there were 1,340,381 students attending higher educational institutions. By 1987 junior colleges had an enrollment of almost 260,000 students; colleges and universities had an enrollment of almost 990,000 students; other higher education institutions enrolled the balance.*

A second reform was the prohibition of private, after-school tutoring. Formerly, private tutors could charge exorbitant rates if they had a good "track record" of getting students into the right schools through intensive coaching, especially in English and in mathematics. This situation gave wealthy families an unfair advantage in the competition. Under the new rules, students receiving tutoring could be suspended from school and their tutors dismissed from their jobs. There was ample evidence in the mid-1980s, however, that the law had simply driven the private tutoring system underground and made the fees more expensive. Some underpaid teachers and cash-starved students at prestigious institutions were willing to run the risk of punishment in order to earn as much as W300,000 to W500,000 a month. Students and their parents took the risk of being caught, believing that coaching in weak subject areas could give students the edge needed to get into a better university. By the late 1980s, however, the tutorial system seemed largely to have disappeared.*

A third reform was much less popular. The ministry established a graduation quota system, in which increased freshman enrollments were counterbalanced by the requirement that each four-year college or university fail the lowest 30 percent of its students; junior colleges were required to fail the lowest 15 percent. These quotas were required no matter how well the lowest 30 or 15 percent of the students did in terms of objective standards. Ostensibly designed to ensure the quality of the increased number of college graduates, the system also served, for a while to discourage students from devoting their time to political movements. Resentment of the quotas was widespread and family counterpressures intense. The government abolished the quotas in 1984.

South Korean Exam Chief Resigns over Errors on the College Test

In November 2014, South Korea’s education minister apologised and the head of the national exam board resigned after conceding there were errors in two questions in that year’s university entrance exam. There had been a flood of complaints from students and parents about the errors. "I express deep regret and recognise an urgent need to improve the question-making process," education minister Hwang Woo-yea said in a televised statement. "We will investigate the root cause of the problem."[Source: AFP, November 24, 2014]

The uproar was over the two multiple-choice questions — one in the biology exam and one in the English language paper. AFP reported: The authorities agreed that the questions were faulty and announced they would accept two possible answers as correct in each case. South Korean media reports estimated that as many as 4,000 students would receive a higher overall grade as a result of the decision.

“With so many taking the exam — and so many scoring highly — one small error can put a student on the wrong side of the extremely thin cut-off line for a top university. "This whole episode really illustrates the reality faced by South Korean teenagers, and the enormous pressure they are under," said Park Sang-hee, a Seoul-based education counsellor. "Students and their parents dedicate more than 10 years of their lives preparing for this exam, and a stupid mistake like this can end up completely changing their life path," Ms Park said.

Kim Sung-hoon, head of the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation (KICE) which administers the exam, said he would resign. "We did our best this year to prevent erroneous questions ... but again there were faulty questions, causing chaos and inconvenience among exam takers, their parents and teachers," Mr Kim said.“He was the third head of the KICE to resign over problems with the national test. A similar row over a question in the geography paper in 2013 took a lot longer to resolve. The year-long legal battle only ended last month, when the Seoul high court ruled in favour of four students who argued the question was fundamentally flawed. Dodgy questions aside, KICE receives numerous complaints every year about the handling of the exam — many of them focused on the allegedly "distracting" behaviour of the invigilators. These have included complaints about the noise made by monitors with high heels, "excessive sniffling" by those with colds and the use of overpowering perfume.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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