Silence. Military training ceases. No planes landing or taking off. The stock market opening an hour later. Banks and shops closed for a day. No trucks on the road. No noise from construction sites. – Everything stops for an important day in South Korea – 수능 Suneung .
I hope I’ve intrigued you to find out why South Korea becomes silent for a day, every year without fail.
What is 수능 Suneung?
The infamous 수능 ‘Suneung’ or College Scholastic Ability Tests (CSAT) is an 8-hour marathon of back to back exams which will not only determine where will the students go for university but it will also affect their job opportunities, income, lifestyle and even relationships in the future.
Every year, all across South Korea, half a million students sit for this exam for which they have been preparing their entire lives. Literally. They spend 12 years preparing for this one day.
Why is 수능 Suneung so important to South Koreas?
I know what you are thinking, it is just a school exam so why so much fuss over a school exam?
South Korea has one of the most highly educated people in the world.
One-third of people who don’t have jobs in South Korea own a university degree. It has been almost a decade that youth employment is at a high rate.
Most students in South Korea, are not just aiming for a good university but they are aiming for “Sky” – the collective name for South Korea’s three most reputable universities, Seoul, Korea, and Yonsei. These three universities are equivalent to Harvard, Oxford, Cambridge or Yale of South Korea.
About 70% of high school leavers will get into university, but fewer than 2% will reach the dizzy heights of a Sky institution.
One of the privileges of being in the “SKY” universities – it is one of the best ways to get a job at one of the highly influential family-run conglomerates known as “chaebol”, meaning “wealthy clan”.
South Korea’s economy is tied to these few huge dynasties including LG, Hyundai, SK Telecom, Lotte, and the largest of them all – Samsung.
학원 Hagwons – Cram Schools
Since the future of the students in South Korea is largely influenced by the outcome of that one single exam, preparation starts early.
A Korean student, Eun-Suh, has been preparing for this exam from the age of 4. She said she goes to school at 7:30 am to study by herself. Her classes begin at 9:00 am and lasts until 5:00 pm. After school, she eats dinner, goes to 학원 hagwon, then comes home around midnight.
학원 Hagwons, also known as “cram schools”, are revision classes run by private tutors – both in-person and online. In South Korea, there are more than 100,000 학원 hagwons. 80% of all Korean children both primary and secondary, attend a cram school.
Eun-Suh goes to 학원 hagwon 6 times in a week for extra Maths and English lessons. On the weekends, she even studies at the 독서실 dokseosil or known as the revision room.
독서실 Dokseosils are usually dark. They are designed to make you study alone, so each cubicle is surrounded by long curtains. You go in, turn on your lamp and study alone.
The Mystery of Exam Paper Setting
The making of the exam papers is mysterious. Every September, approximately 500 teachers all across South Korea are handpicked and driven to a secret location in the mountainous province of Gangwon.
For a month, their phones are confiscated and they are banned from having any form of contact with the outside world.
Students’ Mental Health
However, the 수능 Suneung has been heavily criticized because of its effects on students’ mental well being.
According to a psychiatrist from Seoul, Dr Kim Tae-hyung, Korean children are forced to study hard and compete with their friends. They are growing up alone because they are always studying by themselves.
This kind of isolation can cause depression and be a major factor in suicide.
In South Korea, suicide is the number cause of death for people aged between 10-30 years old.
Children start feeling nervous and anxious from a very young age. Even first-year elementary students talk about which job pays the most.
According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), South Korea also has the highest levels of stress among young people aged 11 to 15 compared with any other industrialized country in the world.
Have you heard about the 수능 Seneung examination? What are your thoughts about it? Do you think it is a little too extreme or if it’s normal? Let us know your thoughts in the comment below!
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