It must be pretty tough to be a high school kid in Korea. First, you have to go to school from 8 in the morning until 10 at night. Then you come home to parents who push you to study later into the night, usually 1 or 2, according to my students. And after three years of this it all boils down to one single test, the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT, 대학수학능력시험 aka 수능, suneung).
The suneung is a damn hard exam. It starts at 8.40am, and doesn’t finish until 6.30pm. It consists of seven sections: Korean, Maths, English, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, Occupational Sciences and a Second Foreign Language. These are further subdivided into sub-categories (social sciences has 11 subjects such as history, geography etc.). Every question is multiple choice, every multiple choice question has 5 options.
On suneung day (usually the second week of November) everybody in Seoul goes to work an hour later than usual to avoid creating traffic for students going to the exam centres. Flights are delayed until after the listening section of the exam is finished, and police are employed to secure schools to avoid cheating or interference. Here in Taebaek it’s a smaller affair, but it has been an interesting spectacle to see 1st and 2nd graders gather at the gate to the school to cheer on their schoolmates going in to the exam at 8 in the morning. Parents stay all day praying or waiting in cars for their sons to come out of the exam hall and whisk them away to a spa or restaurant to conclude one of the most important days in their lives.
The preparations for the exam are even more extreme. The teachers who write the test (total 690 people) are closeted away for 32 days in a mountain resort without internet or phones. There they write the test in absolute secrecy – in the history of the test no questions have ever been leaked before the exam – and are released on the day of the exam. This year a 55 year old test writer died 2 days before the exam of a heart attack in the mountain resort.
The high school i’ve worked at for the past two years is a mid-level academic school. Only a handful of students make it to the prestigious universities in Seoul (know as SKY – Seoul University, Korea University and Yonsei University) each year. The competition to enter these universities is so great that you need an almost perfect grade to get in. In my school most final year students would study for 18 hours a day and sleep for just 4 – 5 hours a night in order to prepare for the test. Exercise, dating and hobbies are cast away by most final year students, replaced by gruelling study regimes enforced by teachers, tutors and mostly by parents.
What university you attend in Korea affects your standing in society much more so than back home, and both students and their parents obsess about getting a high enough grade to enter a reputable university. There has been much talk of reforms to the test to reduce its severity, and a whole different English curriculum is in the planning, but in 2 years here of all the talk i’ve heard of reform, nothing has changed.
And it’s the universities and the chaebol who apparently are holding back reform to the test. Korean universities pride themselves in their high entry standards and ‘international standing’ (although Seoul University, the best in the country, ranks 124th in the world, while Trinity College Dublin – Ireland’s top uni – is 117th).
So back to the suneung itself – as a native english speaker, how well do you think you’d do if you took the English section of the test? How about giving it a try – here it is:
(Questions 1 – 17 are listening questions, the rest are reading comprehension)