Ahn Young-joon/AP
South Korean high school students arrive as junior students chant for their seniors' success
in exams at Duck Soo High School in Seoul in a 2007 file photo.

South Korea Holds Its Breath as Students Take Entrance Exam

November 13, 2008 07:57 AM
by Shannon Firth
In South Korea, when students take the annual college entrance exam the country changes flight schedules, runs extra buses, and even delays the stock market’s opening.

Entrance Exam Day Hits South Korea

Thursday morning, 590,000 South Korean students took their 9-hour university entrance exam. Success on this exam today can determine an individual’s salary 30 years from now, according to the International Herald Tribune.

Some argue the university entrance exams are fair and offer equal opportunities for all students, while others say the pressure-cooker environment is too intense. Either way, the tremendous impact of the exams makes them the primary concern of parents and workers throughout the country. Some parents began praying for their children’s success at churches and temples 100 days in advance of the test. Many carried prayer books with their child’s photo pasted inside and attended all night vigils.

The government also tried to optimize conditions for the test-takers by minimizing noise and traffic: schools were closed and the stock market and all government offices opened late. On Wednesday, The Korea Times reported that subways and buses would run more frequently than normal to help students reach testing centers on time. It also reported that 125 domestic and international flights were forced to alter their takeoff schedules during the exam’s listening portion.

The Wall Street Journal noted that answers to all the exam’s questions would be published in the evening newspaper. Students who don’t do well and aren’t admitted to their preferred schools will often repeat the test. The International Herald Tribune explored the Jongro Yongin Campus in South Seoul, just one of approximately 50 boarding schools, known as “cram schools,” designed to help students focus exclusively on studying. “The atmosphere is almost military,” the Tribune reported. “[H]alls are closely monitored, baggage is checked, and cell phones confiscated. Even books are confiscated if they aren’t part of the curriculum.”

The rules at cram schools are strict. Fashion magazines, Internet, TV and any interaction between boys and girls beyond conversation about the exam are all forbidden. Classes are held seven days a week; students are woken by instructors at 6:30 a.m., classes begin at 7:30 a.m., and they continue until midnight with only a one-hour free period. On weekends, the morning wake-up call is delayed one hour and students are granted a second hour of free period.

Most students in these schools have already taken their exams once and are studying to improve their scores. Woo Ji Woon, a student at Jongro Yongin, told the Tribune, “Students here are in the same situation. We all have tasted failure—so we can understand and sympathize with each other.”

That sympathy does not always help alleviate the intense pressure to perform well on the entrance exam. According to the Tribune, suicide is second only to car accidents as the most common cause of death for children between the ages of 10 and 19.

Background: Design and merit of South Korean entrance exams

Each year, the South Korean Education Ministry sequesters the 400 professors and teachers who conceive, prepare, and verify exam questions. The team is housed in a resort surrounded by police. Cell phones and Internet use are restricted and the phone calls the group is allowed to make are monitored. Finalizing the creation of the year’s exams offers little respite; no one is allowed leave the test preparation center until after the exams have been administered.

In the past year, however, the South Korean government appeared to be moving toward a more Western-style admission process, including essays. To that end, the government has provided 40 universities with the funds to hire admissions officers, which were not necessary under an admissions system based strictly on test scores. Yu Myung-cheol, vice president for admissions at Kyungpook National University in Daegu, supports this decision. Myng-cheol told The Wall Street Journal, “I think focusing too much on the one-day test should be changed.”

Other South Koreans like Choi Set-byol, a sociology professor at Ewha Womans University, believes that introducing more subjective admission standards would make the evaluation process less fair: “Education is the last fortress through which everyone, regardless of their current status, can ascend to a higher social status.”

Opinion & Analysis: Suicide among students

According to The Korea Times, in the past year, compared with other countries in the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), 15 year-old Korean students placed first in education and reading comprehension, second highest in math and seventh in science. Unfortunately, the nation also has the highest suicide rate.

Choi Hyeun-sun, a high school senior, writes in the Times, “Being a high school student myself, I wanted to commit suicide not once, but many times. What I needed at those times were not special lessons to recover my scores nor harsh scolding, but people or even a person who could understand and share my feelings.”

Peter Schurmann, a writer for the blog New American Media, cited The Korea Times’ report that suicide in South Korea increased by 90.8 percent between 1997 and 2007. According to Schurmann, 60 percent of all suicides occur in Asia. He explained, “In Korea, and much of Asia, there’s this notion of face. That maybe it’s better to take one’s life than bring shame on oneself and one’s family.” However, Schurrmann is skeptical, saying that suicide has been misappropriated as a way to “essentialize Asian culture.” He explains: “I’ve known several families affected by suicide, Asian and Western, and they’ve all been devastated by it.”

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