The Most Important Day of Your Life…Literally

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As I was enjoying the beautiful fall foliage at a local mountain in Daegu yesterday, as many as 600,000 high school students were busy taking the most important test of their life…College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), or Suneung-siheom (수능시험). This day is sooooo important that most middleschoolers have the day off, since most share a campus with the local high school. Students prepared for 3 years for this 9 hour exam! Yep….that’s right. Nice hours. After 3 years of preparing for the test, they can take a rest from school – only attending in the morning for the remainder of the semester. A month later, they get the test results. Students who don’t do well and aren’t admitted to their preferred schools will often repeat the test, going to cram schools to do better. Read this interesting New York Times article, on the strict military-esque cram school in Yongin, South Korea. Come January, students begin the process of applying to colleges, and it all depends on how you did on the exams. 

The universities to choose from are divided into three categories: Category 가 (Ga) – which only considers their su-neung score; Category 나 (Na) – reflects both scores from su-neung test and scores from high school of three years; and Catergory 다 (Da), where they enter university based on school activities and academic rank. [Source]

The Traditions

Parents flood the local temples, praying for their children and their success.  In a special ceremony that begins at 6 PM and lasts until four in the morning, devoted parents complete three thousand bows.

All landings and take-offs at airports were put on hold and car drivers lowered their speed near the test sites during listening comprehension exams so as not to disturb students. Traffic was banned from within 200 meters of the test places until the nine-hour-long exam finished at 5:35 p.m. [Source

Friends and family give the students Yeot candy (엿캔디), a taffy-like candy that will help the student’s knowledge stick while taking the test. Also, students are not allowed to eat seaweed soup because, again with the play on words, it will make all your knowledge “slip” from your mind. Superstition or culture, it is a long running tradition in Korea. 

The Pressure

Can you imagine the pressure? Studying for three years, each highschool day as long as 13 hours, in order to take an exam that would write the rest of your life. Yes, seriously. Where you go to University truly matters here. It is a matter of life and death sometimes, and sadly that is not an exaggeration. In a country whose suicide rate is ranked #1 by the OECD, it is no surprise this day can also be too much for some. Numbers from the National Statistical Office indicate that more than 1,000 students between the ages of 10 and 19 killed themselves from 2000 to 2003. [Source]


It’s not something we will easily understand. Being from America, yeah there was pressure during the SAT’s, I cannot fully understand the educational culture here in Korea. We are so different. As my teacher put it, “I even had to follow students to the bathroom! But now after the test, they will probably go get plastic surgery or a perm. They studied hard for so long and this is their way of being unrestricted for the first time in their life”.

Like I said, it is such a different culture that it can’t be compared. We have our kids failing miserably in America. That there is a high enough illiteracy rate in a superpower is pretty shameful. We can learn from each other. It’s always about balance.