Scenes from the Korean College Entrance Exam


These were the scenes this morning at a high school as the National College Entrance Exam finally got underway a week behind schedule. I got there just after 7:30am – the exam begins at 8am and lasts ALL DAY!  If you didn’t know what was going on you’d think that some K-pop idols were due to appear as there were TV cameras and police all around the gates. Goodies (advertising merchandise) were being handed out – hot packs that heat up and warm your hands, chewing gum, and tissues.

Albamon, an online recruitment site for part-time workers, was there too handing out hand-warmers to the students as they arrived. I got one too! It could double as a hand-warmer and a good luck charm. Very clever.

albamon hand warmer

There was a lot of hoo-ha last week when the exam was POSTPONED. The students had crammed as much as they could, eaten their good luck rice cakes, booked post exam celebratory holidays or double-eyelid plastic surgery procedures. They were prepared and raring to go when BAM. Earthquake.

I know. I didn’t think Korea had earthquakes either. But it does now.

The earthquake hit in Pohang in the south of Korea the day before the exam was scheduled and reached 5.4 on the Richter scale. News stations showed the damage caused to property and people running away in panic. On the news we saw cars squashed by concrete slabs and apartment buildings looking worse for wear. No one was killed but there were injuries and lots of damage. And concerns over aftershocks led to the exam being postponed. But this decision led to a lot of complaints.

So what is the national college entrance exam? What’s the big deal about postponing it? And why are this year’s students considered to be so unlucky?


What is the National College Entrance Exam?

Well, it’s called Suneung in Korean and is the most important exam in a school child’s life. The test lasts 8 hours and the results of the exam will determine whether or not they can get into their desired university. For those who have set their heart on the extremely competitive Seoul National University it must be horrifically stressful.

There are other ways of getting into college but this is considered the most prestigious. Just like the civil service exam, passing the college entrance exam has to do with status.  There’s more info on the reasons why the exam is taken so seriously here.

And the stress involves EVERYONE – family, friends, and even the rest of the country.

There are plenty of drama and film scenes which show anxious mums standing at the school gates desperately wondering how their children are doing in the exam. Traditionally they would stick yeut, a chewy candy, to the gates of the school for good luck. Parents go to the temple or church to pray for good luck too.

Fortune tellers do a roaring trade leading up to the test. They sell specially written good luck charms that can cost anything from 8,000 won to over 1 million won. Red ginseng and other health products to overcome fatigue and eye strain are other popular presents.

college entrance exam

On the day of the exam, the rest of the country also has to be considerate. Last month the education ministry announced the national measures to be taken on the day to control traffic and noise during the exam.

  • public offices start work an hour later at 10am to free up the traffic on the roads for children trying to get to school on time.
  • planes can’t take off from airports near test sites during the English listening exam around lunchtime.
  • drivers shouldn’t beep their horn and noise on construction sites should be kept to a minimum.

Before the test the students are often given rice cakes as gifts like these I saw on the Interpark online shopping mall  to wish them well. Rice cakes are sticky and so they hope to ‘stick’ the student to the exam – to pass it, in other words.

suneung rice cakes

What problems has postponing the exam caused?

  • Booked holidays cancelled
  • concerns over cheating
  • plastic surgery appointments lost

Not everyone was happy that the exam was postponed. First there were concerns about the possibility of cheating. With the exam papers having to sit tantalisingly in schools for another week there could be opportunities to take sneaky peaks at the questions. So police officers have had to stand guard over the exam papers and CCTV cameras put in place too.

To celebrate finishing the exam some people booked family holidays. So weekend breaks and overseas trips had to be canceled.

And then there is The Plastic Surgery Issue.

It’s a tradition for high school girls to get double-eyelid surgery right after leaving high school. But these appointments have had to be cancelled too. Students lament that it was so difficult to get the appointment in the first place because they are so popular.

One lady told me that her mother actually frog marched her to the plastic surgeon saying she MUST have the surgery even though she didn’t really want it at the time! She says she was happy she did it afterwards though. But these days the procedure is so popular that appointments must be booked well in advance. Here’s one of the MANY plastic surgery companies that advertise online.

plastic surgery

What makes this year’s third grade high school students so unlucky?

Postponing this year’s exam has highlighted how unlucky this year’s exam takers have been. They were born in 1999. (1999? Unbelievable!) And over the years health scare epidemics and accidents have affected their school life.

In 2009 when they were 4th graders at primary school fear of the swine flu epidemic meant that school sport’s days were cancelled. The school trip to the historical city of Gyeongju in the 6th grade of primary school was cancelled too.

In April of 2014 when they were 3rd graders in secondary school the dreadful Sewol ferry disaster occurred when over 300 schoolchildren drowned on their way to Jeju Island on a ferry from Incheon. That meant that all other school trips that year were cancelled. In 2015 when they were first graders of high school the MERS epidemic occurred. With health fears school trips that year were also cancelled. So they never got to go on any school trips at all!

But at least now the exam is finally underway. And the students did get an extra week to study. And I’m just surprised that anyone actually wants to go on a school trip. Me? No thanks. Ba humbug.

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