Suneung, The Biggest Exam in a Korean’s Life?

by Larissa Tsui

It's exam period for a lot of our Beauties who are in university right now, and I'm sure you are busy preparing for your assessments (or just stress procrastinating as I usually do 🫢). Worrying about exams and that the rest of your life can depend on them is normal. But the level of this worry in Korea for students' college entrance exams is on a whole different level! The college entrance exam in Korea is called College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), also known as Suneung (수능).


For Koreans, this is more than just a vital exam they should pass to get into the college they desire. There's the belief in society that the college one attends shapes their future. Not only does it determine which college they can get into, but a Korean's life depends on the scores of this one examination – from college to work, income and even one's romantic life. Since education and prestigious schools are so highly regarded in Korea, employers hire you (or not), depending on which school you went to. Even getting a romantic partner can depend on your education. Yikes! 😳


So, what is suneung? The suneung is a national-level exam for Korean high school students, which determines whether they can get into college (or university as we know it) or not 💯 It is known as one of the most stressful exams in the world. The image above is just an example of what Korean History questions look like 😦 Typically occurring on the third Thursday of November every year, about half a million students sit this exam that is held in over 1000 test centres nationwide. This 8-hour-long examination, consisting mostly of multiple choice questions of back-to-back papers, is made up of 6 sections - Korean, maths, English, history, social studies, and a second foreign language. 


The pressure of this college entrance exam is unbelievably tremendous 📈 So, for most, starting at a very young age, students have to dedicate their lives to studying to get accepted into better schools and get better grades. Typically, Korean students go to school from 9am to 4pm. Then they either self-study, go straight to cram school, private tutoring or college entrance exam preparation classes until 10pm to 11pm 📖 Then they go home to complete all their homework. It really makes you wonder how they have time to rest, right? 


South Korea falls into silence for the day, for the students taking their Suneung. Suneung is taken very seriously nationwide, even among the non-exam-takers. On the day of the exam, the nation is put to a halt. The suneung takes place from 8:40am - 5:40pm (excluding lunchtime and break time of 1 hour). Offices and work start an hour later than usual to reduce the traffic jams. Additional subways and buses are available too for students to get to their exam location on time 🚙 There are even police escorts for those who are running late! 🚨 Planes are even prohibited from flying and landing to prevent disturbance during the exam's listening section 🛬 Construction sites are halted, and vehicles are also prohibited from travelling within 200m of the testing area. As you can tell, the nation and K-citizens takes tremendous measures for the exam day.


Non-exam-takers are hugely invested on the day of the examination too. Family and friends arrive early at the testing locations, often with gifts and handmade signs to show support for the test-takers and wish them good luck 💛 Yeot (엿), a traditional Korean taffy and chapssaltteok (찹쌀떡), glutinous rice cake in Korean are usually gifted to the test-takers to wish them good luck. These foods are given due to their sticky texture, traditionally believed to help the students 'stick' to or pass the exam. During the day of the exam, many parents and grandparents of the test-takers often visit temples and churches to pray for their (grand)children to do well and ace this incredibly demanding exam 🙏🏼

Suneung, the mere eight hours that determines a Korean high school student’s life from college, career, income, romantic life, to social status. 12 years of intense studying all coming down to these eight hours. An exam so vital to one’s life, the whole nation halts its normal functioning to accommodate the high school senior test-takers. From additional public transport to halting planes and construction, police escorts, and even pushing back working hours. This is for sure one of the most important days for Koreans ⚠️ Suneung is so important, some students may even take an extra year of Suneung preparation if they feel they aren’t ready for it or they received a low score the previous year. Being one of the world’s most stressful exams, would you be able to push through and pass the Suneung?

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