Countdown to the rest of their livesOn Wednesday, for two brief periods ― from 8:40 to 8:55 a.m., and again from 3:50 to 4:10 p.m. ― no domestic flights will be allowed to take off or land in Korea.
Traffic that morning will be unusually light. Below ground, the subway rush hour, which normally lasts from about 7 to 9 a.m., will be about twice as long because of all the people avoiding the streets.
Throughout the nation, work days will start at 10 a.m., an hour later than usual. School days will start late as well.
The reason for all this? Wednesday is College Scholastic Ability Test day ― the day that hundreds of thousands of Korean students’ educational careers have been leading up to.
The test is so important to these students’ futures, and hence to Korea, that the entire nation adjusts its work schedule, collectively delaying rush hour to make sure students don’t stuck in traffic getting to testing centers. (Students who do find themselves running late can call special motorcycle couriers to get them there, dressed in uniforms with banners specifically for the day.)
And air traffic, as mentioned above, is suspended twice ― during periods corresponding to the “listening” portions of the exam, just to keep the noise down.
“The most nerve-wracking, blood-draining day in my life” is what Oh Jong-hwan, a high school student, calls it, and thousands of his peers would no doubt agree.
The CSAT, or Suneung, either makes students or breaks them. It effectively decides whether a student will get into the university of his or her choice. And in Korea, the perception, at least, is that the university you attend will to a large extent determine your career path, your social network ― essentially, the rest of your life.
This year, 674,154 high school seniors and graduates will take the exam, from 8:40 a.m. to 6:10 p.m. Wednesday, at 876 test centers around the country.
During senior year, students take five preparatory mock exams to get them ready for the real thing. The real countdown to Suneung begins 100 days before the test; that’s when Korean media begins reporting nonstop about preparations for the test, doing feature stories and offering test-taking tips. The countdown begins at 100 days because, according to teachers and scholars, a few months of intense studying can turn a mediocre test taker into a good one.
At Jinseon Girls’ High School in Gangnam district, students are immersed in last-minute cramming. Trying hard to hide their anxiousness, they speed through textbooks and workbooks they’ve been studying all year, wrapping up their final reviews of the study materials.
At the front of the classroom, a large notice (“D-day: 7”) counts the number of days left before the exam. Posted at the back of the room are notices titled “How to keep a Suneung mind” and “Tips when taking the exam”; another lists the application deadlines of various colleges. The hallways are quieter than usual, as underclassmen try not to disturb the seniors.
“I don’t go to hagwon [supplemental private school] these days because this is final review period,” says Shin Gyeong-ran, an 18-year-old student. “I’m not overwrought, because I’ve made pains to prepare for this exam.”
For the last few weeks, Ms. Shin has woken up, begun studying, eaten meals and taken bathroom breaks at the exact times she will do so Wednesday. She has been sleeping six or seven hours a night, more than usual, to make sure she doesn’t doze off during the day. Cheon Ji-yeon, 18, however, finds it hard to sleep lately. “It’s been like this for about a week,” she says.
The students are wary of jinxes. “Cutting one’s fingernails,” says Lee Ji-nam, “is a no-no before the exam.” Other taboos include washing one’s hair (lest one wash away all one’s knowledge), receiving taffy from fellow test takers (both will fail) and eating seaweed soup (lest the right answers slip away, since seaweed is slippery). The high school’s final exams are scheduled only a few days after Suneung, but Ms. Cheon says, “We have positively no time to think about finals.” “I can’t wait until it’s over,” says Kwon Yae-jin.
A fortunate few, whose grades are stellar enough or who have won the right prizes, were accepted early into college and don’t have to take the exam.
Cha Hong-ki, 18, a student of Myungduk Foreign Language High School who has already been accepted at Information and Communication University in Daejeon, is one of them, but he feels as though he’s missing something. “It’s great that I don’t have to cram for the CSAT, but now I feel rather empty because all my friends are studying,” he says.
A few months before the exams, shopkeepers begin stocking taffy candy and rice cakes. Because they’re both sticky ― and because the word for “sticking to,” butda, also means “getting into” ― these are traditional good-luck gifts for test takers. In recent times, though, chocolates have become favorites too, wrapped in cute packages with gung-ho words like “Fighting!” and “Acceptance!”
At Link O, a stationery store, stacks of taffy candies, wrapped in assorted eye-catching packages, are displayed. “Most of the customers who buy these good-luck candies are adults or juniors in school buying for seniors,” says Seo Dong-wook, an employee.
Taffy is packaged to resemble sanitary napkins (instead of the napkin brand “White,” the taffy package reads “Fighting”), ice cream cups (instead of “Haagen-Dazs,” it reads “Hagin Dadae,” meaning “Everyone will get in”) and beer bottles (instead of “Hite,” it reads “Hit”).
“The designs have become too sensational lately,” says shopper Lee Ok-in, 21, who took the exam two years ago. “They even have “‘Acceptance underwear!’”
Measuring competence through multiple choice
The College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) is designed to measure the abilities students will need for college or university education. This is the 10th year since the multiple-choice exam was initiated.
The test consists of four major sections: Verbal (Korean), Mathematics and Inquiry I, Mathematics and Inquiry II (Natural Science and Social Science) and Foreign Language (English). The highest possible score is 400 points, 100 for each section. The test is designed around “integrated subjects,” which means that a single question might deal with, say, both biology and mathematics.
College admission offices take grades into account in addition to the exam, but instead of using individual grade point averages, the Korean education system groups students into 15 ranks, based on percentile.
Recently, colleges’ reliance on CSAT scores have diminished somewhat, with universities taking into account numerous other factors. Extracurricular activities, such as volunteer work, can improve a student’s chances, as can having certain specialized skills a college is looking for.
Not all teachers believe the CSAT is an effective tool for assessing a student’s competence. “It’s difficult to devise questions on ‘integrated subjects’ because of its ambiguity and penchant for argument,” says Eom Ki-Joon, a biology teacher at Jinseon Girls’ High School.
by Choi Jie-ho