This Thursday marked one of the biggest, and most high-stress, annual events in South Korea. About 590,000 high school students across the nation took the college entrance exam (College Scholastic Ability Test), which many believe will seal their fate when it comes to their future career prospects. As the Wall Street Journal notes, the exam is a "national obsession", and its impacts stretch far wider than the students who take it. State employees go to work an hour later to cut down on commuter congestion. Oversleepers are rushed to exam sites by police escort. Parents wring their hands with worry that their kids' performance may reflect poor nurturing. Around the time of last year's exam, I posted the following entry to my personal blog:
National University Entrance Exam Day
This Thursday the high temperature in Seoul dropped a noticeable five degrees from the previous day. Those five degrees were enough to make everyone feel like winter is right around the corner. I hadn't really thought about it feeling colder until I was walking to the subway after work and remembered a sidebar to a prominent news story this week. Thursday, November 15, was national university entrance exam day. Legend says temperatures always dip on this very important day for Koreans. When I first heard that theory, early in the week, I was ready to call the BS card immediately, but I'm not kidding you; it was COLD Thursday!
The temperature is just a small part of the story that surrounds exam day. For one thing, it really is just one day a year. High schoolers get one shot a year to put on their best game face and try to earn their way into one of Korea's top three universities. It's called aiming for the "SKY" because the top three schools are Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. If you score well enough to be accepted into one of these schools, you've got a great chance of making your career dreams come true. If you don't score well enough, many Koreans would say you might as well crawl into a hole and die. That's how much pressure there is on these kids to do well. So much that in recent years several suicides have been attributed to the stress associated with this make-or-break exam.
Korean kids are groomed for academic success from the age of two or three. They're enrolled in "nursery schools" where they aren't just cutting out shapes and sloppily gluing them onto construction paper. They're learning foreign languages, how to read, how to play a musical instrument, and a variety of other things. Once kids start going to school, the intensity picks up. School gets out earlier here, around 1:00 or 2:00, but most kids spend the rest of the afternoon and evening attending several different academies. Sophia's daughter, for instance, goes to an English academy, a piano academy, an art academy, and takes swimming lessons. Most of the time, she doesn't go to bed until after 10:00PM . . . and she's 7 years old! Many parents will practically go broke paying for their kids to attend these academies (or "hagwons") because they know their kids can't be competitive academically without additional instruction. I tutor a 14 year-old once a week in English. I meet with him at 7:00PM to help him learn English, just as he's getting home from spending an hour or two at an English hagwon.
So on national university entrance exam day, the government urges all civil servants to go to work one hour later so the public transportation system is less crowded for kids trying to make it to test sites on time. The military halts all flights and shooting drills so as not to distract students during listening portions of the exam. Mothers across the country take photos of their kids to local churches and Buddhist temples to be placed on altars.
So while all these kids were biting their nails and drying their sweaty palms, I started reminiscing about taking the ACT as a junior in high school. I could have taken a prep course to get myself ready for the test, but I thought it sounded boring. I could have purchased a study guide to familiarize myself with the format of the test, but I needed that money for clothes! I probably could have at least gotten an adequate amount of sleep the night before the test, but I was too busy packing because as soon as the exam was over, I was heading to Florida for a vacation. Although I could have taken the test as many times as I was willing to pay to do so, I felt satisfied with my first score and really didn't want to deal with another four-hour exam, anyway. My score was hardly stellar, but just good enough to get me into the university of my choice. I'm not sure pressure entered into the scenario at all. I can guarantee you that even had I scored very poorly, I would not have considered my life to be over. Ironically, most Koreans would look at me in my current situation and say I'm very successful. The sad part is, that's mostly because I speak English.