Today is Suneung Day in Korea, aka the day where high school seniors take the Korean equivalent of SATs. Many say that this test decides their life.
After working in the public school system in South Korea for the last 8+ months, I’ve seen the immense amount of pressures that Korean students face on a daily basis. In America, the SAT is a test that students take seriously and a test that has a significant power in the college application process. However, American students can take the test multiple times, on multiple test dates, and with the option to use your highest score.
Here in Korea, this Suneung test happens ONCE every year, on the 2nd Thursday of November, from 8 am to 6 pm. The government implements a number of policies on this day, such as later opening hours for schools, stores, and businesses, and special traffic controls and systems. Even airplanes are prohibited from taking off or landing during the English listening comprehension section of the exam. Police on motorbikes and some taxis are dispatched in and around test sites, and are available to give students rides if they are running late. Public transportation or those who are going to test sites are also given priority on the roads.
A day or two before the exam, students find out their test locations, usually another high school or their same high school. On the day of, school gates close at 8:10 am. Parents, family members, and younger classmates greet the test-takers with candy, rice cakes, snacks, posters and signs of support. Suneung day is a big day not only for the test-takers themselves but also for their families. In my opinion, many Korean parents put too much pressure on their kids to do well in school, and as a result the pressure on the students to do well on this one test is pretty unbelievable. For some, it is literally life or death. Each year, suicide is committed by high school seniors who feel too much pressure before taking the test, or feel inadequate after they receive their results.
Just thinking about how much pressure Korean students must feel makes my eyes water. It’s not wrong or bad to feel pressure to do well, because it’s natural. And it’s not wrong or bad for parents to expect good academic results from their sons or daughters, because they work hard to provide that education. And it’s definitely not wrong to believe that education is a fundamental key to success in this world, because it is. But Korea’s way of filling their youth’s lives from age 10 through 18 with the belief that this single test determines your future is ineffective and cruel.
High school hours in South Korea are from approximately 7:30 am to 10-11 pm. This means, that for their 3 years of high school, they spend around 30-40% of their time in a classroom, with a pencil in hand. The rest of their time is spent sleeping, eating, and having fun, I hope. Outside of this country, the education system here is praised and the students are seen as the best and brightest. But, those who are in the education system itself seem to be desperate to get out. Working in South Korea and witnessing the hardships and pressures that students face firsthand makes me hope more and more that with time, change will come. I hope that the value Koreans put on education never goes down, but that their empathy for students goes up. I think fairness and second chances are two ideas that could take a significant amount of pressure off of students, and as a result, on the country as a whole.
Yesterday, all I could think about was how all of the high school seniors in Korea must be feeling. Stress, anxiousness, pressure, and an overwhelming overload of so many senses came to my mind, and I realized that it was only my imagination. For more than 600,000 18-year-olds in this country, it was reality. And today I am sending every single good vibe I can to each of them. 화이팅!!