Tomorrow is the biggest day of a Korean’s life. The day serves as a chilling reminder to all other students as to what is coming. Those who have already endured suneung probably look back on that day with mixed emotions.
Simply put, the suneung is a 10 hour nearly non-stop test that high school seniors take to get into college. If you fail it, or even if you’re late for school that day – you have to wait until next year to try again.
In Korea, the college you attend, determines your social standing and career success for the next 10-20 years, if not you’re entire life. The big goal is SKY – Seoul University, Korea University or Yonsei University. Getting into one of these means you’re set for life. “The competition to enter these universities is so great that you need an almost perfect grade to get in.” source
The college you go to changes your life, and you can’t get into a prestigious college without a near perfect score. So it only makes sense that people start preparing as soon as they can.
Many students start at four or five years old. Chris and I always see kindergarten hagwon (private academy) busses and the kids wearing matching clothes or backpacks. Parents walk them to the hagwon bus and wave goodbye as if it were a real day of school
I know my middle school students are in school and hagwons only to pass this exam. It is all that matters. And thus testing is all that matters.
The students asleep in our classes – they’re just playing the game better. Our class doesn’t matter in the long run for some, as long as they can get a good score on the test. Since they’re at hagwons until midnight or later, the only chance they can get sleep is at school – during English class.
Many people say middle and high school is harder than college – because once your in you can finally relax. So our middle school students are working harder than we ever did in college.
When you give them 5 minutes of free time they either pull books out to study or they sleep.
The Suneung is known as “D-Day” many students can tell you the exact number of days until D-Day two or three years in advance. I’ve seen planners with D-Day days written in, stickers that count down to the suneung that you can put on your calendar. There are even watches that are divided by subject so you can get used to the layout of the test.
Parents make incredible financial sacrifices to ensure their children do well on the test, this can include sending students abroad to increase skills or paying for the endless hagwons. Private study rooms can be rented out.
Recently a study box made the news. Instead of buying your student a desk, buy them a whole cube complete with a door.
The teachers who write the test (total 690 people) are closeted away for 32 days in a mountain resort without internet or phones. There they write the test in absolute secrecy – in the history of the test no questions have ever been leaked before the exam – and are released on the day of the exam.
High school sophomores and juniors wait outside of the school as early as 4:30 to cheer incoming seniors. They dress up, signs of encouragement are everywhere. Some serve tea or snacks to anyone around.
Parents sometimes stay outside of the school all day waiting for their child. Some spend the whole day in temples or churches praying the whole day.
The morning of, police cars and motorcycles pick up late students and bring them to the testing center so they are not late. The test is only once a year so if you’re late you will have to take it next year.
The stock market opens late, most employees are encouraged to come into work late so they don’t impede traffic (we don’t have to come to school until 10 tomorrow. Classes are cancelled so the middle school teachers can help proctor). Planes don’t fly overhead during the listening test.
Extra employees are brought in at the power plant to make sure there are no blackouts or power failures.
It starts at 8.40am, and doesn’t finish until 6.30pm. It consists of seven sections: Korean, Maths, English, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, Occupational Sciences and a Second Foreign Language. These are further subdivided into sub-categories (social sciences has 11 subjects such as history, geography etc.). Every question is multiple choice, every multiple choice question has 5 options.
After the test, the test takers dump all their books (or throw them) out of windows into a central book-area. High school juniors (and sophomores) scramble through the book pile to get free suneung-preperation books.
Here is an incredible 10 minute documentary about the test day and following the day in the life of a high school student.
Also here is an English teacher who used to work at a high school – what her school looked like early in the morning.