In Seoul, the capital of South Korea, the banks are closed. Construction work has been halted. Military training has ceased. Planes are grounded. The city is silent as teenagers spend eight hours taking the test that will affect every aspect of the rest of their lives.
It’s Suneung, and it’s the most important event for every 18-year-old in South Korea. This is the day they take the College Scholastic Ability Test, an 8-hour session filled with back-to-back tests.
The exams determine whether they will go on to university. It affects their future jobs, the income they will make, and even where they will live. And for one day in November, the entire country of South Korea holds its breath while Suneung is conducted.
Many parents spend this day in church, praying as their children sweat over exam forms, according to the BBC.
As students enter the exam hall, inspectors with metal detectors greet them. The inspectors relieve students of their watches, phones, bags, books, and anything else that might be a distraction.
Even the teachers wear soft-soled shoes, so they won’t make any noises that might break concentration for the students.
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This is serious business. In September, 500 teachers from all over South Korea are picked to write the exam. They are driven to a secret location, where their phones are confiscated and they are cut off from contact with the outside world for a month.
They cannot leave, or contact their families. They can only work on the test.
About a month after the exam, every student’s score is posted to a national website.
And it’s incredibly intense, but all this drama does have its benefits. South Korea has one of the best-educated populations of any country in the world.
Many students in South Korea begin preparing for the test at a young age — very young. It’s common for children to begin prepping for the test at age four.
All the pressure and extra studying may be taking its toll, experts warn. South Korea’s high suicide rate among young people and low fertility rates country-wide may be directly linked to Suneung. Children aged 11 to 15 in South Korea have the highest levels of stress among industrialized countries of the world.
Hundreds of thousands of students arrived for Suneung on Thursday at 1,190 test sites, according to the Korea Herald. For every South Korean High School senior, this is more than a rite of passage. This day will set the course of their lives.
The Education Ministry said that 594,924 applied to take the test this year. Public transportation was expanded for the day, and even the stock market opened an hour late to reduce traffic. Emergency vehicles waited on standby to take students to their designated test sites.
Competition in the job market is fierce in South Korea, and getting a good job is much easier with a degree from a top university. This makes test day important enough to suspend activity across the entire country.
So, the next time your teenager gives you a hard time, you can always tell them what kids in South Korea go through.