The Korean Exam That Brings the Nation to a Halt

Every year in November, more than half a million high school students across South Korea sit for the examination of their life — the infamous Suneung or CSAT (College Scholastic Ability Test). It’s a grueling 8-hour session of back-to-back exams where students are tested on Korean, English, mathematics, social studies, history and science. It’s the single most important test any Korean student ever takes in their life. How they perform that day determines which university the student goes to, which affects their job prospects, income, where they live, and even their marriage prospects. It’s such a critical exam that it becomes the priority of the entire nation. Workers start an hour late so that rush hour is delayed and roads are cleared for students on their way to the exam. Shops, banks, and even the stock market opens late. Airplanes are grounded during the listening test so students aren’t disturbed, and the entire country comes to a standstill. Nervous parents gather in temples and churches, clutching photos of their children and praying for their success. Because there are only a handful of prestigious universities in the country, the competition is intense. Suneung is so stressful that the South Korean government is working to overhaul the process by allowing students to gain university entrance points in other ways, such as mentoring or volunteering.