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A mother hugs her daughter ahead of her Suneung exams in Seoul on Thursday. Photo: Reuters

South Korea’s infamous 8-hour Suneung college exam faces growing protests amid fears over students’ mental health

  • On the third Thursday of November every year, a hush descends on South Korea as nationwide its students sit the notoriously high-pressured exam, on which much of their lives will depend
  • But the exam faces questions of its own. Not only has it been linked to mental health problems among the young, critics say it is too focused on rote learning and needs a rethink
South Korea
It is a crisp November afternoon and South Korea’s famous crimson autumn foliage is on full display as the large crowd heads towards Jogyesa Temple in the busy district of Jongno, central Seoul.

Every year around this time, parents and grandparents visit this historic temple to pray for their children and grandchildren who will be taking the infamously high-pressured Suneung college entrance exam.

This particular crowd follows the monks in prayer outside the temple; inside the temple another group finishes the final day of their 100-day Suneung prayer regime.


Korean parents pray for their children before major college entrance exam

Korean parents pray for their children before major college entrance exam

The length of the ritual reflects the magnitude of the test, which occurs nationwide on the third Thursday of November every year and is officially known as the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT).

During the eight-hour exam, all students will be given a grade of 1 to 9 (with 1 being the highest) on each of the core subjects: Korean, mathematics, English, Korean history; and the subordinate subjects of social science, science, vocational studies and either a second foreign language or Chinese characters.

On these scores, much of the students’ lives will depend – from what university they attend to their job, income and even romantic prospects.
Parents and grandparents pray at Jogyesa Temple for their children and grandchildren who are about to take the Suneung. Photo: David D. Lee

It is not only praying parents and stressed out students who recognise the enormity of the task ahead, but the whole of society.

On the day of the test, to prevent disturbance to those sitting it, stock markets open an hour later than usual and incoming planes adjust their schedules to avoid landing during key periods; the government boosts public transport services to prevent traffic jams and police officers have been known to escort test takers who are running late.

The Suneung has been a rite of passage for South Korean youth since it was introduced in 1994, but doubts are increasingly creeping in over how effective it really is in preparing young minds for the future.

South Korean student groups protest against the Suneung college entrance exam in Seoul on Thursday. Photo: David D. Lee

Critics say it has become largely a test of wealth, a measure of whose parents could afford to send them to the ubiquitous cram schools that have grown up to cater to those seeking an edge for their children. They also question its emphasis on rote learning and memorisation of facts, at the expense of creativity.

At the same time, the test is blamed for creating a system in which people from an early age are labelled as “winners” or “losers” in education and in life more generally, all on the basis of a single day’s work. Given such pressures, critics say it’s not surprising that the exam is frequently linked to mental health issues and even suicides among the young.

Many are now demanding the scoring system be reworked to encourage a more holistic approach to learning – and lessen the pressure on the young.

A student runs for a gate, which is about to close, to enter a high school to take the Suneung college entrance exam in Seoul. Photo: AP

A test of wealth and memory

“It’s just not a fair assessment. The results of the Suneung test all depend on how much private education a student has received,” said Lee Yoon-kyoung, the director of the National Association of Parents for Cham (“true”) Education.

“You can’t study for the Suneung at school. You have to study for it at a cram school.”

She explained that while schools concentrated on following the curriculum set by the government, the questions on the Suneung were set separately and did not always reflect the curriculum.

Lee Yoon-kyoung. Photo: David D. Lee

Consequently, it is common for students to pay more attention to private study books specialising in the Suneung that are made by the Korea Educational Broadcasting System.

Students in the 12th grade, the final year, are notorious for finding excuses to miss school classes so they can spend more time at cram schools and private study. There have even been reports of students dropping out of school to prepare full-time.

How can South Korea excel at sports if its kids are too busy studying?

According to the Korean Educational Statistics Service, out of the 509,821 students who registered to take the Suneung this year, 14,277 either dropped out or were not attending school regularly.

Lee said that during school classes it was common to see students sleeping off the effects of their late night cram sessions, or ignoring their teachers to concentrate on Suneung test materials.

“In some sense, Suneung is destroying school education,” Lee said.

The stuff we memorise for the test is the type of information that leaves our brains as soon as the test is over
Yoon Cho-eun, student

South Korea’s private education industry was worth 9.3 trillion won (US$7.9 billion) last year with 5.35 million students receiving some form of private education.

A report in 2018 by Statistics Korea found that 93.7 per cent of students received some form of private education. Among them, 97 per cent attended a cram school and 85 per cent attended these classes even on weekends.

“School life for students is almost identical to life in prison,” Lee continued. “And parents are also shackled up, spending all their salaries on private education and all our time and energy on taking care of our children. You have to kind of give up on your own life as a parent.”

For students, the exam comes with a mix of dread and the promise of relief as an event that has dominated their minds for the past decade finally comes to pass.

Students face double dread in Suneung college entrance exam and pandemic

Student Yoon Cho-eun, 18, is among those for whom freedom day cannot come soon enough. She admits to nerves about how her score will compare to her contemporaries, yet wonders how useful all those years of study really were.

“I think most students study solely to get test questions right and get into college rather than studying to learn something they like or to discover something new,” Yoon said. “The stuff we memorise for the test is the type of information that leaves our brains as soon as the test is over.”

Too much pressure

The system’s focus on scores is often cited as a factor in mental health problems facing the young.

South Korea has the highest rate of suicides among the OECD economies. And while the rate has in recent years decreased for almost all age groups between 30 and 80, suicides among people aged nine to 24 have been steadily increasing. In 2019, this group accounted for 876 suicides, or 9.9 suicides per 100,000 adolescents.

In some deaths, the Suneung has been cited as a direct cause.

“We need to eliminate the competition aspect in education,” Lee said. “It’s of the utmost importance that students who don’t do well on test day – or ‘fail’ in their own words – don’t think of themselves as failures.”

Prayer notes left at Jogyesa Temple. Photo: David D. Lee

Lee, whose small office is in central Seoul, has a yellow ribbon sticker on the back of her phone and a badge with the same symbol on the collar of her jacket. These commemorate the 250 students and others who died in 2014 when the Sewol ferry sank on its way to a graduation trip.

“After the Sewol tragedy, our membership numbers skyrocketed. We now have 48 regional branches across the country,” Lee said. “A lot of parents got a wake-up call and decided that we needed to start protecting our children. We couldn’t trust the government any more.”

Lee wants the test’s scoring system to be replaced with a simple pass or fail, believing this would relieve some of the pressure on students to always be better than the person sat next to them. A host of student-parent groups and student bodies are protesting on Thursday morning to demand the same.

“We need to destroy this system that teaches our children to step on each other to reach greater heights,” she said.


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Companies need to change

Song In-soo, a former high schoolteacher in Seoul who became an activist, has been campaigning for change in the education system for the past two decades. He founded the civil organisation World Without Worries about Shadow Education in 2008 to address the country’s obsession with private education.

“Students as early as third grade in elementary school would be preparing for college level [tests] to prepare for enrolment in elite high schools,” Song recalled.

Since then, Song’s organisation has played a major part in significant reforms, such as the government’s switch to “blind applications” for public enterprises and colleges, which aim to prevent hiring or enrolment based on educational backgrounds.

Song In-soo of Spring of Education. Photo: David D. Lee

The organisation also played a role in ensuring elite high schools, once populated mostly by the wealthy, will by 2025 be phased out in favour of regular high schools open to the general public – a move Song believes will help cut the focus on school ranking tables.

Even then, the problems of the Suneung lingered for Song.

“That’s when I realised that the excessive competition for entrance exams existed due to the method of employment,” Song said. “The way companies hire people needs to change first.”

Much of the pressure on the Suneung is because without a good score students cannot get into the top universities that are a stepping stone to working for the major corporations, which for many South Koreans is the ultimate goal.

Song’s latest movement, Spring of Education, is pushing back on this by assuring parents that there are other avenues open to their children, with his team researching which fields and companies place less emphasis on educational background.

His group is preparing a campaign that will identify companies that hire well-rounded employees and share these alternative hiring methods with other firms. A community full of these “good companies” is what Song is hoping for.

“We need to end the cycle of students wasting 20 years digging for a good educational background only to become selfish individuals or a ‘loser’ once they fail to enter a top university,” he said.

“We found out that there have been tremendous strides being taken to change the way companies hire people. It’s just that a lot of people are not aware of it. So, there is promise.”

If you are having suicidal thoughts, or you know someone who is, help is available. For Hong Kong, dial +852 2896 0000 for The Samaritans or +852 2382 0000 for Suicide Prevention Services. In the US, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on +1 800 273 8255. For a list of other nations’ helplines, see this page