Hush over South Korea as students sit high-stakes university entrance exam

Students taking the annual college entrance exams at a school in Seoul on Nov 18, 2021. PHOTO: AFP
Students taking wefies outside the Ehwa Girls Foreign Language High School in Seoul on Nov 18, 2021, before the annual college entrance exams. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP) - A hush fell over South Korea on Thursday (Nov 18) as more than half a million students sat the high-stakes national university entrance exam, with the authorities taking extraordinary measures to minimise distractions.

Locally known as "Suneung", the nine-hour test is crucial not only for securing spots in top universities, but is also considered key for elevated social statuses, lucrative careers and even marriage prospects.

The enormous pressure on students in South Korea's ultra-competitive education system has been blamed for teenage depression and suicide rates, which are among the highest in the world.

One parent was keen to ease the stress ahead of the 2021 exam.

"I just want to tell my daughter that I'm proud of her for working so hard up until this point, and that this test, regardless of the result, doesn't define who she is as a person," Ms Koh Min-soon, the mother of a test taker, told AFP on Wednesday.

Since last year, Covid-19 has added to the pressure on students, parents and the education authorities.

All classes became online for exam takers in the two weeks leading up to the test, while the students and their families were advised to stay at home as much as possible in that time.

More than 509,000 students are taking the test this year, the Education Ministry said.

Throughout the exam, which started at 8.40am, students will be required to wear face masks.

South Korea is among the leading nations in Covid-19 vaccinations - close to 80 per cent of the population has been fully jabbed - but it has seen a surge in cases in the run-up to the exam.

Students arriving for the test were checked, and those showing Covid-19 symptoms would have to take it in separate designated spaces.

Some 70 students will sit the exam, despite recently testing positive for the coronavirus, at medical facilities with desks and chairs specially prepared for them.

Extraordinary measures

Police car and motorbike escorts were available in school areas for any student stuck in traffic or running late. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The national importance of the exam is reflected in the extraordinary measures the South Korean authorities take to remove any disturbance for test takers.

Public offices, banks and the stock market open an hour later than usual to help ease traffic and ensure students arrive on time for the exam.

A college aspirant under quarantine exiting an ambulance at a test site only for quarantined students to sit the national college entrance exam in Seoul on Nov 18, 2021. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

All take-offs and landings at the country's airports are suspended for 35 minutes during an English listening test. All planes in the air must maintain an altitude higher than 3,000m.

The South Korean Transport Ministry said 79 flights - 16 of them international - have been rescheduled because of the exam.

Police car and motorbike escorts were available in school areas for any student stuck in traffic or running late.

"It's a very important day for the test takers, and the past year has been very tough for them," an official at the National Police Agency told AFP before the exam.

"So we are just trying to do what we can to show support."

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