Hush in South Korea as students sit gruelling exam

A worker wearing protective gear sprays disinfectant in an exam hall at a high school in Seoul on November 17, 2021, a day before a high-stakes university entrance exam amid the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Dong-a Ilbo / AFP) 

by Claire LEE

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

The nine-hour test is crucial not only for securing spots in top universities, but is also considered key for elevated social status, 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 that are among the highest in the world.

One parent was keen to ease the stress ahead of the 2021 exam, locally known as “Suneung”.

“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,” 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 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.

At the Ewha Girls’ Foreign Language High School in central Seoul, some test-takers arrived holding hands with their visibly nervous parents.

Outside the school gate, some people were seen praying while others took selfies with friends and family.

Throughout the exam, which started at 8:40 am, students were required to wear face masks.

South Korea has seen a surge in cases in the run-up to the exam, reporting nearly 3,300 infections Thursday — its highest-ever daily case count.

Students arriving for the test were checked, and those showing Covid symptoms had 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 

The national importance of the exam is reflected in the extraordinary measures 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.

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 3,000 metres (10,000 feet).

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 students stuck in traffic or running late.

At Ewha high school, one student arrived in a police car and got pats of support from officers as she headed inside.

“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.”

© Agence France-Presse