Reach for the SKY

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November 12, 2012 by travelinggrits

In America, there’s a Thursday in November that students anxiously await. A day of rest and full stomachs.

In Korea, students also anxiously await a certain Thursday in November—with a sickening feeling in their stomachs.

Every second Thursday of November is the 수능, the national college entrance exam. This major-league exam makes the SAT look like a peewee T-ball event. A full-day test, from 8:45 to 6. Five sections: verbal, math, English, science/social studies (depending on your desired track), Chinese characters/other foreign languages.

You get one shot.

Your score on the exam is a major determinant in not just the school you can attend but what major you can study. Entrance to the top three universities, Seoul National, Korea and Yonsei University (also referred to as SKY), can only become a reality for the highest achievers. I have heard that prospective medical students at one of these universities must strive for a perfect score on the test. I have met adults who said they did not score high enough to pursue their desired major. And in Korea, it’s much more rare to change your profession. The school you attend shapes your social circles and your chances of getting a good job.

It’s no exaggeration to say that this test can change your life.

South Korea’s tough standard may have contributed to its fast development. South Korea places high in international rankings for math and science, and President Obama praised the nation for its devotion to education.

This test grips the nation. Parents pour money into private academies, or hagwons, where students put in extra time studying to get ahead, even on the weekends. In the weeks leading up to the test, my host father, who is the head teacher at a local all-boys’ high school, worked seven days a week helping students prepare. And to understand the insomniac schedule the students experience, watch this video.

Yet this all-consuming test was not even a blip on the radar to the rest of the world. One of my routine activities is reading the New York Times each evening at about the same time that millions of Americans are poring over its pages with their morning coffee. There was not a word about this momentous day.

I wonder if the time dedicated ends up being quantity over quality, almost like an exponential equation reaching the plateau of a horizontal asymptote. I wonder if there is any way that physical fatigue and mental burnout don’t eventually take a toll on scholastic progress.

I worry that the students lose a sense of balance. My host sister wants to learn guitar, but my host mother says she has no time because she is too busy studying. She comes home at around 9 or 10 p.m., later if a major test is approaching. Studying is her job. She is a middle school student.

I think back to high school, when I spent the afternoons pounding balls on the tennis court or rehearsing for band performances. It was a much-needed stress release, a time to bond with friends and a chance to shape my character. Sports and music were critical elements for teaching me discipline and passion beyond the classroom.

On the morning of the 수능, many office workers delay their morning commute to clear the transportation systems for students. Policemen escort students who are running late to their testing sites. Family members and younger students, holding signs of encouragement, form a throng outside the gates of high schools. Mothers kneel in prayer.

My school started late, so I went on a morning run through the park. After I arrived, I went to the principal’s office for my daily dose of genial small talk.

Today is a calm day, he remarked. It is here, I said, but not at the high schools. Yes, he said, looking over my shoulder out the window.

It is warm today, he said. I think it is like energy rising from students taking the test.

I imagined rows of students, bent over tests, fervishly bubbling in answers.

The next day morning, the school was blanketed in fog so thick you could not even see the gym building next door. Perhaps it was like the cloud that hangs over students waiting on their scores. Waiting on their fate.



A celebratory beer for my host dad. The note reads: "Soonung finished!"

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