College Entrance Exam
In Korea, the rest of your life may be decided on the 2nd Thursday of November when you’re 17 years old – this is the day when all Korean high school seniors have to take the state-administered college entrance exam - CSAT.
College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) – Exam Day
The exam begins and ends at the same time all over the country - 8:40AM to 6:05PM on the 2nd Thursday of the month. Results are officially released during the 2nd week of December (in 2008 the test was on Thursday 13 November and the results published on Wednesday 10 December).
On this day, workers at government offices and public firms all over the country are allowed to arrive at work an hour later (10AM rather than 9AM)so reduce traffic congestion and ensure that all students arrive at the exam place on time. The stock market may open late and close early. The frequency of trains and buses is increased between 6 a.m. and 10 a.m.. Motorists are prohibited from honking their horns near schools and teams of volunteers and special police units work as traffic managers. Parking is banned within a 200-meter radius of test venues. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority restricts aircraft operations near the exam sites so that noise will not disturb students during listening tests. Flights, both domestic and international, operated by national and foreign carriers will have their takeoff schedules altered between 8:35 a.m. and 8:58 a.m. and 1:05 p.m. and 1:35 p.m. on exam day so air travelers should to check their flight schedule in advance on the 2nd Thursday of November. Strikers and protestors will often suspend their demonstrations for that day. The military, U.S. and Korean, will usually halt live-fire training and aviation missions.
In the morning, taxis offer free rides to exam takers, as do numerous motorcyclists. Younger students stand at the entrance of the school to welcome and cheer on the seniors as they arrive. After sending their off their daughter or son, teary-eyed mothers head for a temple or church to spend the day in prayer to help ensure their child’s success.
In the weeks before the exam, many mothers visit Buddhist temples with photos of their children to be placed on the altar. They bow an auspicious number of times. Christian churches also push spirituality as a means for CSAT success by organizing prayer meetings and candlelight vigils. Family, friends and colleagues give special gifts to bring good luck and ensure the student has a positive mind set.
The importance of the CSAT
In Korea, children begin to prepare for the CSAT from the time they are about 4-5 years old so that they can ultimately reach the SKY – the collective nickname of Korea’s ‘big three’ universities: Seoul National University (SNU), Korea University and Yonsei University. Getting into one of these three is the hope of every Korean child and her/his parents because not only will graduates from one of the big three have the best academic pedigree in the country, they will also have a strong alumni network – people tend to mentor and hire graduates from their alma mater. SKY graduates are also the most attractive marriage partners, along with women with degrees from Ewha Womans University – so SKYE is the ultimate goal.
To make it into the SKYE, a student has to achieve a near perfect score on the CSAT and top grades in school. To improve their child’s ‘chances’, parents enroll their children into special pre-schools, have them attend private institutes (hagwons) for extra math, science and English studies before and after school as well as on weekends. Those who can afford it also arrange for private tutoring in addition to the time spent in the private institutes. It is not unusual for parents to ‘beggar’ themselves as they invest in their child/children’s future.
In recent years, parents have also been sending their children abroad, usually to English speaking countries, to either improve their chances (or for some, to get their child out of the system). Sometimes children are sent on their own, but as younger and younger students go abroad, they have increasingly been accompanied by their mothers, while the father (aka goose father) remains in Korea to earn the money needed to finance this investment.
The concept of an exam that determines one’s future is not new to Korea. Traditionally, the sons of noble families who wished to be government officials had to take the national civil service exam (gwageo) for which they studies for many years.
Mothers and the CSAT
South Korean mothers has taken the role of ‘educational agent’ for their child and as such, feel obligated to micro-manage her/his schedule so that not a single possible study minute is lost. Winter and summer school vacations just mean that students don’t have to ‘waste’ time in school, and so can spent every waking hour with a tutor or in a hagwon until very late at night. This is one of the reasons why it’s rare for a college/university-bound student to have a summer or part-time job. Some mothers even resort to bribery to ‘improve’ their child’s school grades or to get them preferential treatment; although that is happening somewhat less often in recent years.
Suicide and the CSAT
Because everything rides on this one exam, this one day, it is not surprising that there are suicides before and after the test, or when the results are published. Some students, convinced they will not do well, chose to die rather than take the exam. Although the highest number of suicides use to happen in December, these days they happen earlier since the answers are posted on-line hours after the test is over.
Since the primarily role of the mother has been to work with her child/children to ensure that s/he get the highest possible score (one of the reasons why Ewha grads are so attractive as wives), the rate of suicides among mothers is also high. Parents have also killed themselves and their children because of the loss of face cause by a low exam score. Some of these tragedies are included in the nation’s suicide statistics, while others are listed as accidents. However, surveys of high school students, especially seniors, have shown that nearly half of them have thought about killing themselves.
Cheating on the CSAT
Students enroll in special institute programs where they learn ‘tricks’ that will help them get the highest possible score, regardless of what they do or do not know. Some of these institutes have allegedly had access to the current test according to newspaper reports. Every year, some students are caught cheating – using new and improved methods each time.
After the CSAT
All of the hard work - almost no sleep and constant studying during the last year of high school following years of intense tutoring and cramming in private institutes – not much is expected from university students. Once one has gotten into a SKY or other university, graduation is almost guaranteed. This is changing somewhat , but not entirely. However, where a particular large conglomerate tended to hire people from a specific university, that trend has begun to change, although the practice of hiring people’s from one’s alma mater is far from having disappeared. A quick survey of elected officials and high level civil servants will still reveal that most are SKY graduates. Entry into a top university is still the key to economic success and social status in Korea.
Photo by Regina Walton
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