Suneung: What’s the Big Deal?

Is it truly the test of a lifetime?

November: it’s a time where the days become darker, the trees begin to shed their leaves, and the blistering cold descends. It’s ironic that these characteristics could be said for another event going on in November: Suneung. This test is held annually on the second Thursday of November, and for many, it is the final step to an arduous 12 years of slaving through a rigorous education system. 


Photo by Korea Herald

In order to clearly understand what this test entails, we have to first look at what the actual tests are. The main categories are as follows: Korean Language, Mathematics, English, Science/Social Studies/Vocational Education, and a Foreign Language. The first three categories Korean Language, Mathematics, and English are fairly straightforward as there are no sub-categories within these three tests. However, the same cannot be said about the other tests. Science is divided into Physics 1&2, Chemistry 1&2, Biology 1&2, and Earth Science 1&2. Students can take up to 2 different subjects in the Science category. Social Studies is further divided into Life and Ethics, Ethics and Thought, Korean History, Geography of Korea, Geography of the world, History of Eastern Asia, World History, Law and Politics, Society and Culture, and Economics. Students can choose to take up to 2 different subjects for this category as well. The Vocational Education category includes Agricultural Science, Industry, Commerce, Oceanography, and Home Economics. For this category, students are permitted to take up to one subject. Finally, for a Foreign Language, students have the option to take German language 1, French language 1, Spanish language 1, Chinese language 1, Japanese language 1, Russian language 1, Arabic language 1, basic Vietnamese language, or Hanja 1.

From this extensive list, you will probably see that Korean high school students are expected to be knowledgeable in several areas of study. Subsequently, in order to perform well on the Suneung, years and years of preparation must go into mastery for these subjects. Students will start from as early as middle school, and sometimes even elementary school, in order to gain a head start in the Suneung prep process. Once students reach high school, a lot of their freedoms are restricted: school periods are extended, cram sessions are mandatory after school, and parents will send kids off to either hagwons or private study rooms late into the night after cram sessions at school.

Perhaps it is for this reason that for one day every year, the entire Korean populace is silent as they pray and hope for the best results of all of the students. Parents flock to their local churches and temples to pray for their children to perform well on the test. It isn’t only the parents working hard to ensure that their children do well though. During the English listening portion of the test, all take-offs and landings are halted in order to make sure that no student in any region will face major disturbances. Furthermore, local police willingly provide rides to students running late.


Photo by Korea Herald

Support from local communities are gargantuan as well. First year and second year high school students will wait outside the gates of their high school as the third year students pass by to take the test. Underclassmen will often hand out yeot, a sticky traditional confectionary similar to that of taffy, with the expression “Eat a yeot” so that students taking the test will “stick” to the schools that they have studied so hard to get into.

Now, this system of college entrance may not be the most effective way to gauge a student’s ability to succeed in college or in life. In fact, it probably is one of, if not the most brutal and competitive manner of college admission. However, it is the system that we have to deal with. So next year, if you see students cramming into the late night as the date approaches the second Thursday of November, take a moment to pray for these poor souls as they have only one shot to make their 12 years of education count.

Written by Ye Chan Song (’18)

Featured Image & Photos by Korea Herald

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