수능 (Sooneung), the Korean College Entrance Exam

Two or three weeks ago, my CT (co-teacher) excitedly told me that this week, I would have a half-day Wednesday (which they almost changed their minds on?  Korean logic…long story) and no school on Thursday.  I was pretty pumped but I hadn’t heard of any national holidays this week and thought my school must be doing something special.  Actually, my school was doing something huge:  3rd grade high school students (seniors in high school) would be taking the Sooneung at my school on Thursday, and Wednesday was needed to clean the whole school, which is done by the students.  No school janitors in Korea!  Satisfied with her answer, we moved on in conversation and I looked forward to sleeping in and spending an extra day off with Josh.

Fast forward to this week…  Almost every day I return from a class with one of these on my desk:

Rice cakes and chocolate.

Rice cakes and chocolate.

Assorted rice cakes with flakes of coconut!

Assorted rice cakes with flakes of coconut!

Apparently these treats are gifts to the teachers from parents to cheer on the students for Sooneung.  Rice cakes are common gifts or food for before taking an exam or studying, following the superstition that eating these sticky rice cakes will help information “stick” to the students’ minds, or help students “stick” to the university they want to attend.

Up until this week I accepted that the Sooneung was just like our SAT at home and I didn’t think much of it.  In the States, we can take the SAT as many times as we are willing to pay for it, and it is offered multiple times throughout the year at multiple locations.  Some students stress out, take SAT prep classes and study the guides, but some students (like me) don’t study for it at all.  As a high school student I accepted the SAT for what it was:  a standardized test that can’t exactly be studied for.  At that point, I felt like I either I know it or I don’t!  And you know, I got some of the same math scores as friends of mine in much more advanced math classes who spent time studying, so my theory was kind of proven.  I did pretty well and got into the school that I wanted, though admittedly it wasn’t a very competitive school.

Very different from Sooneung.  Remember way back when, a few posts ago, when I talked about Korean students and how long they stay in school (until 10 PM) and how tired they are (since they usually take classes or study after they leave school)?  The reason they spend their whole student career in this manner comes down to one day, and one day only, and that is the day that they take the Sooneung.  It is offered once a year, on a Thursday in November.  And you know how the SAT is only 3 or so hours long?  Yeah, Sooneung is about 8 hours long.  Subjects include Korean, Math, English (yes, a foreign language is on their college entrance exam) and might also include science/social science or a test relevant to the student’s intended major.  Foreign language is also offered for other languages studied.  My town is not a large city so I didn’t notice a lot going on (I also slept in, heh heh) but in Seoul and other bigger cities schedules are adjusted for public transportation and police escorts are sometimes provided to make sure that students make it to the testing sites on time.  Traffic is restricted, flights are rescheduled to happen only during certain times, and even stock trading is delayed to make sure students get there on time and are not disturbed during their test-taking.

As far as the students and their families are concerned, the Sooneung is a few hours in one day that you prepare for your whole life and that also decides the rest of your life: which university you attend and in turn what type of job you will one day have.  Students spend their whole lives and families spend all of their money on tutoring, private learning academies (hagwons) and even private study spaces all with the Sooneung and university acceptance in mind.  Parents and siblings pray fiercely for their loved one’s success.  Morning of, a group of  younger students and mothers/families will be standing at the school gates to cheer the students on while they enter.  Overall, it seems all of the community and Korea come out to support the soon-to-be graduating students on this day, which is a nice show of community support to me.

The video below is a really great example of a day in the life of a Korean student preparing for the exam.  It’s only 20 minutes and gives a great insight into what these students are going through.

Hopefully now that the testing is over that the students feel relieved.  After today, no more after school classes and students are allowed to leave school after lunch.  I will have a somewhat lighter class load, but only because of my vocational 3rd graders getting to leave early as well.  I haven’t had any of the academic 3rd grade classes because they spend all of their time studying.  Unfortunately that means that next year (school year ends in January and begins in Feb/March) I won’t have some of my 2nd grade academic students, who I really enjoy teaching and talking with.

Thanks for reading.  Sometime this week I’ll be posting some pictures of what I’ve been doing with my students!  We’ve been having a lot of fun and some students even ask my co-teacher what I am planning next because they’ve enjoyed my classes so much 🙂

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