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Students speak out on exam stress

For Kim Yae-jin, Thursday, Nov. 18 was an important day ― perhaps one of the most important of her life. Along with around 712,000 other high school students, the 18-year-old took the College Scholastic Ability Test, or “Suneung” in Korean.

The results of the 9-hour, single-day exam will determine which university she, and thousands like her, goes to. It will also greatly affect her future career and salary. In a country which has the world’s highest proportion of 18 to 34-year-olds enrolled in college, many large companies prefer to employ graduates from prestigious universities such as Yonsei University, Korea University and Seoul National University.

“I want to major in hotel management,” said Yae-Jin, who lives in Daegu, the week before the exam. “I am hoping for more than 90 percent.”

Yae-jin, like most students preparing for the CSAT, routinely would study from early morning until midnight or later with just a few hours break in between. Many attend private cram schools, or “hagwon” in Korean, well outside of regular school hours. 
Students taking the 2011 college entrance exam at Yeouido high school in Seoul, Thursday. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)
Students taking the 2011 college entrance exam at Yeouido high school in Seoul, Thursday. (Ahn Hoon/The Korea Herald)

With such punishing schedules and so much at stake, stress on students can be overwhelming. Every year, the pressure surrounding the exam is blamed for a number of student suicides. One survey by the Korea Youth Counseling Institute suggested that up to 48 percent of students have contemplated suicide. Yae-jin believes the stress is too much.

“I wish schools would let us be less stressed, because they are giving us too much work,” she said.

“I think school has to give students less homework and study less at school. In Korea ... we spend most of our time at school and we study for very long periods so I think, yeah, every student is very stressed about the exam.”

Lim Sang-hoon, 18, from Seongnam Gyeonggi Province agrees.

“Korean society is making high school seniors crazy,” he said. “They think the entrance exam determines our future.”

Indeed, the Ministry of Education acknowledges that students are under intense pressure. “We recognize that Korea SAT is a heavy burden on our students,” said a spokesman for the ministry, “so our ministry has researched CSAT reformation since last year. This reformation is to reduce the weight of CSAT as an element of the university admission process.”

Among the reforms being considered is to give students who think they did badly a chance to re-sit the exam two weeks later. Another possibility is to offer an easier, lower level option in subjects such Korean and English along with a higher option, something already provided for in mathematics. The changes could come into effect by 2013, according to the ministry.

But not every student feels the same pressure over the exam, which every year sees flights rerouted away from exam centers and workers told to start later to reduce traffic that could hold up students. Kim Kwan-woo, from Seoul, wants to study history at Korea University or Yonsei and then study law in the U.K. For him, music was a great stress reliever.
A mother embraces her daughter as family members and fellow students at Yeouido high school give support.   (Park Haemook/The Korea Herald)
A mother embraces her daughter as family members and fellow students at Yeouido high school give support.   (Park Haemook/The Korea Herald)

“In my case, I played rock music with my band every Saturday and Sunday. We all get pressure and feel anxiety, but we have something which erases the anxiety for the exam,” he said.

Kwan-woo’s weekday study routine in the run up to the exam began at 6.30 a.m. when he arrived at school and would finish at 11.30 p.m. when he got home. During that time he usually took just three hours off to eat and relax. But despite his rigorous schedule, Kim said he has been too relaxed about the CSAT.

“I do not get stress or pressure. It is not always a positive thing because I also do not have volition to study much,” he said a few days before Thurday’s exam.

Although in recent years some colleges have introduced alternate admission methods, such as interviews and essays, CSAT scores remain the most important criterion for admission.

Yae-jin is adamant that this emphasis on one exam and one day is unfair.

“Rather than the students’ scores, they have to see their personalities or other things, not only their scores,” she said.

Kwan-woo, on the other hand, thinks the test is a fair way of assessing students’ level of knowledge. He said that having college lecturers with students of a similar standard is important.

“For instance, Korean high school is a good case of a contradiction where high and low level students take the same lectures. Unlike the USA or other foreign schools, Korean teachers cannot give attention to every student because there are too many students in one class - on average 40 to 45. So if that situation continues to university, it is harmful for everyone. Nobody can get satisfaction.”

But Kwan-woo agrees that too much importance is placed on education in Korea ― especially on the name and reputation of a university.

“Because in Korea, the name of the graduated university represents 80 percent of the man. Whether one’s personality or ability is good, it does not much matter,” he said.

“The university where you graduated from is the most important thing.”

By John Power (