Students and parents bid goodbyes to each other at the gate of Myoungji High School Thursday, giving hugs and some in tears, as Suneung, the national college entrance exam, took place.
A total of 450,477 out of 510,000 test takers flocked to 1,265 test sites in 84 test districts across the country to take the annual exam, also known as the College Scholastic Ability Test, which plays an important part in deciding which universities they will be admitted to.
Even before sunrise rose, test takers began to arrive at Myoungji High School in Eunpyeong-gu, western Seoul, to take the eight-hour marathon exam.
Accompanied by their parents and siblings, the contenders showed up carrying heavy backpacks and lunch boxes, some tightly holding their books and study materials for last minute reading.
“I am nervous. But still I am glad that the day has finally come. After today, I will be free,” a student with the surname of Lee said. “I am ready for the next phase of my life.”
Some were in tears, appreciating that the big day had arrived after 12 years of schooling.
A student hugged her mother in front of the school gate, saying “I worked so hard. Right?” to her mother.
Though it is said the nation falls into silence on the Suneung day as flights are grounded, military training temporarily ceases, and government institutes and banks delay opening by an hour to prevent traffic in the morning, the narrow alley in front of the school was crowded with people and cars as parents dropped off their children.
The alley was jammed with traffic, as cars queued to drop off the test takers. When a parent tried to park her car in the middle of the jammed road to get out and bid goodbye to her daughter, an official from the district office stopped her, saying, “I know how you feel as a mother, but you have to leave now.”
Some parents stood in front of the school gate, watching their children head to the testing site, unable to leave out of anxiousness.
“I am worried if she might come back saying she left her belongings behind. I know there is nothing to worry about. But that is just how a mother is,” said Lee In-suk, a mother in her late 40s said, after standing in front of the school for about an hour.
This was the third Suneung to be held during the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the government had lifted many pandemic restrictions, strict regulations were placed on the exam to prevent the possible spread of the pandemic.
It was also the first time for COVID-19 confirmed test takers to take the exams at schools designated as testing sites. There were 1,889 test takers who were confirmed of COVID-19. They were allotted to separate 110 school test sites allotted for them.
Test takers with symptoms of COVID-19 were told to take the exam at 2,318 designated classrooms, while three contenders hospitalized due to COVID-19 and another four in emergency situations go through the exam at hospitals.
While students and parents flocked to test sites, many also gathered at religious facilities to send their prayers of hope.
“My son didn’t want me to see him off to the exam site, saying it’s embarrassing to go with mom,” Kim Kyung-im in her 60s, who visited Jogyesa, a sacred temple in Jongno-gu, Seoul, said.
“His older sisters went with him, so I came here to pray for him,” Kim said. “I just want him to take the exam comfortably. Of course, it will not be easy. But I told him to relax and don’t be too burdened. Nervousness will only get in the way.”
The temple, decorated with plants with name tags of test takers, was bustling with praying families praying. The temple gave out free drinks to the nervous visitors to warm themselves up.
“My second daughter is taking Suneung today,” Kim Ji-yeon, a mother in her late 40s said. “I don’t usually visit temples, but ever since my first child tried Suneung three times, I visit temples whenever my kids are going through important events.”
“I told her, ‘If you think that the exam is difficult, other kids will find it difficult as well, so don't be nervous. All the other parents are praying here with similar feelings, I guess,” she said.
Some also flocked to Myeongdong Cathedral, Jung-gu, Seoul, to pray.
“My grandson is taking the Suneung for the second time this year, as he didn’t get to enter the college he wanted last year,” Kim Hyuk-soo, 76, said, as he was praying to the Virgin Mary. “I am wandering around here although I have already made my prayer. It feels like I shouldn’t leave too early.”
“My grandson had tough days trying again for this exam. I hope he would get a score that he wants and finally feel free to do whatever he wants. I didn’t get to see him a lot this year as he had so much studying to do,” he said.
According to the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation, in charge of the running the exam, the level of difficulty for this year’s Suneung is similar to that of the previous year. The test results will be released on Dec. 9.
By Im Eun-byel (email@example.com)
By Lee Jung-youn (firstname.lastname@example.org)