Students arrive to sit the annual College Scholastic Ability Test, a standardized exam for college entrance, at a high school in Seoul on December 3, 2020. Photo: Jung Yeon-je / AFP

It was dark and icy cold in Seoul’s Jeong Dong district at 7:15 on Thursday morning, but the narrow street was jammed with cars, and a dedicated police unit was busily directing foot and road traffic.

Ewha Girls High School, at the heart of this normally quiet, low-rise district behind a medieval palace and dotted with cafes, was a center for this year’s Suneung – the KSAT, or Korea Scholastic Aptitude Test.  

In a society where educational achievement is virtually a fetish, scores in the annual exam dictate which university students can enter. Given the prestige attached to university rankings, the Suneung is perhaps the most critical rite of passage in a Korean’s life.

It affects job prospects, social worth – even marriageability, according to some.

Preparation is notorious. It entails countless hours of study at school, at private cram schools or hagwan, and at home, late into the night, on weekdays and weekends.

It is savagely stressful for children and parents, and Covid-19 has made 2020’s test perhaps the most stressful ever. That was reflected in the scene in Jeong Dong.

Normally, parents and teachers congregate at the school gates, generating a festive atmosphere and cheering on exam takers as if they are athletes about to enter the Olympics or soldiers marching off to war.

Not this year.

Instead, moms and siblings, padded against the cold and masked against the virus,  quietly hugged test takers, handed over mascots and boxed lunches, exhorted them – “Fighting” – then watched them march through the portals.

Stress levels were peaking.

Within 30 minutes, Asia Times witnessed a minor traffic accident, a highly disturbed student who had come to the wrong location being rushed away in a patrol car with sirens blaring, and a mother who dashed back to the gates having forgotten to give her child a lunch box.

Police rush to deal with a minor traffic accident just outside the gates of an Suneung test center. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Day of days

Test takers had to be on-site by 8:10 am. After all had entered the test center, there was time for relatives to decompress before returning to pick up in the afternoon.

Seo Ji-woo, a 16-year-old, had presented her elder sister Jie-eun with her favorite snack – macaroons – and told her “Don’t be nervous. I love you” as she walked through the gates.

The night before had been rough.  

“Last night, Ji-eun was losing her mind,” Ji-woo said. “She was nervous, nervous, nervous.”

The Suneung was set for November 19, but was delayed. However, in the last two weeks, Korea’s infection numbers have been climbing.

“I was so nervous, as social distancing levels had been going up and down and then, just before Suneung, infection levels soared,” Yoon Soo-yeon, who had just seen her daughter Kwon Hye-jin enter the test center, told Asia Times. “I am so glad Suneung is finally happening. We are all so tired of it.”

Another mom, Lee Hyoun-joo, said, “I am so relieved it’s the end day. This year, when the new semester started, the students had to meet their new teachers but all the classes were online, so they could not do that, and the hagwans were closed.”

It was not just parents at the gates. Byun Bok-sup, a police officer assigned to Ewha’s school gates said three students had arrived at the wrong test center. All were whisked away to the correct location by police cars.

Byun, who normally patrols the nearby Namdaemun Market, was fully aware of the importance of his duties.

“This is a very big event nationally, so I am proud and happy to do it,” he said. “I arrived at 6:00 – two hours early – but it’s the same every year.”

Police officer Byun Bok-sup keeps a watchful eye outside Ewha Girls High School on the most important day on Korea’s educational calendar. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Special precautions

Even for a country that had held a general election amid the pandemic in April, the Suneung posed a massive challenge. Nationwide, 493, 433 applicants registered to sit the exam, according to a fact sheet put out by Yonhap news agency.

The event started with the Korean language exam at 8:40 am, followed by math, English and Korean history/social studies, which ended at 4:32 pm. Optional tests – a second foreign language or Chinese characters – ended at 5:40 pm.

Perhaps in recognition of the shortcomings of the multiple-choice exam format that is Suneung, there are alternative and/or additional routes to college. Some students seeking to enter elite universities also need to take additional written tests specific to these colleges.

But in a country were many seethe that too many people enjoy unfair advantages in life due to family background or corrupt practice, the Suneung maintains its primacy. It is meritocratic.  

Underlining the importance of the test, specialized facilities were set up to cater for these with symptoms – or even who have tested positive. According to Yonhap, as of Wednesday, there were 35 test takers confirmed with Covid-19 and 404 in quarantine. The latter were provided with special test centers while those with the disease were able to take the test in clinics or hospitals.

“It’s not possible even for people with symptoms to be excluded,” Bae Kyung-taek, a director-general at the country’s Disease Control and Prevention Agency, told Asia Times. “That’s impossible in Korean people’s minds!”

Yoon Yon-joo, a teacher at Ewha Girls High School, detailed some of the precautions.

Children were socially distanced in classrooms, and acrylic dividers were placed between students on the desks, she said. “We opened the windows every hour, even though it is winter, and each student ate lunch at their exam station. We disinfected the rooms in advance, but the basic exam process was the same.”

To keep numbers in classrooms low, South Korean schools have been teaching a combination of online-offline classes this year. And considerable leeway has been granted to local education authorities, with the result that multiple schools have been closed due to local infections, then reopened at different times.

The necessity of mastering online lecture skills, teaching and combined online-offline classes and administering classes, which can only be at a maximum of 50% capacity due to social distancing demands, has been a strain on teachers.

Still, Yoon was upbeat. “There are some advantages to online teaching,” she said. “In the case of emergencies, we can turn to online teaching, and teachers can post lectures online so students can access them whenever they want.”

Even post-pandemic, the skills and formats will “create a good synergy for new teaching methods” she said.

And some children found themselves happier studying at home. Suitability for online classes “depends on who takes them,” said Lee, the mother. “Sure, there are disadvantages to ingang (Internet-classes),” she said, but her daughter preferred them.

High school seniors at a school in Daejon, South Korea, sit behind plastic screens as a Covid-19 defensive measure earlier this year. Photo: AFP

It’s over

By 4:30 crowds of relatives – fathers, mothers, siblings and at least one pet dog – were waiting outside the gates of Ewha Girls High. As the exam takers filed out, they were engulfed by hugs and back slaps.

Relief was the predominant emotion.

“Last night I could not sleep I was so nervous, but when I got here, it was similar to the mock exams,” said Kim Chae-young.

Having interacted with so many strangers on the day, Kim said she would go into self-quarantine at home for two weeks, where she would “binge watch movies, dramas and Netflix.”

She plans to party with friends at the end of the year to bid farewell to her teenage years.

Macaroon-loving test-taker Seo Ji-eun was greeted by her entire family – mom, dad, big brother Ji-hwan and little sister Ji-woo.

“I feel relieved – I’m free!” she said. “I was a bit worried about Covid-19, but there was nothing I could do it about it, so I just wore a mask.”

However, she is not ready to start celebrating just yet.

“I need to prepare for writing tests this Saturday and Sunday,” she said.

Seo Ji-eun (center) is greeted by her brother Ji-hwan and sister Ji-woo after completing the gruelling Suneung. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

Seo Ji-eun – no relation to the source in the story – assisted Asia Times with translation for this article.