SEOUL (AFP) – Silence fell over South Korea on Thursday November 18 as more than half a million students took the high-stakes national university entrance exam, authorities taking extraordinary measures to minimize distractions.
Known locally as “Suneung,” the nine-hour test is crucial not only for securing places in top universities, but is also seen as essential for high social status, lucrative careers, and even marriage prospects.
The enormous pressure on students in South Korea’s ultra-competitive education system has been blamed for teen depression and suicide rates, which are among the highest in the world.
One parent was keen to relieve stress ahead of the 2021 exam.
“I just want to tell my daughter that I’m proud of her for working so hard so far, and that this test, regardless of the outcome, doesn’t define who she is as a person,” said Ms. Koh Min. soon, the mother of a person tested, told AFP on Wednesday.
Since last year, the Covid-19 has added to the pressure on students, parents and education authorities.
All classes went online for exam candidates in the two weeks leading up to the test, while students and their families were encouraged to stay home as much as possible during this time.
More than 509,000 students take the test this year, the education ministry said.
Throughout the exam, which started at 8:40 a.m., students will be required to wear face masks.
South Korea is one of the top countries for Covid-19 vaccination – nearly 80% of the population has been fully vaccinated – but it has seen an increase in cases as the review approaches.
Students arriving for the test have been screened, and those with symptoms of Covid-19 are expected to take it in separate designated spaces.
Some 70 students will take the exam, despite having recently tested positive for the coronavirus, at medical facilities with desks and chairs specially prepared for them.
The national significance of the exam is reflected in the extraordinary measures South Korean authorities are taking to eliminate any disruption to candidates.
Public offices, banks and the stock exchange open an hour later than usual to facilitate movement and ensure students arrive on time for the exam.
All take-offs and landings at airports across the country are suspended for 35 minutes during an English listening test. All planes in the air must maintain an altitude above 3000 m.
South Korea’s transport ministry said 79 flights – including 16 international – had been rescheduled due to the review.
Police car and motorcycle escorts were available in school zones for any student stuck in traffic or late.
“It is a very important day for the candidates, and the past year has been very difficult for them,” a national police official told AFP before the exam.
“So we’re just trying to do what we can to show our support. “