South Korea falls silent for college entrance exams — but students still feel the pressure

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills with "The World". If you've ever taken the SATs, you probably remember the anxiety and stress even years after the fact. But we've got nothing on South Korea. Today is the day that high school seniors there take their college entrance test - a six-hour extravaganza.


Jason Strother: This is the day that every Korean student has feared


Hills. That's reporter Jason Strother in Seoul.


Strother: Pretty much any Korean will tell that based on how you score on this test will determine your entire future.


Hills: That's incredible. I mean there's pressure on kids here, but nothing close to that. I was reading, it sort of seems like the whole nation takes part. I mean people sort of aid the students in taking the test in certain ways.


Strother: That's absolutely right, Carol. Just here in Seoul alone, they put an extra 1500 taxis on the streets in order to give a ride to the testing centers. If they were running late there was a special hotline that students could call for a police pickup. The stock exchange started an hour late. All public offices and some private companies were asked to start at an hour late. Even flights were re-routed, especially during a listening comprehension portion of the exam for the English language. And there was also a ban on airplanes landing and taking off from nearby airports during that portion of the test.


Hills: That's incredible. Is this all of South Korea or just Seoul?


Strother: No, it's all of South Korea. There were six hundred and fifty thousand students sitting this exam today.


Hills: Why is this test still such a big deal in terms of determining Korean students' future?


Strother: Well, Carol, there's a very narrow definition of what constitutes a success in South Korea. It's believed if you score high on this university entrance exam, that means you'll get a spot at one of the top three or four universities in Korea, you'll graduate and get a job at Samsung or Hyundai or any of the other top companies. That will even increase your marriage prospects, that you'll marry a man or a woman of equal social and economic and educational background, you'll get an apartment in the [??] Gangnam district of Seoul. And this all traces back to how well you do on this test.


Hills: I've got to ask, is the pressure as intense on girls as it is on boys?


Strother: Sure. Absolutely. I was at an all-girls school today. I spoke with a mother who had just watched her daughter go through the gates into the testing center. And I asked her if she as a parent put a lot of pressure on her child to score high on the exam and she said, look, specially for women, South Korea is so competitive that she would like to have eased up on her daughter, but it's just not possible to do.


Hills: It sounds like kids are under such intense pressure. I read of some new survey that says kids in Korea are actually the unhappiest in the industrialized world. Is that one of those bogus surveys or is there any truth to it?


Strother: This was put together by the South Korean government. They took data from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development comparing the happiness levels of children in the developed world and they found that South Korean kids are the least happy out of all them and it cited the educational pressure as the main reason why all these kids are so bummed out.


Hills: Jason Strother is a reporter based in Seoul. Thanks, Jason.


Strother: Thank you very much.