I left the house a little early on Thursday morning to catch some of the activities outside a local high school as students entered to take the college entrance exam (대학수학능력시험). It's the most important day in a student's life, and thus is a defining characteristic of the Korean education system. For an overview see the Wikipedia page, today's post by Chris in South Korea, my post from last year, and articles today in the Korea Times and Korea Herald.
Outside the school friends, parents, siblings, schoolmates, and teachers were there to cheer on the arriving students.
I got there around 7:45 AM, and found people outside the school waving signs, singing songs, pulling students onto school grounds, and passing out tea, chocolate, and candy to students and on-lookers. Parents often walked their children to the gates.
Students from several different schools were brought to this one for the exam, hence the different signs and different cheering sections.
I took a couple short videos just to capture the atmosphere.
There were police directing traffic, and motorcycle cops responsible for escorting late students to school.
Standing outside the school I saw a couple in action:
Things opened later on Thursday. People were asked to leave for work an hour later, city buses became students' shuttle buses to particular schools, and businesses opened later:
And in the afternoon some businesses were offering discounts to students who took the test:
Naver's got a collection of articles, pictures, and information on the day, and if you're interested in looking through the questions and answers, you can do so here by first choosing a site, then choosing a subject. (Last year's is here.)
It's beyond the scope of this post to attempt to write what the day means, so I'll simply say it was a neat experience to watch. It doesn't "puzzle" me, and it's not "too unique" for my foreign brain to comprehend; I think it was an important display to see to add context to what goes on in public schools. Granted, high school students here are under an enormous amount of pressure for this single exam, and over the next few days we'll read about lots of student suicides as a result. But I will say I was impressed with the enthusiasm shown on test day by schoolmates, friends, and family members. I know when I took final exams in school, or when I took the SAT, I didn't have people cheering me on. Nobody walked me to school, teachers didn't shake my hand, and underclassmen and last year's seniors weren't chanting my name from across the street. That sort of ovation was reserved for football games, and only for the cool kids.
For a test as big as Korea's 수능, I suppose it's only fitting that the welcoming party be just as grand.