Thursday, November 7, 2013

Suneung Day: The ACT's distant Korean cousin

[As a part of National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo), I'm posting here once a day during November.  Today is Day 7.]

Today is an important day for many Korean seniors in high school.  Today was 수능 (suneung) Day, which is short for 대학수학능력시험 (College Scholastic Ability Test).  You could equate it to the U.S.'s ACT, but I think that's a huge mistake.  The Suneung is on an entirely different level.

Before explaining why, I feel some background is needed first about education in Korea.  My co-teacher has told me more than once that South Korea doesn't have many natural resources, but they have lots of people.  Thus, the mind/intelligence is Korea's resource.  Koreans study hard, and there is lots of pressure to perform well in school.

Many students have private tutoring at "hagwons" after school for a couple of hours.  And then they go home and stay up really late studying more and doing homework.  Weekends: studying.  Focused, hard-core studying.  Not "American" studying.  I think the seriousness becomes universal around middle school, but I still have lots of elementary students who go to academies after school: English, piano, taekwondo,violin, etc.  Since I haven't interacted with middle and high school students here yet, I'm going off of articles and blog posts I've read.  Like this one: read this post about a South Korean middle schooler's weekly schedule.

While you're at it, read this article too (South Korea's national obsession with education).  It's short!  And it does a way better job explaining what I'm trying to, plus it actually lists sources!

So back to this exam.  Here's why it's not fair to equate it to the ACT:


  • The Suneung can only be taken once a year, on the second Thursday in November.  I took the ACT twice in the same year, on Saturdays.
  • The test is from 8:40am to 5:00pm, with a lunch hour in the middle.  The ACT was definitely not that long.
  • The score determines which university one can go to.  
    • A good score with admittance to a top Korean university means a good job at a reputable company, and being more "desirable" for marriage
    • There is lots of pressure to study hard and perform well
  • You could say these students have been preparing for this day since elementary school.  I don't even think I did a practice test before I took the ACT.
  • The sophomores and juniors cheer for the seniors when they get to school that day, and often bring tea and something light to eat for the seniors who didn't have time for breakfast.  There was nobody waiting to cheer me on when I arrived at my ACT test site.
  • My co-teacher said businesses nearby high schools will open an hour later on this day, to prevent traffic problems so all students get to the exam on time.  This surprised me when I heard it, because this practice does not exist with the ACT.
  • Stationery stores and bakeries sell special "Suneung Day" treats/items to with a senior good luck, or to congratulate them once they finish.  No and no.
  • If it's a cold week weather-wise, weather forecasters use the term "CSAT cold" on TV, meaning that the exam brought the cold in.  ACT weather?  No again.

That's all based on what I've heard from talking with my co-teacher and from reading various blogs on the internet.  Regardless of the accuracy in details, I think I've correctly portrayed the importance of this day. 

And now thousands of Korean teens will go to sleep tonight with a huge weight lifted from their shoulders.  I do hope they have pleasant dreams, and that they're happy with their test results that come in January.
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