(Updates with police comment in third paragraph.)
By Heesu Lee
Nov. 7 (Bloomberg) — South Korea’s financial markets, banks and government offices opened an hour later than usual as more than 650,000 students take their college entrance exams today.
Rush-hour schedules for buses and trains were extended, with police mobilized to help students reach 1,257 test centers nationwide in time for the 8:40 a.m. start. A high test score and entry to a top university all but guarantees a prestigious job with the civil service or at one of South Korea’s chaebol, including Samsung Electronics Co. and Hyundai Motor Co.
“We put every possible resource into this day,” police director Yoo Jae Yong said as his team directed traffic near Jayang High School this morning in eastern Seoul, where parents and younger students stood cheering those arriving for the test. “If we fail to help a student get to the exam on time, we’re basically ruining not just their life but their family’s too.”
Competition for college places led South Koreans to spend 19 trillion won ($17.9 billion) on private tuition last year, according to the Ministry of Education. Examiners were secluded for a month to prevent the questions in today’s six-hour-plus exam from becoming public.
“South Korea’s zeal for education and individuals’ desire to get into a prestigious university is higher than in any other country in the world,” Kim Hye Sook, professor of education at Yonsei University in Seoul, said by phone last week. “The entrance exams play a crucial role in serving as a tool that ensures fairness and objectivity.”
Preparation for the multiple-choice test begins early. Four out of every five primary school children receive private education, often in night schools known as hagwon, according to Statistics Korea. Spending on private tuition in South Korea was the highest as a proportion of gross domestic product among countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in 2009, according to the OECD’s latest data.
That makes the task even more daunting for students like Kim Da Eun, who’s hoping to study humanities at top-ranked Seoul National University, the alma mater of Bank of Korea Governor Kim Choong Soo. Unable to take private tuition for family reasons, the 18 year-old from the southeast industrial city of Ulsan has been doing 15-hour school days to compete.
“I’ve been trying to sleep before 12 a.m. to pace myself until the exam,” Kim said by phone on Oct. 26. “Kids in Seoul have access to lots of private education, whereas those that live in small cities rely on school or online classes.”
The quest for a high score can be an all-family affair. Parents visit churches and temples to pray. Ten days before the exam, about 1,300 people gathered at Bongeunsa, a Buddhist temple in Seoul’s Gangnam district first built in 794, to complete a ritual 3,000 bows for good luck.
“It’s the least I can do to support my son,” Ji Young Suk, 46, said leaving morning prayers. Ji visited the temple for two hours a day since February, and moved with her family to the Daechidong area of Gangnam to be closer to the concentration of private schools.
About 20 percent of this year’s candidates are retaking the exam after failing or to boost their score, according to the Korea Institute for Curriculum and Evaluation. They include Lee Me Sook’s son Kyu Wan, 19, applying for courses in physical education.
“I didn’t pray hard enough last year,” Lee, 53, said in an interview at Bongeunsa. “This exam can change people’s lives forever.”
Taxi driver Hong Hyeon Su, 59, said he halved the normal journey time by breaking traffic rules while taking one student and his mother to a test site in Seoul today.
“I had my emergency lights on and waved my arm out of the window to show other drivers that we are in a hurry,” Hong said. “I felt so nervous because if I had failed to take this student on time, he’s wasted a year of hard work.”
To avoid disturbing the 650,747 candidates, traffic is restricted within 200 meters of exam sites. Sixty-five commercial flights have been rescheduled to avoid take-off or landing between 1:05 p.m. and 1:45 p.m. during the English-listening test, according to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport. The military will halt take-offs, landings and live-fire drills for 30 minutes, the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a statement.
Stocks trading will last from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., an hour later than usual, Korea Exchange said. The currency market also opened an hour later at 10 a.m. and will close at the usual 3 p.m., according to the Seoul Foreign Exchange Market Committee.
“Even our foreign clients don’t ask about it anymore,” said Jude Noh, chief currency trader at Suhyup Bank in Seoul. “There’s nothing unusual about it.”
The change won’t cause any unexpected market movement, said Lee Jin Woo, who helps manage $3.5 billion at Seoul-based KTB Asset Management Co.
Critics say there’s a cost to gearing so much to a single test. Every year, newspapers publish reports of suicides after students read the correct answers in the evening editions.
Worry over career and academic performance is the main reason for people aged 13-19 to consider suicide, Statistics Korea and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family said in a report this year. Suicide was the biggest cause of death among people aged 15-24 in 2011, according to the report.
As the test nears, classes shift from the official curriculum toward textbooks focused on exam-style questions, while personal development lessons morph into extra tuition in math, Ulsan student Kim said.
“Everything is very score-based,” said Park Hye Young, among the lucky students to win a place at university via interviews and school grades prior to today’s exam, avoiding the anxious wait for when results are announced on Nov. 27. The 18 year-old from Gyeonggido, next to Seoul, switched her first choice to German cultural studies from performance art production to boost her admission chances.
“The priority is getting into the university first,” she said.