(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
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
“I didn’t pray hard enough last year,” Lee, 53, said in
an interview at Bongeunsa. “This exam can change people’s lives
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
For Related News and Information:
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--With assistance from Yewon Kang and Sam Kim in Seoul. Editors:
Stuart Biggs, Drew Gibson
To contact the reporter on this story:
Heesu Lee in Seoul at +82-2-3702-1645 or
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stuart Biggs at +82-2-3702-1605 or