South Korea came to a complete halt as more than 650,000 high school seniors and graduates took the state-administered College Scholastic Ability Test, an exam required for entrance into the country’s most prestigious universities.
Commuting services extended their rush hours to help students arrive at test centers on time. The stock markets opened trading an hour later than usual, and government offices and businesses started later to keep traffic clear for test takers.
Flight landings and takeoffs were banned during the listening section of the English exam in order to create the best test-taking environment. The police also took a break from fighting crime by operating a temporary call center for those who needed a ride to the test centers in a patrol car or the back of a motorcycle, according to Yonhap News Agency.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Even the military had to stop conducting drills in order to reduce noise.
While most businesses had to delay or briefly stop operations in order to accommodate the test taking students, one particular industry was booming.
“Since there are so many customers asking for the talisman, I had to adopt a reservation system. This year is already fully booked,” said a shop owner who sells the lucky charms to students hoping for a little divine intervention.
Not wanting to take any chances, anxious parents hoping to give their children an extra boost of fortune lined up at stalls which sold the amulets for exorbitant prices.
The procedures taken on test day may look extreme to foreign observers, but are a natural part of life in South Korea, a country that places an extraordinary premium on academic achievement.
“Even our foreign clients don’t ask about it anymore,” Jude Noh, chief currency trader at Suhyup Bank in Seoul, told Bloomberg. “There’s nothing unusual about it.”
The results of the exam can make or break a young Korean’s dreams. High scores guarantee a spot at one of the “Korean Ivy League” universities, or SKY universities, as they are known: Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. Graduating from one of these schools means a career with the civil service or South Korea's chaebols (business conglomerates) Samsung, Hyundai, and Daewoo, for example. The exam results can even influence one’s marriage prospects.
In recent years, South Korea’s ultra-competitive education system has come under fire. The importance of succeeding in school puts Korean children under intense pressure, forcing some to spend years studying for the annual College Scholastic Ability Test.
Some who don’t succeed commit suicide, the leading cause of death among those aged 15-24 in 2011. Nonetheless, there are no signs that the extreme expectations placed on young Koreans will abate any time soon.