South Korea shuts down for the all-or-nothing Korean SAT

Some 80 percent of Korea's high school students go on to further education. And to ensure students have the best chance, one day every year Korea changes its plane schedules, redirects traffic, and holds its breath.

Ahn Hyun-Joo/Newsis/Reuters
High school students prepare to take their college entrance examination at an exam room in Gwangju, about 204 miles south of Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday.

So much rests on today's annual college entrance exam in South Korea that planes were grounded, roads were closed, and places of worship were thronged with parents praying for divine intervention as students plowed through its five separate sections for nine hours.

For the nearly 700,000 high schoolers on their way out of school taking the test this morning, this will determine what university they will go to (if any), their salary, and their future fate.

Such is the all-or-nothing emphasis pinned on gaining entry to one of a handful of the top higher education institutions in the country – anchored in the so-called SKY (Seoul National, Korea and Yonsei universities) trinity – that the entire Korean education system is geared toward success on this single day of the year.

Beyond college, a place at one of the top colleges is seen as a golden ticket to the ultimate prize of a job at one of the country's top conglomerates such as Samsung, Hyundai, and LG.

But the pressure-laden path to the test, say critics, is one littered with some of South Korea's most glaring social ills. Though its education system is held up as a model around the world, with about 80 percent of high school students going on to college, South Korea harbors one of the world's most astronomical levels of private education costs forked out by parents intent on ensuring their children get ahead. And some have linked the test to some of the increasing number of teen suicides in the country.

One national newspaper columnist noted that this surge for a limited number of places at so few universities has also been linked to a spike in real estates prices in school districts with rumors of historically high pass rates.

The winds of change have been set in motion, however. President Lee Myung-bak wants companies to focus energies on recruiting high school graduates from vocational-focused places of learning in a bid to curb a rising youth unemployment rate.

South Korea's high university graduate rate leads to a bottleneck in the job market, pitting too many applicants in competition for a much smaller number of jobs. That, say experts, helps explain the country's high youth unemployment rate.

Whether Koreans will make the switch and value vocational educations, remains to be seen. For now, the exams are a "Korean rite of passage." Students are scheduled to find out what life holds in store for them on Nov. 30.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.