Suneung D-Day

Suneung D-Day is on November 7th! And we’re excited! My husband’s niece is one of the thousands of students who will take “suneung”.

From my niece's FB wall...
From my niece’s FB wall…

What is “suneung”? 수능 (suneung) is the short form of 대학수학능력시험 which stands for “College Scholastic Ability Test” or CSAT. It is the most important exam that a high school student has to take.
When is “suneung” held? It is held ONCE a year on the second Thursday of November. Students go to testing centers until 8:10 AM. They take the tests from 8:40 AM to 5:00 PM.
What are the subjects included? The “suneung” test is divided into five periods or 교시. The first period is test of Korean from 8:40-10:00. There are 45 questions in the 80 minute test. The second period is for Math from 10:30-12:10 or 100 minutes. There are only 30 questions for this subject. After Korean and Math, the students have their lunch from 12:10 to 1:00 PM. The third period is from 1:10-2:20 for English and it has 45 questions, including 22 questions for listening and speaking. The fourth period is a mix of Social Studies and Science from 2:50-3:52 and the final test is Hanja or Chinese characters from 4:20-5:00 PM.
Why is “suneung” a big event? This is the test that qualifies a high school student to their chosen university. Getting a high score is important to get into the top universities called SKY ~ Seoul National, Korea and Yonsei. Many believe that entering any of those universities would enable one to get a good job at a reputable company and being an alumni of any of those universities would make one “desirable” in terms of marriage. That’s why the Korean actress Kim Tae Hee is deemed as one of the most desirable women in Korea. She not only possesses a pretty face but she also attended Seoul National University.
How do students prepare for “suneung”? I can only talk about our niece’s experience. Koreans go to elementary school for six years, middle school for three years and high school for another three years. Pre-school is not mandatory, unlike elementary and middle schools. My sister-in-law started educating her daughter by reading books to her since she was a baby. She attended kindergarten when she was 4 years old. When she entered grade school, she had after-school classes in art, piano, math and English. From the time she was in third grade, she had more after-school classes like taekwondo, Hanja and Science. When she entered middle school, she stopped going to most of her after-school classes except for English, math and Hanja. Her parents also canceled their cable subscription. When she entered high school, she evidently had less time for vacations and her weekends were spent in 독서실 or reading room. On her third year in high school, she even spent “Seollal” or Lunar New Year and “Chuseok” in the reading room after the ceremonies. She didn’t join the whole family for our annual summer reunion because she didn’t want to waste time not studying.
Sweets for the test taker...
Sweets for the test taker…

There are special rituals for “suneung” preparation. One includes moms of the students going on temple visits to pray as early as when the student enters senior high school (or even earlier for some). And yes, my sister-in-law has been visiting temples every weekend to pray for her daughter. Chocolates or traditional Korean sweets like “yut” are given to test takers for good luck. It is believed that eating this sticky candy would help the student “stick” to their chosen college by getting a high grade. Lunch box or 도시락 (dosirak) for “suneung” are also specially prepared. Only healthy Korean dishes are included like hot soup, veggies, tofu and of course, “brain food” peanut rice porridge!
What are the signs that it’s “suneung D-day”?
– It’s D-day when buses have signs with the names of high schools and “수능시험장 경유“.
– It’s D-day when students cheer for their seniors as they come to school.
– It’s D-day when students get to ride in police cars so they won’t be late to the testing center!
– It’s D-day when even taxi drivers give students free ride!
– It’s D-day when mothers come to school nervous and teary-eyed!
– It’s D-day when it’s okay for workers to arrive late at work!
– It’s D-day when your niece’s Facebook page is filled with “Fighting” and “Good luck!”
…and your son’s teacher tells you that he could go to school until 9:50 AM instead of the usual 8:40 AM.
When I visited the stationery shop yesterday to get a ream of bond paper, I saw various “suneung” presents. The stationery shop is even selling specially made watches for test takers. So did I get something for our niece? My husband and I chose to give her 100,000 won in cash that she could spend to have a good time after the test. With all the preparations during the past months, she needs a break!
But what happens if a student fails the “suneung”? It’s not the end of the world yet, although there are people who think so and there have been cases of students and even their moms committing suicide for failing the test. Since it is only given once a year, the student will have to wait another year to take the test again. Many enroll in special review classes to prepare for it the second time around.
Back when I was a senior in high school in the Philippines, we also had an NCEE (National College Entrance Exam) then it was replaced by NSAT. I got a percentile rank of 99 on my NCEE, with 99+ being the highest. The difference with “suneung” is that the NCEE score does not reflect the actual number of correct answers. We also had a lot of pressure during that time since our college course was dependent on our NCEE score. That was more than two decades ago!
Good luck to our niece, Da-yeon, and all the other Korean students taking the exams! Fighting!

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