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[From the Scene] Half a million take Suneung as nation holds its breath

Students take 9-hour exam; ‘Killer’ questions cut to reduce reliance on private education

Nov. 16, 2023 - 15:11 By Park Jun-hee
Other students encourage this year’s Suneung test-takers as they enter the test site at Kyunggi High School in Gangnam, southern Seoul, Thursday. (Newsis)

Hundreds of students showed up at Dongsung High School in Jongno-gu, central Seoul, Thursday, carrying backpacks and clutching study materials for last-minute cramming before sitting for South Korea’s college entrance exam, known as the Suneung.

Some busied themselves taking pictures with classmates. Others waited nervously.

A student hugged his parents before entering the school gate, saying, “You guys believe in me, right? I can do this.” The parents shed tears of relief and accomplishment after their son left.

Police stayed in front of the school to keep the entrance clear and wait on standby for tardy students who may need to be hurriedly escorted in.

A total of 504,588 examinees flocked to 1,279 test sites in 84 cities, counties and districts nationwide to sit the nine-hour five-session exam.

The exam kicked off at 8:40 a.m. with the Korean language section and ended at 5:45 p.m. with the second foreign language or Chinese characters session.

“I’m here to get my 12 years of schooling over with and move on to a new chapter of my life as an adult and college student,” a high school senior told The Korea Herald as he exited a taxi.

The Suneung test site at Dongsung High School in Jongno, central Seoul (Park Jun-hee/The Korea Herald)

A 50-something parent surnamed Kim told The Korea Herald that the family thinks their son will be able to achieve his dreams.

“My son started to put his nose to the grindstone in March as he became a high school senior to enroll in med school. I hope he will end up studying medicine nearby here,” she said, referring to the College of Medicine at Seoul National University, the nation’s top-ranked institution adjacent to the high school.

Students go up the stairs in front of Dongsung High School in Jongno, central Seoul, as they attend the Suneung exam, Thursday. (Park Jun-hee/The Korea Herald)

A 20-year-old Army conscript said he was taking the Suneung for the second time this year, aiming for entrance to a top university in science or engineering.

“I’m going all in for the Suneung. There is no third time for me. I’ll put an end to it (today) and show the military spirit,” he told The Korea Herald.

With so much riding on a single test, special measures are taken to ensure the exam goes smoothly. Government institutions and district offices in Seoul began work an hour later than usual to reduce traffic congestion, and operating hours of the stock exchange and foreign exchange market were similarly delayed.

Operation schedules for 94 flights were adjusted to avoid takeoffs and landings, and aircraft in flight remained at an altitude of 3 kilometers or higher between 1:05 p.m. and 1:40 p.m. during the English listening comprehension session. Military training temporarily ceased, and cars were prohibited from using their horns near exam sites. Police and other authorities were also dispatched to transport tardy students to exam sites on time.

The government announced in June that it would exclude the “killer questions” of previous years that were not covered by materials taught in class. It was also the first exam since the government declared an end to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Test-takers for this year’s Suneung, or South Korea’s college entrance exam, look at the seating chart of the exam room at Whimoon High School in Gangnam, southern Seoul, Thursday. (Newsis)

The Suneung committee explained during Thursday’s briefing that the questions only included educational material covered on the public school curriculum and have an appropriate level of difficulty to determine the student’s ability and knowledge. It added that it used the September mock exam, which was designed without killer questions, as a guideline.

In addition, the committee said it had tried to refrain from using passages requiring too much previous knowledge or questions with too many variables that test-takers have to spend too much time solving. Also, some 50 percent of the test questions came from EBS lectures -- a state-run public broadcaster specializing in education, which offers online courses.

The on-site teaching staff at EBS, however, found this year’s Korean language section questions to be more difficult than last year’s exam and the September mock exam, requiring a high understanding of the argument or main idea presented in a passage.

For the Mathematics section, teaching staff judged that the questions were easier than last year’s exam and harder than the September Suneung practice. They added that there are around five tricky problems that could evaluate a student's abilities and knowledge.

The teachers assessed that the English section, comprising 17 listening and 28 reading questions, was based on vocabulary and grammar skills, as well as on the comprehension and comprehensive application skills a student would need to study at university. They found the difficulty level to be similar to the September mock exam.

Meanwhile, the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation will receive objections to Suneung questions and answers from Thursday through Monday. It will then review the complaints and release the answers for the exam on Nov. 28 at 5 p.m. Test-takers will receive notice of their scores on Dec. 8.