▲ Far left, an underclassman sends off his senior with a cheer. Top, a late student is escorted by police motorcycle. Bottom, the classroom is dead silent as the exam begins. Far right, a teacher warmly embraces his student before the exam. Photos by Yang Ho Geun
The chilly morning air of Nov. 18 at Jeju Jeil High School was calm but grave, shortly before the eight-hour-long Sooneung exam (College Scholastic Aptitude Test) began. Conventionally, pre-Sooneung festivities and cheering parties held by large groups of fellow students would have heated up the venue. But instead, this year the Mothers’ Association, small groups of friends and families and teachers were out to form a serenely supportive air.
“Of course it is important. They have prepared for the last three years,” said Park Sook Hee in a Mothers’ Association apron as she poured out hot tea for incoming test-takers.
Sooneung, an annual exam that is a major component of college admissions, is the test to end all tests for high school students in Korea. It may sound similar to the American SATs, yet its social magnitude is incomparable because of how imperative its result is believed to be for the student’s future.
“This determines the first gateway in life, which is college. This test can decide people’s lives. So this is a very important test ... It's unexplainable if you’re not taking the test yourself,” said Kim Tae Young, an underclassman who was supporting test-takers at Jeju Jeil High School.
Most test-takers seemed to be in a tense mood and rejected interviews for understandable reasons. They exchanged short words with their families and teachers before solemnly entering the campus gate, while their supporters were left staring in their direction long after they were out of sight.
▲ Ko Mi Kyung stands outside the front gates of Jeju Girls’ High School praying for her daughter who was inside taking the test. Photo by Yang Ho Geun
The examination ran from 8:40 a.m. to 6:05 p.m., including an hour for lunch. It was administered simultaneously at 14 locations in Jeju, and divided into five sections: Korean, Mathematics, Foreign Language, Social Studies/Science, and Second Foreign Language.
Ko Mi Kyung, a mother of a test-taker, was still standing behind the closed gates of Jeju Girls’ High School more than 30 minutes after the test had started, praying.
“I wanted to send my heart and will out to my daughter who’s taking the test in the closest place that I can be. My daughter had one dream that she wanted to achieve since elementary school. Just that one dream. For that goal, she wanted to go to this one college since elementary school. I'm anxious, but I'm certain that she'll do well,” Ko said.
At nearby intersections of Jeju Jeil High School were police officers and volunteers controlling traffic to ensure test-takers’ safety and convenience. While most students entered the location early in the morning, a student was seen escorted by a police officer on a motorcycle at the brink of being late.
Officer Park Soo Hyuk from Jeju Seobu Police Station explained that about six police officers and 10 or more volunteers from Best Drivers’ Association and Veterans Association of R.O.K Marine Corps were allotted for each test location to control the traffic.
“Primarily, [our duty is] to control the traffic for the security of the test-takers ... sometimes accidents happen because it is the morning rush hours, and we try to prioritize students’ entrance over reporting small accidents. These are the principles.”
Officer Park added, “I’ve also transported some students who came to the wrong location due to nervousness.”
The support also came from those who were not directly related to the test-takers. Jee Young Min from Jeju Bank was distributing tissue packets on which was printed “Sooneung Manjum,” or wishing for Sooneung perfect scores. Employees from VIPS restaurant were serving hot tea and cookies for free at the entrance.
Moreover, the Provincial Ministry of Education has requested cooperation to remain silent during the listening sections of the test. Airplanes do not take off or land during this time while ambulances do not blare their sirens. Construction sites temporarily cease work and protesters are expected to show similar decency. All for one, the Sooneung.
According to the Provincial Ministry of Education, there are 7,505 registered test-takers, which is 578 more than last year. Not only are they high school seniors but also jaesoosaeng, or repeaters. Every year, a certain number of students who are dissatisfied with their scores decide to retake the test after they graduate from high school.
Park Jeong Beom said, “As a ‘jaesoo-saeng,’ I didn’t feel the same nervousness I felt when I was a high school senior. I’ve been through so many mock exams throughout the year that the Sooneung felt like another practice.” He said that he decided to repeat for a year to gain a better college acceptance. The turning point behind this was after his first time under-taking of Sooneung that made him feel “why not twice?”
After the students are released from the pressure, they enjoy a number of perks. For example, at the Jeju Students Cultural Center there will be a concert by The Jeju Philharmonic Orchestra on Nov. 23, followed by a rock concert on Nov. 26 — all free of charge for those who submit Sooneung admission tickets. Also, Jeju Air offers 50 percent discount packages to test-takers travelling with families.
(Additional reporting by Darryl Coote)
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