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This November 18th was one of the most important days in the life of a Korean high school student: Korean Exam Day. High school students in their last year of high school (also known as 3rd grade) took their university entrance exams. This exam is what most of them have been studying for their entire high school careers. Some students start preparing for it in middle school. Middle school! WOW! Once the students reach high school, they stay late for “self study” time. School begins roughly around 7am and goes until 10pm, 11pm, or midnight. Third grade high school students stay the latest, and even after midnight, some of them would go to a private study room for another hour or so, then sleep a few tiny hours and go back to school the next day to do the same thing. If they’re not at a study room, they might be at a “hagwon”, a private after school tutoring centre that costs parents a lot of money. For majority of students in Korea, middle/high school is your entire life.

This test is such a big deal that police are there outside of the doors to monitor who goes in and out of the school, and to control the crowds. Work is pushed back to 9am that day so all the students can get to their high school smoothly. Korean celebrities, like SHINee and other SM artists, posted videos wishing the students good luck the day before. The day before the exam, the schools are emptied of all material, and all reflective surfaces are covered in the classrooms to prevent cheating. Students must bring their own lunches that day, because the school cafeteria doesn’t want to be blamed if the food makes a student feel sick and do poorly. No one, including the teachers, can go in or out of the school that day. No food delivery, no leaving to get food.

But some things are a bit too extreme. Teachers can’t wear perfume or wear clothing that might distract the students from their test. Supervising teachers must remain in one place for the whole exam; if you walk around too much to check for cheating, a student might complain that it distracted them. If a student is sick, other students can complain on or blame the sick student for distracting them.

The internet becomes a scary place for teachers after the exam. It can get to the point that some students with low marks will report their supervising teacher for being a distraction, and the student’s poor grades are a result of that supervisor. In turn, that teacher can get into a lot of trouble because of these distraction. In other words, the stress level is extremely high, for both students and teachers alike.

And that’s why the junior students wait outside to cheer their fellow seniors from 5am – 8:30am. With all the stress and heaviness placed on that day, everyone could use a little cheering. Hopefully all of the students did well that day, and didn’t notice Martina’s terrible bowing skills. Fighting! So here’s a video of them cheering from wayyyy early in the morning. We think it was really cool, and we’re glad to have been a part of it.

ToFebruary
  1. Allie Jane

    Whoa! This is so intense! I remember the day we had to take the ACT (the midwest of the US typically takes this instead of the SAT), we weren’t really caring. I mean, I freaked out, but I didn’t spend my life training for it. I barely used my ACT book, lol (and I later retook it anyway because I didn’t like my score, and I still barely prepared for it and did better than the average at my school) But…my problem with all the intensity and pressure put on this one test is that…well, in my school, we get told a lot that some people aren’t good test takers. I have a friend who is wicked book smart, like when it came to seminars and discussion groups, she beasted it, but she had terrible test-anxiety, so she would get D’s and stuff, when everyone knew she was the smartest. So, those Korean kids with test anxiety…what did they do? Was there someone to talk to to get special accommodations for test anxiety? Is test anxiety spoken about there? And in America, your score may be low, but if you’ve done a shit ton of community service and are in a ton of clubs and have an okay gpa, with a pretty good placement in your class, you’d get into most schools. But in Korea they don’t even have time to do community service, something that is heavily pushed on us if we want to get into college. It’s so odd to see what students have to do to get into universities in different countries!

  2. I look at this and I suddenly feel like the United States needs a better work ethic. Then again, I’ve always felt that way since I entered high school…We should all work harder! :D
    There are a lot of people in my school that won’t do any of their work, some re-do their grade, or even just drop out of school because they do not want to do the homework (which isn’t even very hard). It makes me sad. I talk to college/university recruiters and they are all amazed that I get all A’s in my classes. I’m just like, “Why? All I did was do my homework. That isn’t anything to brag about.”
    I just don’t get it. Why can’t schools and kids be a happy medium between the Korean work ethic and the United States individuality ideals?

  3. Wow, I’m so touched by the juniors that are cheering for their seniors! I accidentally found this site while searching about Korean SAT exams :) It’s quite similar to the SPM exams. Here in Malaysia, we start preparing 2 years before the exam, but we don’t have middle school here tho. We start high school when we’re 13 and we have to take an important exam called “PMR”. PMR is to determine what stream we are going to enter (science stream/art stream) and from age 14-17, we’ll be studying all the subjects based on what stream we’re in. For the science stream students, we’ll be studying BM (national language), English, Maths, Additional mathematics, History, Physics, Chemistry & Biology & moral :) This are the subjects we’ll be taking for our SPM exam. When you apply for colleges, universities or even work, it all depends on our SPM results so SPM is similar to SAT :D it’s really really important as it determines our future! The only thing different is that the juniors here in Malaysia doesn’t cheer and all, the only thing they do is maybe send Goodluck messages thru Facebook or text. other than that, we don’t study until midnight at school. I’m currently taking the SPM exams! The exam is going on from the 3rd to the 27th of November :) Im taking a total of 9 subjects and I’m done with 4 already :D

  4. In korea you study for your final high school exam since middle school? wow!! In Australia when you reach senior years (which is year 11 and 12) you get to pick 6 or 7 subjects out of 50-60 subjects, with english as the only compulsory subject. (So these subjects could be music, dance, art, chemistry, physics, legal studies, business studies, and many moe). For the final exams they only test you on the stuff you learnt in year 12 except for maths where you have to study the stuff learnt in yr 11 and 12. However, for the other subjects, yr 11 stuff helps you to understand the stuff you’re gonna learn in yr 12. Unfortunately when you reach yr 11 you also learn a lot of new stuff that doesnt really build up from yr 7-10 (there are some topics that does but only a few).
    After you do your final exam, if you want to go to uni you will receive a percentage rank that tells you which uni courses you can or cant enter called ATAR. If you got 99.95%, it means you’re in the top 0.05% of the whole country. But if you cant get into a uni course because your ATAR is too low, you can go to TAFE where they can help you go to uni later. It’ll take longer to get to the course you want though.
    If your marks for the entrance exam isnt good in korea? what will happen to you?

  5. Is this always on the same day? My friend went back to Korea from her exchange and is stressing about this exam… I really want to cheer her on when it comes time to it.

  6. Wow… On the exam day, is the school closed for all other students and non-supervising teachers?

  7. xxmalle-mus

    I wish we had this kind of thing in Denmark. We have something a bit different though. When we’re done with ‘high school’ each class (that consists of 30 students, more or less) rent a huge truck with an awesome stereo and drive around in the city while visiting each students home, where there will be served some food and usually some kind of alcohol too (since we’re allowed to drink at age 16). On the truck they will usually have banners saying “1 honk, and we drink – 2 honks, and we flash – 3 honks, and we will moon!” and they will be screaming and cheering everywhere. Then at the end, they party like hell. Everytime you see a truck filled with students you’re supposed to scream congratulations and cheer for them. At least that’s what most people do. Now, before all the classes that have graduated starts crusing around, all students and parents and everybody will be cheering at the school. And that’s how we do it. I’m so looking forward to it :DD !!

    We also have these hats og cap-things (don’t really know what to call them), where your friends will write a message on the inside. And then there’s rules for these cap-hats too. Every time you throw up, you get like a small cut in the screen, and if you pee in your pants because you’ve been drinking too much, you have to drink a beer out of the hat. And a bunch of other crazy rules. Lookin’ forward.

  8. Wow….if we only took things like this seriously over here! I love it!

  9. wow i find this to be rather touching actually O.o

    nearly cried T^T

  10. Anonymous

    hi martina!
    there’s something like this in china too called the “gao kao.” if you ever get curious about chinese education, you should check that out

  11. ohhhhh this brings back my memory! I was cheering for my seniors too!
    5AM is nothing! most of us were outside of school waiting like from like 2AM
    I remember by the time I headed to home, I felt like wind was blowing through my bones and cracking up into pieces like they were dipped into liquid nitrogen XO
    it was sooooooo cold and I will never forget that day because of its fun as well as its coldness~

  12. Cecilia G

    OMGGGG Korean people are so nice <3 I WANNA TEACH THERE<3

  13. the last year of = school in singapore is when they are at sec 4 which is kind of like 10th grade, we got  prelim,common test,mid year before N levels 

  14. So do you guys get to work as a teacher in Korea for a couple of years, and then have to move back to Canada and find teaching jobs there? Or, do you guys just get to keep on teaching in Korea? Cause I am still really confused about the whole teaching abroad thing, but i’m really interested in doing it as a career in the future!!!!!!

  15. wow. I’m totally speechless. this is really something. I’ve noticed that 3rd graders would stay up late til midnight to study for their exams, but teachers not allowed to wear perfume and get reported for the students low rank? that’s extreme.
    but it’s just really nice like that that the juniors cheer for their seniors. as for me here in my country, juniors won’t really give any care. yes they’ll send you messages or something thru the internet or to your phones, but that’s just it.
    I do have a lot more respects for these Korean people. thank you Simon and Martina! your work is love :)

    • it’s really good that the teachers are not allowed to wear perfumes!!!!! i’ve been through some exams with some crazy teachers wearing piercing perfume that can distract in an instant!!! what’s more it stays for quite some time before it wears off ur spot….

  16. they take at least 9 exams. 5 including 4 exams through 2 semesters and this big test, and about 4 more tests from schoolboard for practicing this big test

  17. gotta say something as korean. third graders take 4 exam at their own school, 1st semester’s mid term and final and 2nd semester’s midterm and final. at october, they take this test and with that grade, they can apply for the universities they want to go . if they fail? apply to the university that doesn’t need high grade. if the student doesn’t want the bad university, he or she studies again and take the exam again next year

  18. Can I ask a question?Ohh ok I’ll ask – do 3rd graders take only one exam in Korea.Because here in Bulgaria we take a lot of exams.First we take English exam (TOEFL, IELTS etc.) when we are in 10 or 11 grade.When you are in 3rd year you take exams for all classes and I really mean all – biology, chemistry, physics, geography, mathematics, Bulgarian, English, PE, history, informatics, psychology ,some classes that only your class studies in that school and that grade (I study Spanish and also you cant just choose what to study in high school U STUDY ALL OF THOSE).When you do those exams from what you got from it (A,B or C… – here you get 6,5,4,3,2(2 if F – Loser) and 1 if you help someone) the teacher decides what will be your mark for his class ( if this year you had 6,6,5 and 4 on the exam in some class the teacher will do this – (6+6+5+4)/4= 5 for the year which is B).Then you have to take a Matura exam which will have the final word for you diploma.There are two matura exams one that is obligatory (Bulgarian exam) and one one of your choice (for me English) but of course you can take more matura exams.Then comes the funny partT.T. Lets say you have 4(C) and 4(C) on your maturas and you have 6(A) form school (all the classes in one – something like a GPA) …so on your diploma you’ll have…..*thinks…(4+6+4)/3=4,75 O.O after all the hard work to have all 6 in all classes T.T (sad). And after this you take different exams from all the universities that you are trying to get in.
    I think about going to Korean university thats why I try my best but the school system in Bulgaria is soooo wrong. First we don’t have elementary,middel and high school.You can study in one school from 1 to 12 grade or if you want when you finish 7 grade there is an exam to get in better school because when you get in 1 grade you parents send you to the one school that is closest to your home.And a lot of people say that Bulgarian kids are not smart but we actually study things faster then for ex. kids in America. The math that kids in America study in 7 or 8 grade we study in 5 grade. XP

    PS: I LOVE EAT YOUR KIMCHI AND KOREA <3

    • OMG I’m so happy to see another bulgarian into kpop (that’s not a common thing at all)!!!! However I think that the school system in Bulgaria isn’t that bad. Elementary school is 1 to 4 grade(you’re learning the basics of all subjects from only one theacher), middle contains of 5,6,7 grade and high school – 5 years. At that time you have (the most common case) one theacher for each school subject. I was born in 1997 and my generation has to take exams for all of subjects every year. In 7 grade bulgarian and mathematics are more important. Depends on how you score on them you could have a chance to go to a better school or the one you want to, and of course there are different types of schools. And last, THE EXAMS (Matura) in 12 grade are just… they realy aren’t kidding… Like I’m preparing since 8 grade and now I have two more years to continue doing that :(. And the situation may be different depends on what is your choice for the second one (first one must be Bulgarian), like mine will be German and for teens who are learning in schools with foreign languages there are various other exams (German-Deutsche Sprach Diplom which is for peole who want to study abroad and it’s “available” in few high schools in Bulgaria because it’s realy difficult for them to just be able to issue one).

      PS:I’m NOT saying that in Korea is easier, in fact I have seen on TV that one of the moust difficult graduating exams are there.I’m sorry if my English isn’t perfect, it’s my third foreign language in school :)

    • 이수 최

      I think you have some misunderstanding for Korean exam. Korean entrance exam is ont just dealing with one feild. The exam consists of 6 or 7 subjects. and in 3rd grade, students also take another type of exam called ‘ 내신’ which is cuducted 4 times in a year. that exams contains about 9 subjects which is taught in 3rd grade curriculum. and  lastly, in 3rd grade, students also prepare another exam called ‘수시’ whose matarial totally exeeds the curriculum of high school. and through out all 6 years, from middle school to high school students have to study for 내신. and some students prepare other exams besides the exams above in order to take the bonus score in the college entrance.But regardless  of the number of tests, the core of Korean entrance exam is the extent of competition which makes Korean school life hell. because of this too much competition, some students escape abroad.

  19. Wahh that's EXTREME. Here in the Philippines we have separate exams for separate universities. Korea is very lucky to have only one. I have to take a lot starting this July (at least 4 cause I'm applying for BIG UNIVERSITIES rock on!) T^T and I'm planning to study in the US so i have SATs too. aigoo :)) We have review programs here held during our summer break and it's held at different review centers outside school. (Im starting this April ) We also have separate programs if you'd like to take tests like SATs, IELTS and TOEFL. I heard that we have to take them if we would like to studying in Canada and the US.
    It's so lucky and sweet that the hoobaes are cheering for their sunbaes are cheering for them. For us if you do that on our entrance exam test day, they're going to think you're crazy HAHAH.

  20. wow..I got so emotional while watching this video…I was one of those girls cheering for senior students on the morning of the exam day. we had to wake up so early to get the best spot for cheering. since all the senior students from different schools are randomly separated in several local schools for that exam, you'll see juniors from other schools cheering for their seniors that morning. that's probably what Martina means by "competing." the next year when i was taking that exam( it was the longest day of my life) i was very touched by the junior students' cheering. what a crazy memory! It's also fun to watch boys cheering for their seniors ;) they go crazy.

  21. Well, i can totally understand them !!!! As a 3rd grade high school student ( but in Greece – we have the same educational system ) i really feel what these exams are !!!! I love that they are soo cheerfull and everyone support the students ( unfortunately this is not happening to my country ) !!!!!

  22. alina1994

    Wow this is amazing :D they are so cheerful and all.. I wish I'd have something like that when I take my final exams in 2 years >_< Well, I think that Korean education system is insane. Sorry if that sounded rude, but thats just my opinion. Why doesn't the government change anything? I mean, they make students spend their whole youth at school, actually; study during the night etc. It's not really surprising that Korea's suicide rate is so high, is it? Okay, maybe it's more the adults.. but anyway. Pheeeww I just hope Korean students won't have such a hard time anymore someday..

    • It’s because Korea is such an education based society. My grandfather was always away from home on business in America when my mom was in highschool and since he usually was really strict, and my mom had five other siblings, my grandma didn’t enforce studying, my mom just took it as her duty. The mentality of these tests are that if one does well then they’re set up for the future. Every Korean parent dreams of their kid being a doctor or the like because historically, it’s always been the most honorable profession. Even the kings were scholars. Generally, Korean students won’t commit suicide. Or at least in my experience they won’t. For the most part, we’re very driven people. It’s really stupid how much they study, but these exams determine everything. I mean, they don’t consider that it’s not what you learn or where you learn but what you do with your education. Anyways, that’s the logic(ishness) behind it.

  23. Yeah, Martina explained almost all. I'm going to take this exam (수능) in 3 years… haha those upcoming high school years would be so rough but also happy with my friends living in the same dorm! ^_^

  24. i saw this on news the other day..it was really extreme.
    i think blaming on distractive clothes and perfumes for one's bad grades is really unreasonable!
    if one is well prepared for an exam, no kinds of perfumes or clothing can prevent him/her from being able to answer the questions or write an essay!
    anyway, why did they have to bow in the end?

  25. This is maybe the coolest vid i've seen of yours so far… it was a neat glimpse of Korean life :p

  26. Just wondering, is this test a standardised test throughout the nation, which all the students take? And in the video, why were you competing against another school on the cheers? Don't the students take this exams in their respective high schools?

    • It wasn't a real competition. Martina's students were just more proud, so to speak, and they wanted to cheer louder than everyone else, which they did. And, no, students do not take the exams in their own schools. Some do, but many are peppered throughout different schools.

  27. wow that's touching. I know if younger students cheered me on as I walked in to write my exams when I was back in high school I'd get all emotional and ace the examsssss haha. Nice video, very unique aspect about Korea that you don't find anywhere (maybe extremely rare cases that I can't think of) in Canada or North America. and LoL at the fail bow at least Martina recovered at the end^^

  28. Haha, I've just come back from my A Levels (which are set by Cambridge) here in Singapore, which are the equivalent to what it is over there. We take our exams over a month or so though, we have kinda a bit more breathing space than there, I guess.

    As for expectations to do well, it's uniform all over Asia, I guess. You have to score near perfect grades to get into a decent course in university. Can understand the pressure. Studying is my life Dx

  29. Now if only some of this excitement, energy, and enthusiasm for school and education could be siphoned off and injected into American kids…

  30. Katieeeee

    Your video about why you love teaching in Korea is probably the single biggest influence of what I want to do for the rest of my life. ^_^

  31. Woah, i want that kind of suppor t for taking exams! o.0
    by the way what kind of camera do you have?

  32. Korean students study 12years…for that exam…

  33. I applied for my health insurance that day, and the office was practically shut down due it it being the morning of the exam. Crazy.

  34. As a teacher, I really hate high-stress standardized testing, but this video made me really emotional because of the support from the other students. It's just fantastic that younger students would be up at that hour to stand in front of the test center and cheer on their classmates on such an important day. That's just not something you see in the U.S., and it's awesome.

  35. I'll never enter in a korean university!! This guys are too well prepared…:S

  36. Haha!~ It is extreme!~ Back in my country such exam being called SPM(Siil Pelajaran Malaysia) that determines who you are for the rest of your lives. To get a job here(for locals) in Malaysia, you'll be looking at your SPM, as well as going to uni(which is standard for any uni qualification arounf the world,right?). Same like Koreans, Malaysians will take the exams by the age of 17 which is our final year in the secondary school. And we would be studying for the big exam for 2 years, Some started right after our PMR exam,(the exam that determines which study streams you'll be in second level in secondary school, mostly aim for the science stream). I think most Asians live up for exams, because when it comes to exams we are like super busy from the students oneself to the parents, even to the policemen (some of them help out late students to go to exams). But something different that is juniors cheering for seniors which i found it kind of cool. ^^;

  37. wow that is so cool!!! haha i would have loved it if someone cheered for me when i took my SAT (or ACT) we should really start being the Melting Pot we are here in the USA and bring these different cultures together. when my brother takes his SAT next im gonna get my other friends together so we can cheer for him and his friends ^^

  38. I wonder if their test is harder than my test__i study IGCSE__Do you know if its harder or not?

  39. Ah I remember taking those tests for uni. I can't remember which one I took though. We have the option here in the U.S. to do the SAT or another one I forgot the name of it (what happens when you've been out almost a decade lol). I think it's sweet the kids go out to cheer for their fellow students. And when one girl showed up (before the last girl) I saw one girl give her something like candy. That was cute. I love the parents waiting across the street too. Hopefully everyone does how they want on the exams. :)

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