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South Korea: It’s all or nothing?

Government offices open one hour late, the stock market is delayed and even flight restrictions are enforced during approximately 40 minutes. What is going on!? University entrance exams in South Korea.

On 7 November, the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), the South Korean state-administered university entrance exam, took place keeping almost the whole country on hold during early morning. Around 650 000 high school seniors took part in the exam which is deemed to decide over their future. And a university entrance exam in South Korea is not like a university exam anywhere else: Schoolmates from lower classes cheer on their senior fellows, while parents sit outside literally praying for their children to succeed. Even police forces are mobilised, escorting high school seniors who are running late on their motor bikes.

Developed and assessed by the Korean Institute for Curriculum Evaluation (KICE), the CSAT consists of five tests which take place during altogether nine hours, with breaks included. Korean students have to pass multiple choice and short answer exams in Korean, English, a second foreign language, mathematics and a subject of choice. The outcome then decides about admission to South Korean universities – with competition being particularly fierce for the most prestigious higher education institutions. Consequently, many South Korean high school students spend a significant amount of their time at hagwons, private tutoring institutes, in addition to regular classes at school. Spending on private tuition in South Korea is comparably high with the relative proportion of private expenditure on educational institutions accounting for 38.4 % in 2010 which is 7.6 % of the country’s gross domestic product – both rates are the second highest, according to OECD Education at a Glance statistics.

The strongly meritocracy orientated Korean education system has price. The strong pressure to perform is one of the main reasons for the relatively high rate of suicide among 13-19 years old – the leading cause of death among young people in South Korea.


OECD - Education at a Glance 2013

OECD - Contry note South Korea

Statistics Korea - 2012 Youth statistics (in Korean)