Academic Intensity in Korea: How Suneung Affects Students’ Lives

Chaehyun Lee, Backpage Editor

How do students in Korea apply for college? There are two admission types in South Korea: Susi and Jeongsi. Susi is similar to early action in the United States, and Jeongsi is mostly associated with regular decisions. However, the biggest difference between the two admission strategies is that Jeongsi is solely based on students’ scores on Suneung—the Korean SAT—while Susi focuses more on extracurriculars and a holistic review. This means that a single Suneung score can dictate one’s admission chances and further impact a student’s future career and life.


The whole country falls into silence on the day of Suneung; shops call it a day, banks close and even the stock market opens late. Transportation is restricted as planes are grounded and even military training ceases. Many parents visit temples to pray or even perform rituals such as “one hundred and eight bows” to wish their child luck. The intense eight-hour test is the one and only chance for students to demonstrate their twelve years of hard work. 


This year, Suneung happened on December 3rd with COVID safety measures: students were required to wear K-94 masks and the government mandated the use of screens to prevent the spread of respiratory droplets. 


Sunyoung Park, a Korean senior who took the Suneung this year stated after the test, “I feel both relieved and nervous that the test is over now. I still think it is unfair that a single test represents my life and academic ability.”


Suneung is more than just a Korean version of the SAT: the test can determine someone’s life permanently. Most companies look for graduate students from certain prestigious universities, such as the Seoul, Korea, Yonsei (SKY) colleges. They are treated like Harvard, Yale or other top-tier Ivy League schools of South Korea. If one wants to reach his or her dreams and get recognized in the workplace, they need to go to one of those three universities. Korean society judges individuals based on their college degree. People from colleges that are not well-known are looked down upon and have less opportunity for promotion. Consequently, students bet their lives on this one-day test in order to get a good score, solidify an acceptance to SKY, and achieve better positions at work. This test creates further inequalities in society by encouraging an excessively competitive academic atmosphere. 


Most Korean students go to academies, or hagwon, which teach students concepts ahead of those taught in school that prepare them for the Suneung. However, these are only available to the privileged who can afford the system; therefore, academies create a larger gap between rich- and low-income residents. It perpetuates a cycle of income inequality since students with less access to resources and wealth have fewer opportunities to get into SKY and get on a path for a remarkable career. Students spend time studying in academies until midnight and get only a few hours of sleep due to obscene amounts of homework from hagwons. Academies and pressure surrounding academics are the biggest reasons for Korea’s high teenage suicide rates. 


Moreover, the intense focus on academics in Korea hinders students’ creative-thinking skills. Korean students are known for learning by rote, in other words, learning like machines and only memorizing concepts instead of truly developing an interest in them. Most Korean teenagers repeat the same monotonous schedule everyday, sitting at their desk, face buried in their textbooks. This may foster their competency in solving complex equations mechanically, but it won’t develop their personality or identity. Furthermore, Korean students lack the time to discover their passions. Subsequently, students are not incentivized to explore different career paths or attain their goals. This leads to lack of innovation and destroys the potential in young, creative teenagers. 


The current government is trying to reduce academic stress by abolishing elite high schools that unfairly benefit and prepare students for SKY schools. However, the root cause of this unfair and intense education is Korean society’s acknowledgment of only what it considers to be the best students. Only those who make first place are recognized and all others are considered meaningless. Unless people stop judging one another solely based on their academic success or intelligence, the problem will never be resolved. 


This attribute of Korean society is also seen in the employment credentialing process. It is obvious that Suneung and education are a crucial factor that dictates one’s future. To solve this problem, the government must support relatively unknown schools with better programs and opportunities for internships to take focus away from SKY colleges. Since people’s desire to get into elite colleges stems from their ultimate longing for consistent and high-salary paying jobs, the first step to solve the excessive stress on academics is increasing equal chances for well-paid jobs for all students. Next, everyone’s ability in the workforce should be evaluated by their talent and expertise, not by education level or which school they attended. If the government provides subsidies to companies for blind interviews or even enforces this as a policy, Korea would be able to abate the competition in education among teenagers and cultivate creative individuals.