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Twelve years of study boiled down into one eight-hour test for graduating high-school seniors — the suneung, South Korea’s college entrance exam, announced results on Wednesday.

“I’m pretty satisfied with my results. I think I got what I worked for,” said Gi Tae Kim, a student who studied the liberal arts track at Daedong Taxation High School in Seoul. “Overall, I thought it was a bit easier than past tests.”

Like U.S. students, many take annual aptitude and entrance exams more than once to improve their scores.

“I thought that the Korean language section was alright. English was easy. The math and science sections were pretty difficult because there were many types of problems that I wasn’t accustomed to,” said Yun Jae Kim, a high school senior who studied the science course at Sangsan High School in Jeonju.

There are five sections in the suneung: Korean language, mathematics, English language, history/social studies/science, and foreign language/hanmun (classical Chinese). Korean language, mathematics, and English language are deemed the major subjects.

Depending on whether students opt for the liberal arts or science track, students are offered different versions of mathematics tests, and they choose different subjects for the social studies/science tests.

Cha-Hong Min, the chairman of the College Scholastic Ability Test Examination Committee, stated that the difficulty level for this year’s suneung was similar to last year’s and did not include exceptionally complicated questions.

This year, in addition to the supreme pressure of doing well on the test, South Korean high school seniors had the disruptive factor of the coronavirus pandemic affecting them.

Students wearing face masks wait for the start of the annual college entrance examination amid the coronavirus pandemic at an exam hall in Seoul, South Korea, Dec. 3, 2020.

“I was really worried and anxious because we barely had in-person classes and the test got delayed during one of the most important times in our lives,” said Su A Lee, a high school senior in Seoul.

The South Korean government pushed the test to December 3 instead of the traditional third Thursday in November because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Education and health officials equipped each desk with a Plexiglas barrier and mandated masks for the entire eight hours of test-taking.

“The desks were still only one meter apart and there were no barriers on the sides of the desk,” Ji Yun Jeong, a student at Pohang Girl’s High School. “When lunchtime came around, even though everyone was eating at their desks, they all took their masks off to eat… so I think it was a bit insufficient on those terms.”

Jeong added, however, that some students took their lunches outside of the classroom to eat.

Despite mandated masks, ventilation, and the Plexiglas barriers, some violations snuck in.

“There were a lot of students who brushed their teeth after eating lunch, and I saw a lot of them gathered in the restroom without wearing a mask, so I thought that was a bit dangerous,” said Jeong.

“Even though there were guidelines that asked students to stay in their designated classrooms as much as possible and not meet other students, there were still students who would meet up with their friends during break time, and they’d eat snacks or chocolate together,” Jeong added. “When I saw that, I didn’t think that the preventative measures were upheld enough. Sanitization also did not take place after every break either.”

After the suneung, some students are taking a breather from their nonstop studying and reflecting on their final year of high school during a pandemic. 

“Because of the circumstances, there’s not much to do other than occasionally meeting up with friends,” said Yun Jae Kim. “I think I’m going to spend most of my time resting at home.”

Yun Jae Kim added he plans to take the suneung one more time in 2021 because he wants to get into medical school or dental school, so he will also be studying for next year’s exam during his spare time.

“It was a really uncomfortable year in general because I couldn’t eat lunch face-to-face with my friends and we had to wear a mask all the time,” said Lee. “Our teachers also complained about how uncomfortable it was to teach with a mask on. Also, a lot of our school competitions, activities and events didn’t end up happening, so I do feel frustrated that my high school experience ended the way it did.”

Jeong, on the other hand, said that despite the setbacks, she does see a silver lining.

“In Korea, students study in a pretty strict studying environment for 12 years…there’s a lot of rote memorization and inculcation,” Jeong said.

“So, I guess one positive outcome would be that we got to focus on the studies and hobbies we want to do. I think this year I developed the power to study and think for myself — and even after the pandemic, who knows what kind of crisis will happen,” she said. “So in regards to that, I think it’s Ok that I got to experience this crisis in advance and work on myself.” 

Voice of America – English

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