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South Koreans hold collective breath on exam day

November 10, 2011 |  1:02 am

All was kept still in South Korea on Thursday for the annual college entrance exam.
REPORTING FROM SEOUL -– This usually bustling city was serenely quiet early Thursday: Early-morning planes were grounded, and many workers slept in to keep city streets empty.

All was kept still for a trying annual event that had 690,000 South Korean high school students -– and more so their demanding parents -– on edge: the annual college entrance exam.

In a nation where education is the No. 1 priority, the College Scholastic Ability Test is considered a key decider of college entrance for Korean students. Worried parents take no chances on whether little Chul-soo is going to ace the most important test of his life.

Weeks before the test, many mothers appear at local Buddhist temples to lay flower wreaths and pray, kneeling hundreds of times in an appeal to the gods above.

On exam day, students arrive at designated test sites for the grueling nine-hour experience while the rest of South Korea holds its collective breath.

Many teachers and exam proctors are ordered not to wear flashy clothing, high heels or squeaky shoes. They're told not to chew gum, breathe too loudly or make eye contact with students during the exam hours, on the slight chance that they will distract test-takers.

And for good reason: In past years, the mothers of students who performed poorly have complained to school officials that noisy, distracting teachers were to blame.

The national mania started before dawn Thursday. Extra subway trains and buses were scheduled to make sure all exam-takers arrived on time. Those who ran late could dial a special phone number for a police escort to the test.

Businesses with more than 50 employees were told to allow workers to come in an hour late in order to free up transportation for students. The National Police Agency asked drivers not to honk near test sites, and construction companies were requested to halt work near the sites. Even Seoul's stock market started an hour late.

Even the skies were silenced. In deference to the listening-comprehension portion of the test, the South Korean military forbade all jets and helicopters from taking off or landing at local airports. 

One thing that wasn't silenced was the Internet: Celebrities offered good luck via TV interviews, Twitter shout-outs and instant messages. Friends and family of the exam-takers got to the test site before dawn to hand out warm teas and snacks. 

But not everyone is so rah-rah. Teachers say the rules about their silence have become onerous. "It's really hard to stand all day and not be able to speak," one high school teacher and proctor wrote on a blog. "At the end of the all-day exam, we inspectors are really exhausted too."

All day, mothers elbowed for prayer space at holy sites such as the Jogyesa Temple, one of the biggest temples in Seoul. "It's very comforting to be here. I am going to pray all day and leave when the exam's over," one mother told the Korean media. "I only wish my child will be able to give all she has prepared so far."

In the end, a student's test results determines the quality of his or her college, which will eventually determine the size of post-university company where he or she will work and the heft of the young worker's paycheck. At least that's the way it's supposed to work, according to South Korean street wisdom.

Not every academic thinks the pressure is healthy.

"On this test-taking 'D-Day,' if the student hits a home run ... he is set for life. But anything short of this effectively leaves such student feeling abandoned for life," wrote Jasper Kim, a professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul. "This is because attending a second-tier university in Korea is tantamount to economic and social [banishment] for life."

And Thursday wasn't even the most nerve-wracking part: That's when results come in on Nov. 30.

RELATED:

South Korea Education

South Korea's Exam-Takers Have a Prayer

South Korea goes into its annual cone of silence

-- Jung-yoon Choi

Photo: High school students take the college entrance exam in Gwangju, about 200 miles south of Seoul. Credit: Ahn Hyun-Joo / Reuters

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