University Entrance Exams as a Rite of Passage and Suicides in South Korea

I haven’t been blogging that much recently as quite honestly I haven’t had that much to blog about or any time spare time for blogging! But yesterday saw what is surely the most important event in the life of any Korean person. Not only is it the most important event but it is an event that they believe will decide the rest of their life, or will it? The university entrance exams.

Working in a high school in Gangnam I see first hand every day the pressure students are under to achieve academic success. I witness the effects it has on my students, turning them from energetic and enthusiastic teenagers at the beginning of the school year, to pale zombie like figures by the end of their first year. By the time they get to their third year at high school it is difficult to maintain any conversation with them that doesn’t revolve around their studying for their university entrance exams.

As far as Korean students see it their entire life comes down to one long day of exams. They are not spread over a couple of weeks like most of us are used too. If a students has a bad day, are feeling ill, have had an argument with their family or have any other problems this day then it will effect the rest of their lives. Over 10 years of education comes down to this.

Of course it is normal in every country to have a set of exams at the end of high school that will influence your future, but in Korea it is so much more than this. It is quite simply a rite of passage. It is your acceptance into adulthood, it is the gateway to a path of success. If you fail, you have not only failed the exam but you have failed in life. You have failed your family. You have failed your school. There is no way back. Well, at least this is how the majority of people in Korea see it. Given this it is not surprising to learn that the number one cause of death for Korean teenagers is suicide. Yesterday a high school student in Daegu killed himself, 2 hours before the exam had even started. The thought of one of my students killing themselves over this exam is beyond saddening, it’s heart breaking. So what is it that creates such pressure that could drive an 18 year old with his entire life ahead of him to kill himself?

Personally, and this really is only my opinion, I think it has become a social construction, a kind of self fulfilling prophecy. I know first hand Korean people who have not passed the university entrance exam and still become successful in their lives. Korea is now a developed country, there are jobs for builders, plumbers, carpenters, pro-gamers, policemen, firemen and anything else you can think of. Economically it is stronger than most of the countries we are from right now! Many of the most important people in the world were college drop outs that still made it to the heights of success, to name but a few Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Ted Turner, and in reality I don’t see any reason why the same couldn’t happen in Korea, but try telling the majority of Korean’s that. When we break it down this is fully understandable though, Korea, as I’ve written about before, has developed at a rate beyond all comprehension. Only one generation ago they were probably right, education was absolutely everything if you were to move up or down in the social strata, and so the social construction began.

So how does this social construction of the over whelming importance of the university entrance exam manifest itself to a level where a huge number of teenagers are taking their own lives?

First of all, in your personal life. Many women in Korea, when choosing a husband, will do so based almost solely on the mans education and job prospects. Why? Women are becoming increasingly successful in Korean society and have their own careers, they no longer need a wealthy husband to support them. But yet this traditional thought remains. In your social circles people will judge you on your job and economic prospects, and will treat you differently based on these. The acceptance of your potential wife’s family can often come down to the same.

Then we look at the exam itself. If you sleep late you actually can phone the police for a police escort to school. If the police will escort you to school this must be the most important day of your life, you don’t get a police escort to your wedding, right? Holy crap, you don’t even get a police escort when your mum is giving birth to you!!!! Airplanes are stopped from landing for an hour during the speaking test. Imagine being a student and being told this exam is so important we are going to stop all air traffic coming into the country. Mothers and fathers will spend two weeks praying for your success day and night before the exam. If that’s what your parents will go through for you this exam must be important, right? I mean they actually shut off the internet connection to my school for 2 days during the exams, what the hell, what did they think could possibly happen?! The day before the exam the entire school stopped whilst 1st and 2nd graders made a huge tunnel, likes the ones at the beginning of rugby matches to cheer the 3rd graders out of school and wish them luck. A nice gesture, but now the students think they are not just representing themselves or their family, but their entire school.

Also family life, when I speak to my students about their relationship with their parents and what they talk about at home I almost always get the same answer, save for a lucky few, “all they care about is how much studying I get done, other than that we don’t have time to talk”.

These examples really are just a few, and suddenly the suicide rate in Korea, something that seems completely non-sensical to Westerners at first, starts to make a lot of sense.

The government have at least recognised that there is a problem, it was impossible for them not too really, and they are looking at ways of dealing with it (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-15331921). It is going to take time though, and I think it is going to take a collective effort from all parts of Korean society. Ironically enough, I feel the answer is education. Students, parents, teachers and society need to realise that passing this one exam is undoubtedly important, it will undoubtedly effect the rest of their lives, but it won’t ruin the rest of their lives, and they can still be successful without it. However this social construction as to the importance is so unbelievably ingrained into Korean society and culture that at the moment it doesn’t seem as if the trend of tragic consequences is going to end soon. It will take generations to change the beliefs of an entire nation.

Famous Korean people who did not pass their university entrance exams:
노무현 – Former President
김 대중 – Former President
류승완 – Movie Director
정주영 – Founder of Hyundai

Comments

Seba
14/11/2011 01:03

Amazing!

Reply
11/06/2012 23:43

This blog gives us important information about exam fear.This was just an imagination about the presence of mind.So be aware to this everyone..

Reply
maccang
22/11/2011 09:55

Koreans are very well aware of that there are successful people who didn’t get a degree from a decent school. But, they also know that they are’nt one of those geniuses. They just wish to have the least quarantee for their children’s or themselves’ future. This is what I heard from my sister-in-law when I asked her why she pushes my nephews to study hard.

Reply
22/11/2011 23:15

Hi Maccang,

It’s great to have a Korean persons perspective on this topic. I am just wondering, why do you have to be a genius to be successful without a degree in Korea? Artists, musicians, craftsmen, electricians. For example one of my students wants to be an engineer, her parents told her that wasn’t good enough, that she needs to be a doctor or a judge. I guess what I am getting at is, why is the level of what is considered successful so high? I know Korean people who have spent years travelling around the world, experiencing other cultures and opening their minds. You don’t need a degree for this or to be a genius, it was what they wanted to do and they did it successfully.

Reply 

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