1 of 5 | More than half a million students across South Korea took the College Scholastic Ability Test on Thursday, a once-a-year exam that many see as a make-or-break moment for their futures. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
SEOUL, Nov. 14 (UPI) -- On Thursday morning, all of South Korea seemed to be focused on one thing: the Collegiate Scholastic Aptitude Test, the once-a-year, high-stakes college entrance exam that is seen by many as one of life's most pivotal moments.
Offices across the country opened an hour late to keep traffic off the roads and extra trains and buses were put into service so the 550,000 students taking the exam this year could get to their testing locations on time.
Some parents accompanied their children to the test sites, giving them final hugs and handshakes before the big exam, while others made pilgrimages to churches and temples to pray for luck.
The test is so important that flights are even grounded for 35 minutes during the English-listening portion of the exam so as not to distract students.
The CSAT, also known as Suneung, is a grueling, eight-hour marathon standardized test covering a slew of topics, including Korean language, math, English, Korean history and social sciences.
Outside Kwangsung High School in Seoul, one of Thursday's 1,185 testing locations in the country, groups of younger students clustered around the entrance on a bitterly cold morning to support the test takers.
They held signs reading "You'll do great!" and chanted "Fighting!" a Korean term of encouragement, while passing out bags of snacks with goodies like yeot, a sticky, toffee-like confection that is a traditional good-luck snack for Suneung.
"We came out to cheer them on," said 17-year-old Park Hye-sin, who will be taking the CSAT next year. "We know how stressful it is. I've already started studying for it."
The test is a subject of intense focus throughout high school for most students in South Korea, as it remains perhaps the single most important factor in getting into a top university.
"All through high school, you're focused on this one exam," said Jeon Eu-jin, 18, who took the test last year. "It's all that matters. There's only one test a year, and if you don't get the score you want, you have to wait another year. One hundred percent of students feel stress about the exam."
Jeon, who is studying robotics engineering at Dongyang Mirae University in Seoul, recalled the nerve-wracking experience.
"On the day of the test, when I opened my eyes and woke up, I could literally feel myself shaking," he said. "I was planning to take the bus to the testing location, but I asked my dad to give me a ride instead because I felt so shaky. While I was taking the test, I kept feeling worse at the end of each section."
Cho Eun-hye, a 19-year-old architecture student who took the CSAT last year, said she prepared by taking private lessons after school for a year leading up to the test and then continued studying at home or a café until late at night, with days starting at 6 a.m. and often ending at midnight or later.
Cho said that the anxiety intensifies as the date of the test gets nearer.
"One month before the test, students get so stressed out," she said. "Everyone tries to follow the same pattern: wake up at the same time, eat the same foods, so there are no surprises on the test day."
While interviews, essays and grades are part of the admissions process, getting a top score on the CSAT is necessary to enter elite schools such as the so-called SKY universities -- Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University -- which are seen as the stepping stones to the top echelons of government and corporate life.
South Korea places an enormous emphasis on education and it has the world's highest level of college participation, with more than 70 percent of graduates moving on to tertiary education, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Private tutoring has become a massive industry helping to fuel the educational obsession, with almost 73 percent of students taking some form of private lessons, according to a study from the Ministry of Education and Statistics Korea.
At the same time, the stress surrounding the educational system in South Korea is legendary, with long days and high expectations taking a toll.
Suicide is the number one cause of death among young people in South Korea, and overall suicide rates are the highest in the world among OECD countries.
While the CSAT is nerve-wracking, it has also long been seen as commendably meritocratic, offering a chance for rich and poor alike to compete on a level playing field.
That sense of fairness has been deeply shaken in recent years, however, with college admissions scandals among the powerful and connected striking a raw nerve in the country.
The discovery that the daughter of a confidante to disgraced President Park Geun-hye was unfairly admitted to the prestigious Ewha Women's University was the first spark in a series of mass protests that ultimately led to Park's impeachment in 2017.
More recently, a corruption scandal around the family of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, which included the allegation that his daughter was admitted to college and medical school based on fabricated qualifications, led to Cho's resignation last month.
In response, South Korean President Moon Jae-in recently announced "drastic measures" for education reform to help level the playing field.
"Our education system faces a crisis of trust," he said at an education policy meeting on Oct. 25. "There is a growing sense of loss among the public, with education now seen as having been reduced to a means for parents to hand down their socio-economic status and privilege to their children."
The reform measures include raising the proportion of "regular admissions" -- those heavily based on grades and the CSAT score -- rather than "non-scheduled admissions," which weigh extracurricular activities and other factors in an opaque system that favors students from elite schools.
Cho, the architecture student, said that she was able to cope with the burden of studying for the CSAT but felt that South Korea's relentless education system was not geared toward helping students discover their strengths and passions along the way.
"I think what Korean high school students need is more help in finding their future path, finding out what they like, what they are good at," she said. "What is missing sometimes is a reason for all that studying."