exams in korea
A student prays before the start of a college entrance exams in Korea. Source: Hong-Ji/Pool/AFP

South Korea fell quiet on Thursday as hundreds of thousands of students sat the high-stakes national university entrance exam, with the added tension of strict anti-coronavirus measures. Success in the day-long exams in Korea — which teenagers spend years preparing for — can mean a place in one of the elite colleges seen as key to future careers, incomes, and even marriage prospects. And the coronavirus epidemic added to the pressure, delaying and disrupting the school year in the South, forcing all classes online for a time.

The usual scenes of freshmen and juniors gathering at the gates to cheer on their schoolmates as they arrived for the exam were absent on Thursday, barred under coronavirus precautions. At the elite Ewha Girls’ Foreign Language High School many students arrived on their own or with their test-taking friends, and some parents seemed more nervous than their children. “I’m actually quite relieved now that it’s all going to be over soon,” said 18-year-old Kim Chae-eun. “This exam is important because Korean society makes you study your whole life up till this point for this one exam.”

exams in korea

Buddhist followers pray during a worship service for students taking university entrance exams in Korea. Source: Jung Yeon-je/AFP

The South brought its outbreak broadly under control with its “trace, test and treat” approach, but in recent weeks has seen new infections jump from around 100 a day to more than 500. By global standards the figure remains extremely low but the rise has alarmed authorities, who have tightened social distancing measures. The exam itself is a particular concern, with nearly 500,000 pupils gathering in test centres across the country.

Plastic see-through dividers were set up on each desk and students were required to wear facemasks throughout the test. Students were checked on arrival and those showing temperatures of 37.5 C or higher — or other coronavirus symptoms — had to take the test in a separate designated area. All were advised to refrain from gathering and talking during breaks, with exam rooms to be ventilated after each session.

Exams in Korea: Quiet, please

The exam itself was delayed for two weeks due to the earlier disruptions to teaching, and all high schools across the country have returned to online classes for a week to try to prevent school clusters. “It will be even more difficult and worrisome to take the exam in the coronavirus situation,” President Moon Jae-in wrote in a good luck message posted on social media. “I’d like to put warm scarves around your necks.”

exams in korea

A woman attaches a name card wishing the success of students sitting the annual College Scholastic Ability Test, a standardised exam for college entrance, at the Jogye temple in Seoul on December 3, 2020. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP)

South Korea pulls out all the stops to ensure the test takers are not disturbed. Government offices, businesses and even Seoul’s stock market opened an hour later than usual to reduce traffic and help the students arrive on time, and police escorts were available for any running late — no admissions are allowed after the exam begins. All take-offs and landings at South Korean airports are suspended for 35 minutes during an English listening test, when all aircraft already in the air must maintain an altitude higher than three kilometres. The transport ministry said 89 flights were rescheduled due to the exam, including 10 international routes.

And there were no concessions for the infected: the government said 35 students who have the virus were due to take the test at the same time as their classmates, at hospitals or quarantine centres and supervised by education officials in full personal protective equipment. A government demonstration video showed everything they used — from pencils to the name tag identifying their desk — would be disposed of as a biohazard afterwards.