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수능 – the “Korean SAT” that actually matters


A really ridiculous important test is coming up. Mark your calendars kids because the third Thursday of every November is when your life either begins or ends.

Right off the bat, I have to mention that the amount of stress the test must cause…well…it’s insane. This Hub of Sparkle post paints quite a sad picture of the reality the stress this test puts on students. Some kids are smart enough to see past it all although they too are still held accountable to the test.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What we need is perspective. What do we have in America that compares to 수능?

The most common answer is the SAT. Essentially, this monster of a test helps determine the academic ability of hopeful incoming university freshmen. In reality, it is one of several different criteria for some schools’ admissions programs. Other considerations are after school activities, volunteer work, leadership opportunities, written essay and personal interview. But even then, some schools don’t require SAT score submission.

As I mentioned to some LanguageCast friends, I personally didn’t take the SAT or any other standardized test. No TASP. No THEA. No ACT. No nothing. I was admitted into junior college based on a high school test score from eleventh grade. When I graduated junior college with an AA, that allowed me to transfer to a public university without any admissions test. Problem solved. And to think, that’s not the only (or that big of a) loophole. Moreso, I wasn’t trying to avoid the SAT. I would have taken it if I needed to, but in my particular case I simply never needed to take it. To think, plenty of other quality universities base their admissions on something other than a number from a test, too.

Such is not the case in Korea. While 수능 doesn’t determine absolutely everything about one’s future academic and professional career, it does determine a whole lot more than the SAT. A high score on the 수능 is the primary admissions requirements to get into one of the SKY universities (Korea’s answer to an Ivy league school or the Big Three). Wanting to attend SKY is a dream shared many young Korean kids; much more than American kids dreaming of the Big Three. Don’t get me wrong, getting into Harvard would be nice but it doesn’t mean that other universities don’t produce successful people, too. In my case, going to UNT was an awesome experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Even though our education systems are quite different, namely in the level of difficulty in Korean high schools versus American high schools, I’ve heard that the 수능 is quite difficult. I’ve even thought that someone like me could never score high on it. The truth is I don’t care. Not in the dismissive “who cares?” way but in the way that I place very little value in the outcome of such tests. But then again, I’m coming from my perspective that tests aren’t everything.

So what is Korea to do? Improve the test to make it more reflective of real world knowledge? Include other criteria for admissions? Dump the test altogether?

Not sure. I’m certainly not qualified to comment on it seeing as how I’ve never taken it and my career has never been based off of it. Of course it’s easy for me to knock it. It doesn’t affect me. But it does make me wonder: would I want my kids taking the test? Would I grill them about how important it is to get into a good university?

Definitely something to think about.

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Want to brush up on your 수능 knowledge? Recommended reading material include this short photo essay about 수능 from a Korean high school student. For that matter, SeoulGlow posted a video a few years back that’s pretty interesting to watch (alt link). Of course, KC101’s advanced audio blog has more on the subject. Also, 현우 produced a regular audio blog that covers the same topic from a slightly different angle, too.