ExamiNation: A Short Documentary by Judy Suh

Exams are hellish everywhere, but exam hell in South Korea seemingly has no equal. If you have time, watch (some) of this video and let me know how South Korea’s education system compares to the one you’re familiar with. Thanks!

Today is THE DAY of the exam (수능) and I wish everyone taking it the best of luck.

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  • Reply Vera November 8, 2012 at 3:00 am

    Oh wow… that’s just so so sad. At least this is something that should’ve ended with Bitna is now a successful business woman (or you know… whatever she’d like to be), has 3 kids and takes a 2 yearly trips around the world.

    Our university entrance exams are sometime in July or August (can’t remember now), preceded by a month by the Baccalaureate (BAC for short), which is the end of high school exam. You can’t go to university without having passed the BAC. But ultimately what counts are your scores in the uni entrance exams… which are different for each university (they have autonomy over such matters).
    These days, a lot of unis don’t bother coming up with written subjects, and they just ask for BAC scores and high school GPAs, and/or marks in specific subjects. Before, you had the BAC and then you had to sit an exam in 1 or 2 subjects to enter uni.

    BAC exam is specific to the type of subjects you studied in high school:
    – Romanian oral exam
    – Foreign Language oral exam
    – Written exam in a subject related to your curriculum (eg: for me it was Maths)
    – Written exam in a subject related to your curriculum which you can choose (eg: I could choose between Computer Science, Biology, Physics and Chemistry)
    – Written exam in a subject not related to your curriculum (I chose German, other classmates History, other Social Sciences)… or you could have a practical exam in Physical Education

    In order to pass an exam, you had to score at least 50% in it. But in order to pass the BAC, the exam scores’ average had to be at least 60%
    If you failed, you could re-take the tests in September (the same year)… or try again the following year.

    University exams, were generally based on the major you wanted to get into. Eg in my case, I had to sit an exam, in 2 of the following 4 subjects: Calculus, Algebra, Geometry or Computer Science.

    If there were still free places in September, unis would another entrance exam, so that students who only passed the BAC in September could still apply. Of course, if you wanted to get into a top tier uni… then chances of getting a place in September were extremely thin.

    Studying for the exams. In theory, you’re supposed to spend some extra time during the 4 years of high school preparing for these exams. Truth is, most people tended to cram during the senior year. Some conscious few would start to study during junior year.

    Teachers everywhere would tell students that they’re supposed to pass the BAC, and the uni exams just by seriously studying the subjects they taught in school. But most parents would find it normal to pay for private tutoring hours. These private tutors were generally university professors, or the class teachers. Sometimes, students would be hired… but in general people would not “risk” things.

    I for one was a terrible students. Hated studying with a passion, and did everything to try and get out of it. So there’s no way I’d compare myself to Bitna. Her dedication is amazing. Heck, Koreans’ dedication is amazing… I mean I was in bed at 11pm at latest.

    All in all, I feel really sad after watching this video. Out country’s BAC scores are getting steadily lower every year, lots of people don’t even go… and then start badmouthing the incompetent teachers. Such a dedication for studying, as shown in the video, would be akin to a sci-fi movie or something.
    Best of luck to everyone taking the test today!

    • Reply chantelle November 8, 2012 at 3:25 am

      :) Thanks for one of the best and most detailed comments ever.

      Studying like Bitna did is the norm in Seoul, so while disliking it, most students don’t question it. They just do the best they can with everything. The whole environment here is different. Sidewalks are crowded with students leaving classes at 10PM; school buses line the streets waiting to pick up kids on Saturday and Sunday; nothing is thought of staying up until 1 or even 2AM. The idea of sending a child to bed as punishment is foreign. 8 hrs of sleep a night is just not a thing.

      Honestly, Romania’s system sounds pretty decent. Lazy students aside, it seems like people study a reasonable amount and take relevant exams.

      • Reply Vera November 8, 2012 at 4:05 am

        I think what really made it all sad was how they say that they’re not studying for anything useful (i.e. in life). They’re explicitly doing so to pass this one exam. :(

      • Reply Vera November 8, 2012 at 4:43 am

        P.S. So sorry for all the typos … I have no excuse. -_-;

        • Reply chantelle November 9, 2012 at 3:14 am

          No need to apologize. I make typos all of the time. I understood what you were saying and didn’t even notice any, so… ;D

  • Reply Nika November 9, 2012 at 4:16 am

    I came here with the intention of writing a really long comment, but then I saw Vera already did it. Still, I can add my two cents.

    Our system is somewhat similar to Korean and very similar to Romanian, but there are some differences. First, we don’t have entrance exams, we only have finals (bac/maturity exam/matura/whatever), which you have to pass to graduate from high school and they count for university along with your marks from junior and senior year. The subjects are similar, mandatory Slovene, English and Maths, and two electives (I had French and CS). This is for those who are doing the common matura = graduating from Grammar School (where pretty much everyone is meant to go on to university). The second major difference is that we don’t do everything in one day. These exams are all in June, but we write the Slovene essay very early, and then each day written exam for one subject (also the hearing parts for languages). If you’re lucky you have them spaced out a bit (depends on electives), but generally it takes a week for five exams. Then after a week or two we have oral exams for Slovene, Maths, English and other languages (I think also Art History and maybe something else). The written exams last around three hours and orals around 20 minutes. I can’t imagine having to take it all in one day.

    I think you need 50% for passing, I’m not sure. It is generally considered to be pretty easy and I think that’s also a major difference with South Korea. Especially among students from better schools. Our school had a perfect record for three in four years when I was there (everyone passed). We are supposed to study for it our whole senior year, but only a small percentage actually does that. I know that at one school they can choose their electives in junior year already and have additional classes, but that’s the only one and they have a reputation of studying without understanding.

    You can choose between basic and advanced levels for Maths and languages; Slovene is advanced by default and other things are basic. For a basic level you can get 5 points at most and for advanced 8, but you can only choose two advanced subjects (not counting Slovene), so that makes 34 points all together. About 30 or 40 people get all 34 points each year in the whole country (Slovenia has 2mil inhabitants).

    I barely studied for mine outside classes and I got 27, which is considered good (our school’s average was 24 and we’re in top 10 Grammar Schools in the country, maybe even top 5). I think the only ones that study dedicatedly (although still not as hard as Bitna, at least I don’t think so) are those that want to apply to faculties with high average entrance points (these are calculated from matura results and junior and senior years’ final grades, marks in specific subjects (only some faculties), special achievements (+ entrance exams for music, art, drama, architecture and the like) and total to 100). Medicine has something between 85 and 90, physiotherapy 94 (it’s popular, idk), psychology 88 and these are the highest, I think. I’d say about a half of all faculties doesn’t even have any requirements besides passing the matura, because if not enough people apply, then they of course let everyone in. Out of those that require a certain amount of points most are around 60, law for example has around 70. This differs every year, so you can’t rely on last year’s requirements, but they’re usually quite consistent. In the last years they are lowering a bit because generations are smaller. I had 86, I think maybe a quarter or a third of my classmates were better than me. But I didn’t need these results at all, because less people applied to Computer Science than there were available places. I expected this or a very low requirement, so I wasn’t worried. If I was I probably would have studied a bit more. Still not as much as Koreans though.

    I agree with Vera’s last paragraph, this kind of dedication would probably be considered crazy here. It doesn’t seem very healthy to me, but then again on the hardworking – lazy/easygoing spectre I lean heavily to the latter. I only studied for a week before each exams, for some not even that much. We did do a lot of prep in class though and in additional classes for the advanced level (I had French and English higher level, but the whole class took English advanced, so all English classes were prep anyway).

    Younger students actually do get some time off, but not much (at least during the essays I think), because it would be impractical to keep them out of school for two weeks. There are teachers patrolling the halls though and making sure they’re quiet. I think the whole country is aware of it, but mostly because of the news, not because it has any impact on traffic or something like that. The listening parts for English are broadcast from the national radio, so everyone can listen to them (my parents do that every year), but I think that’s it.

    No one thinks of time after matura as some far away dreamland, I think we were all aware that college (and summer break first!) is coming right up. It’s just not taken as seriously, I suppose.

    Ah, seems like I accidentally wrote a ton anyway, I do apologise. :X

    • Reply Vera November 9, 2012 at 2:33 pm

      Oh yeah, we also have the exams in different days. Oral exams come first, and next are the written ones.

      I think it’s interesting how you can choose the difficulty level of the subjects. For me, the difficulty was pretty much a given, based on your class’ chosen curriculum.
      Eg: my class’ curriculum centered around maths and computer science. So I had to sit the exam in advanced maths.

      Oh wow people don’t apply to computer science there? Here there was a competition of 9 times more people than available places. 😮

      • Reply Nika November 10, 2012 at 8:46 pm

        I think it might be because there’s another CS program here, which is not at university level (some form of higher education though, not sure how it translates to other systems) and is a bit more practically oriented. They always have minimum requirement for entering.

        We had something like 240 places and around 220 people applied, but that was in 2010. There was minimum requirement in both 2011 (55) and 2012 (63). I doubt there’s any faculty here that ever gets 9 times more applicants than there are available places. Okay, except drama/film, but they have like 8 places or something.

        Our Grammar School is considered to be language oriented, but I’m pretty sure curriculum is standard and can’t be weighed too much into any direction. Out of 8 classes (uh, groups?) 3 were classical (they had Latin/Greek, dropped Chemistry/Physics in junior year already), 1 european (they had a few classes about EU and stuff) and the rest were normal, but I suppose the focus was still on languages, as everyone was encouraged to take two foreign languages besides English (and most people did take two, those in classics three). So people mostly chose to take advanced language instead of Maths, but you could choose either way, no matter in which class were you for 4 years. I know of schools that have so called Maths classes, where I think they had a couple more hours of Maths per week, but we didn’t have that.

    • Reply chantelle November 12, 2012 at 12:53 am

      Don’t apologize. This is an awesome comment. Thanks. 😀

      I like the idea of having just one set of exams to take after high school. Even to me, it doesn’t seem right to consider Bitna’s schedule normal. It requires so much sacrifice and probably isn’t the healthiest way to live, but her life represents that of many high school seniors. What gets me the most is that because she’s not atypical in her studying habits, there are many who study more than her.

  • Reply Manda November 15, 2012 at 8:55 am

    When you say “THE exam” I assume it’s similar to China’s gaokao (高考)exam, right? I don’t know much about the South Korean education system but I’d imagine that it’s far more similar to China’s than, say, that of the U.S.

    I would talk about the US education system, but you of course are already familiar with that 😛

  • Reply Isabelle June 19, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Not much time to watch the video; need to get back to studying. Exams in 4 weeks x.x

    I study in Singapore. I feel that students here don’t seem to be too focused on studies as in Korea. Unlike Bitna, students from Primary 3 (age 9) have to take a compulsory extra-curricular activity (CCA), which could be anything from sports, music, dance, clubs to uniformed groups, depending on how many CCAs your school offers.

    There a few major exams in Singapore, not just one. At 12, the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) is taken for Primary school students. There is the ‘O’ levels at 16, and subsequently the ‘A’-levels at 18, which is the most similar to the sooneung that Bitna is taking, I think.

    I’m only 14, so I don’t have much experience with the ‘O’-level or ‘A’-levels. The PSLE, though, is the exam most talked about in newspapers and articles. There aren’t as many high schools as there are secondary schools, so parents will focus most on the PSLE so that kids can enter a good secondary school in order to get a place in a high school at all.

    A few years back, some secondary schools teamed up with their sister or brother high schools, and now students that enter those secondary schools can bypass the ‘O’-levels and proceed straight to the ‘A’-levels.

    I’m a student in the girls’ secondary school that has produced top scorers for almost a decade, and honestly, students don’t study much not because they have no motivation to, but because they don’t HAVE time to study x) The CCAs we take can take away as many as 6 afternoons in a week away from us, and when we have competitions in those CCAs, some have to stay back even more days.

    School starts at either 7.40/50 a.m. for me, and ends as early as 12.55 p.m. or 1.50 p.m., since I am still a lower secondary student. However, a huge bulk of students will stay back for their CCAs, and leave school around 6p.m. Not to say, we are giving projects and assignments every other week, and exams are scheduled such that as many as 3 or 4 exams can be tested in one day. Such days are in the school calendar as official test days, where all students take exams and are allowed to leave school after their exams are done.

    Most of my classmates take tuition classes, with some taking 6 subjects, which takes up around 15 hours in a week, and if they learn musical instruments, even more time is taken away for them to practice their instruments.

    2 years ago, when I took the PSLE, it was quite hard. In school, teachers kept us till around 4p.m., and handed out practice paper after practice paper. I truly felt like I was memorizing facts rather than learning. I would normally reach home in half an hour, wolf down dinner after showering, and start on my homework. Depending on how many papers I was given to complete, I could take as long as 5 hours (I have a habit of completing work as soon as I get it) and could finish as late as 10 p.m. However, my day wasn’t over.

    As a single child, I had a bedroom to myself. Our house had a study room at the backyard, filled with books and where I never brought in phones or music players. My mother bought a shelf full of assessment books and practice papers, and I would complete around a chapter or around 40 pages of a subject before I revised the concepts or topics I had covered in those 40 pages, and take down some notes before I dozed off in the study room at around 12 a.m.

    This continued on all the way till early October, when I started sleeping earlier and having more rest. We had our Oral exams (25% of the Language subject we took) in September, and in late September/early October, there would be 4 days (5, if you took Higher Mother Tongue, as it would be on a different day) of consecutive tests. One day could be Math, the next Science, then English, and Chinese. The day after the last of the 4 subjects would be for students taking Higher Mother Tongue.

    Students prayed frantically and whispered words of ‘good luck’ to each other. Some cried. In late November, scores were released.

    One had a score where all 4 subjects were combined, along with the bell curve, for a final score. The Ministry of Education has claimed that the score is not kept to a maximum of 300, but the highest so far was a 294, from a senior in my primary school. If you scored above 200, you could take an Express stream, and <200, either the Normal (academics) or Normal (technical) stream. The streaming determined how many years of secondary school you had to take (either 4 or 5 years).

    I scored 2nd in the nation in my year, and proceeded to my secondary school of choice without troubles. According to your PSLE score, you choose 6 secondary schools. There is a system where the top scorer of the nation is first sorted into her school of choice, and the students are slowly sorted by their school into their school of choice.

    In secondary school, our subjects double from 4 to 8, and tuition prices hike up. Many seniors in their last year of secondary school work extremely hard to obtain an excellent GPA.

    Not that stressful for me, since I'm used to hiding in my over-achiever sister's shadow, but we really score well only by rote memory and hard work.

    I admire those Koreans :) I'm Korean too, but study in Singapore as my father is Singaporean. My sister, however, studied in Korea before I was born and continued living and studying there. We meet a few times a year. Recently, she was accepted in SNU. Sigh, I guess I'll never beat her T.T

    • Reply chantelle June 20, 2013 at 3:17 pm

      Thank you for such a lengthy and detailed comment. :)
      Singapore’s system reminds me of the British one, but its students seem more intense. In the States, most of us don’t study seriously until high school (or perhaps the last year of middle school). There’s not much work for younger students to do.

      I hope you’re enjoying secondary school. Even though your sister is brilliant, you’re doing well enough to escape her shadow/beat her.

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