South Korean parents pray for high scores at Jogyesa, the largest Buddhist temple in Seoul.
South Korean parents pray for high scores at Jogyesa, the largest Buddhist temple in Seoul. Doualy Xaykaothao
This Thursday was one of the most stressful days of the year in South Korea: Nearly 700,000 high school students took the national college entrance exam.
The test, which is given once a year, largely determines a young person's future. It is so important that aircraft are barred from flying near the test site, and the workday begins an hour late, to prevent traffic jams that might make students late.
A police officer on a motorbike could be seen escorting a tardy student to Bosung Girls High School, one of more than 1,100 exam locations throughout the country. On the cold and windy morning, a mother shouted words of encouragement to her daughter. Other parents stood outside a gate holding coffee cups, and watching as students ran to their tests.
Some students carried seat cushions. Others had bottles of water stuffed inside plastic bags. Many were clearly anxious to get this day over with.
Kim Ga-hee, 18, said she has been studying five to six hours a day outside of school in preparation for this test.
"I'm really nervous now, but I think it'll feel good when it's over and these nerves are gone," she said.
Kim wants to get into Hongik University, a school known for its fine art programs.
"Now I'm feeling this is the most important test in my life, and from university to everything else, it's all going to be changed by this," she said.
The pressure of this test can have tragic consequences. Every year, there are reports of stressed students taking their lives, including a 19-year-old who jumped to his death early Thursday.
At Jogyesa, the largest Buddhist temple in Seoul, monk Bon Gong performed a ceremony where parents prayed for high scores on their children's college placement exams. Some had been praying for the past 100 days.
As parents and grandparents chanted, they knelt and bowed, facing three statues. Many concentrated on a thin prayer book with a photo of their child or children. Some had prayer beads, called yumju, circling the pictures.
Kim Ji-sook said this exam day is hard on her 18-year-old daughter, Park Min-sun.
"It's so hard that my kid doesn't want to raise a kid in this country," she said. "But nothing can be done about it; that's just the way things are."
Kim said she just wants her child to succeed in life. She said she is grateful that the South Korean government has many measures in place to help students do better on the exams.
"I'm thankful. Children here, unlike in other countries, don't get various opportunities to decide their academic future, only one test, only one day," she said.
Kim Bo-yup, who is with the Ministry of Education, said South Korea's passion for education is the highest in the world.
"As of now, 83 percent of our high school graduates go on to university," he says. "That's how great the demand for higher education is, and the desire to get a great education for their kids on the part of our parents."
The state test took roughly nine hours, and will determine college admissions by next spring.
SooAh Kim, Jiyoon Choi and Yoojung Lee contributed to this report.