KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Students all over South Korea took the biggest test of their lives today. It's a college entrance exam called the Suneung. All South Korean high school seniors take it on this same day each year. NPR's Elise Hu reports it's sort of like the SATs times a thousand.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: It's an hour before the big test, and the skies above Seoul have gone silent. The government grounds all aircraft to keep students from getting distracted. But on the streets this morning, more sirens than usual. That's because students running late to the competitive, day-long exam can call for a free police escort to rush them straight to the test site.
They're greeted by these cheerleaders who are carrying signs and banging on pots and pans to welcome these students as they come through the gates for the test.
CHANSOO PARK: I've came here 5:30 so...
HU: 5:30 in the morning?
HU: We found Chansoo Park in the scrum of cheering students. He's class president at Ichon High School and organized his fellow underclassmen to make noise for seniors as their rides pull up.
PARK: There's a lot of students so we have to take a good spot.
HU: All of Korean society has sort of stopped to support the 600,000 students taking the Suneung today. The stock market opened an hour late. So did most businesses. Parents filled up local churches and temples to pray for their kids.
DANIEL TUDOR: It's a really tough life for these young people.
HU: Daniel Tudor is author of "Korea: The Impossible Country."
TUDOR: There is this sense that, oh, you know, you're going to fail at life unless you do well on this exam.
HU: Students sitting down to the eight-hour-long test know it. Im Hayoon is a senior.
IM HAYOON: (Through interpreter) I think I've been preparing since elementary school. I've studied about 10 hours every day.
HU: That's typical, Tudor says.
TUDOR: To live in modern South Korea is to live with constant pressure, and the Suneung exam, it's an emblem, it's a symptom of this very almost poisoned mentality of what success is.
HU: Success, he explains, is defined narrowly - get a high score on the Suneung to get into a high-ranked school. Go to a good school to get hired at a South Korean chaebol, the term for a mega-conglomerate, like Samsung. They power the Korean economy.
TUDOR: Korea is very hierarchical. So if you are seen as someone who's not succeeded, you're really made to feel second-class.
HU: Policymakers are trying to relieve the pressure by encouraging entrepreneurship so Koreans can imagine more creative life paths. But all the hullabaloo on test day only seems to add to the exam's intensity. Back out at the test site with the cheer squad leader - what is the message you give to the other students?
PARK: Relax and get good grades so they will not take the test again next year.
HU: Korean students can retake the test if they don't like their results, but since the Suneung happens only once each year, the chance for a do-over won't come again for another 364 days. Elise Hu, NPR News, Seoul.
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