In South Korea, Nation Stops For Mega Exam More than 650,000 high school seniors in South Korea took a national college placement exam Thursday that many believe will determine the rest of their lives. The government takes it so seriously that aircraft are barred from flying near the test site, and the workday begins an hour late, to prevent traffic jams.

In South Korea, Nation Stops For Mega Exam

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Today is one of the most stressful days of the year in South Korea: Nearly 700,000 high school students are taking the national college entrance exam.

The test is given only once a year, and it largely determines a young person's future. It's 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.

From Seoul, Doualy Xaykaothao has this report.

(Soundbite of car horn)

DOUALY XAYKAOTHAO: That's the sound of a police officer on a motorbike escorting a tardy student to Bosung Girls High School, one of more than 1,100 exam locations throughout the country. It's not an unusual sight for this important day.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

XAYKAOTHAO: On this cold and windy morning, a mother shouts words of encouragement to her daughter. Other parents are standing outside a gate holding coffee cups, and watching as students run to their tests.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

XAYKAOTHAO: Some carry seat cushions. Others have bottles of water stuffed inside plastic bags. Many are clearly anxious to get this day over with.

Eighteen-year-old Kim Ga-hee says she's been studying five to six hours a day outside of school in preparation for this test.

Ms. KIM GA-HEE (Student): (Through translator) I'm really nervous now, but I think it will feel good when it's over and these nerves are gone.

XAYKAOTHAO: Kim wants to get into Hongik University, a school known for its fine art programs.

Ms. GA-HEE: (Through translator) 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.

XAYKAOTHAO: The pressure of the test can have tragic consequences. Every year, there are reports of suicides connected to students taking the exam. One of those occurred this morning, when police said a 19-year-old jumped to his death only hours before the start of the rigorous exam.

(Soundbite of drums)

XAYKAOTHAO: At Jogyesa, the largest Buddhist temple in Seoul, monk Bon Gong performs a ceremony where mothers and fathers pray for high scores on their children's college placement exams. Some have been praying for the last 100 days.

(Soundbite of drums)

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in foreign language)

XAYKAOTHAO: As parents and grandparents chanted, they kneel and bow, facing three Buddha statues. Many concentrate on a thin prayer book with a photo of their child or children. Some have prayer beads, called yumju, circling the pictures.

Kim Ji-sook says this exam day is hard on her 18-year-old daughter, Park Min-sun.

Ms. KIM JI-SOOK: (Through translator) It's so hard that my kid doesn't want to raise a kid in this country. But nothing can be done about it. That's just the way things are.

XAYKAOTHAO: Kim says she just wants her child to succeed in life. She says she's grateful the South Korean government has many measures in place to help students do better on the exams.

Ms. JI-SOOK: (Through translator) 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.

XAYKAOTHAO: Kim Bo Yup is with the Ministry of Education.

Mr. KIM BO YUP (Ministry of Education): (Through translator) Our country's passion for education is the highest in the world. Eighty-three percent of our high school graduates go on to university. 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.

XAYKAOTHAO: The state test took roughly nine hours, and will determine college admissions by next spring.

For NPR News, I'm Doualy Xaykaothao in Seoul.

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