My feelings about 수능 are fairly unambiguous. I think, quite frankly, that it’s a fucking awful idea.
As written about by Allie and Lauren, fellow EPIK high school teachers (linking the same video), the 수능 exam is the big one, and for foreign teachers, it’s one of the most baffling thing about Korea for foreign teachers to encounter. The rest of the cultural differences are small fry compared to this, which has a direct effect on the work we do.
Both Allie (who is American) and Lauren (who is English) compare 수능 with their experiences of their final exams. To add another voice to this, the difference between 수능 and South African matric exams is enormous.
To get into university in South Africa (as the focus of 수능 is university entrance), you need the National Senior Certificate (NSC), which means passing one language on home language level (this is usually English or Afrikaans), a second official language, Maths or Math literacy, Life Orientation and then three subjects from a designated list. There are other subjects you can take, but they don’t count.
Your final mark for a subject was a combination of your final mark from your school and your final mark for the exam. I think it was 50/50 in my day, but it seems to be 25% based on a portfolio of work that you hand in, and 75% on the final exam.
Our exams extended over about a month. I wrote my final paper on November 27. From the time the exams started, we were considered to be finished with school. We wrote in our own clothes, many of us dyed our hair (myself included, leading to several years of poor hair colour choices) and had a lot of time off between exams.
In Korea… well… watch the video. It’s intense.
and read this (about the exam from a student’s point of view):
Officially, it is aimed at calculating students’ academic abilities and their aptitude for college education. But in the “real” world, students and parents tend to understand the Sooneung as the ultimate once-in-a-year multiple-choice test that can totally decide your future life. To foreigners it might seem a bit of an exaggeration, but I’m sure any gosam (the graduating class of high school) in Korea would acknowledge the enormous pressure of test, including the fact that just a simple stomachache could easily ruin the day that you prepared tediously and painfully for most of your youth.
and also this (some additional information and some worrying statistics):
In one survey a fifth of Korean middle and high school students said they felt tempted to commit suicide. In 2009 a tragic 202 actually did so. The suicide rate among young Koreans is high: 15 per 100,000 15-24-year-olds, compared with ten Americans, seven Chinese and five Britons.
Thinking back to my own matric exams, and how I handled them, I doubt I would have survived 수능. And I don’t mean that in a vague sense. I mean that literally. Kids commit suicide because of this exam. If I’d been in the same situation, I’d probably have been one of them.