Today, the second Thursday of November, millions of Korean high school students have just finished taking a nine-hour college entrance exam, called the 수능 (sooneung). This beast of an exam blows the American SAT Reasoning Test and all APs out of the water in terms of difficulty, importance, and the crazed culture of high scores that surrounds it. The scores students receive on these exams can literally change their lives, more than the years spent in preparation for it already have.
The documentary ExamiNation, by Judy Suh, takes a close look at the 수능 and how it really affects the entire country. Most of the documentary follows a day in the life of an average high school student named Bitna, a day that is spent entirely in school, then in cram school, then in a tiny study carrel until 2am. There is one breather, a frank and moving scene shot on a rooftop where Bitna catches a dragonfly and then releases it, jealous that it doesn't have to study twenty-four-seven the way she does.
The twenty-minute documentary was very well done, and I highly recommend that you watch it. In fact, I've embedded it below, so you can watch it now and get a glimpse into the lives of the students I teach.
Well... not exactly the students that I teach. You see, less than 1% of my high school students took the 수능 today. Remember me saying that my high school is very new? I don't have any third-years (seniors) yet, only first- and second-years. Regardless, the 수능 also happens to be not very important to any of my students. At my science high school, the only subjects that matter are science and math. They don't need to study English, social science, or even Korean, for that matter, in order to be accepted into the top science universities in Korea. During their second year, they will take specialized entrance exams for specific universities, and do not even bother with the 수능.
As I've discovered very recently, however, the students who don't get accepted into university early are now faced with the prospect of a third year of high school very similar to that of the rest of their peers, and they have already begun studying for the 수능 that they will take in exactly twelve months. I'm already wishing them good luck.
Here is the documentary ExamiNation.
ExamiNation is a short documentary film about the notorious South Korean college entrance exam, Sooneung (수능). Can one exam dictate a culture and lifestyle in a country?
P.S. On a different note, I did teach class today, since it wasn't canceled at my school for the national exam. My nine-person college prep class -- the second-year students who have been accepted into university and need to practice college-level spoken English -- absolutely wowed me today by shifting the debate we'd been having on American political issues to the hot-button topic of same-sex marriage and successfully debating with each other in English for nearly ten minutes at the end of class. And they started off the period not knowing anything about American politics aside from who the US president is. So proud.