Thursday, November 7, 2013


It's that time of the year again... the Korean quasi-national holiday when schools close, streets are shut down, police escorts are on the ready, and 650,000 high school students take the college entrance exam that may determine the course of the rest of their lives. The 수능 (sooneung), or Korean SAT, was today, and this whole past week, my fellow teachers on Facebook have posted optimistic notes for their students and photos of various 수능 "celebrations": underclassmen gathering to cheer on their 선배 (seonbae), school cafeterias serving cake at lunch decorated with words of encouragement, and the like.

The phrase that seems to have become this holiday's standard greeting is, "수능대박!" (sooneung taebak) It is short for 수능 대박나세요!", which translates roughly to "Good luck/Succeed on the KSAT!", although "대박" alone can also mean "to hit the jackpot" or, in slang, "awesome".

Only a handful of my science high school students took the 수능 today: one third-year and around seven second-years. Most of them don't bother with the 수능 because they take individual entrance exams for the science universities to which they're applying. In fact, about half of them have already finished the university application process and are currently in the throes of Senioritis. In any case, I ran into one of my third-years before leaving school yesterday and, knowing that she had the fateful nine-hour exam looming ahead of her, cheered her up with a quick, "수능대박!"

So I've mostly missed the fervor that envelops most Korean high schools around this time. However, I haven't been oblivious to the way advertising has taken advantage of 수능 season. Pretty much every bakery in Korea has advertised 떡, Korean rice cakes, which are a traditional gift to test-takers because the stickiness symbolizes information sticking to their brains.
수능대박! Bakeries use the Korean SAT to advertise.
I snapped a photo of this bakery window this morning. The cute handmade poster on the left says: 다양한 합격선물로 마음을 전하세요... 수험생여러분 수능대박 나세요~! Translation: "Say how you feel with various exam-passing gifts... Dear exam-taking students, good luck on the KSAT!"

The glossy professional one on the right says: 힘내라, 힘! 11월 7일 2013 수능시험. Translation: You got this! November 7th, 2013 KSAT. It's sponsored by some association whose name at the bottom I can't decipher, but look: delicious rice cakes for your stressed-out student! Must be a dessert company.
Another, more blatant, advertisement...

 And here's one more. It reads: 젊은 그대! 한산인. D-20 수능막판스퍼트! 행사기간: 2013년 10월 17일 ~ 11월 7일. 지금은 집중력 강화와 컨디션조절이 중요한 때입니다. 한삼인이 수험생 여러분을 응원합니다... 수험생 여러분 수능 대박나세요!!

Translation: You young people! Hansamin (which I think is a brand of red ginseng drink, used as an energy supplement). D-20 (twenty-days before D-Day, the day of the exam) KSAT last-minute spurt! Promotional period: 10/17-11/7/2013. Now is the important time to reinforce your focus and regulate your condition. Hansamin is cheering on exam-taking students.

Then... blah blah blah advertising "A+ red ginseng" as a KSAT gift set, 20% off (is still 100 bucks for a box of thirty), etc. There's also a gift for your mother, to thank her for being the most supportive of (read: tyrannical regarding) your education.

The cheering way-too-old-to-be-a-high-school-student is giving the popular refrain: "Dear exam-taking students, good luck on the KSAT!"

Well, that's that. The 2013 수능 is over and now second-year students all throughout the country are going to begin their year-long prison sentence of studying 24/7 until the 2014 수능. Someone buy these poor stressed-out kids some red ginseng...


  1. "The stickiness symbolizes information sticking to their brains"... Wow, what an image. That's pretty funny. I do feel bad about how much pressure the students are under, though...

    1. I feel bad about it, too. It's worse than the pressure I had in high school and even in college, since the stakes are made out to be much higher for Korean students. It literally is, "if you don't do well on this test, your future plans WILL crumble."

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