For American students and their families, November represents a season of generosity, rest, and coming together. For Korean students and their families, November represents a season of heightened stress, anxiety, and depression. On a very special Thursday in November, American students step back from increasingly demanding school expectations and practice thanksgiving. On a very special Thursday in November, Korean students experience the culmination of their formal schooling on the most trajectory-shaping day of their lives: suneung.
Suneung is the College Scholastic Ability Test, commonly known as the “Korean SAT”. On the 3rd Thursday in November each year, the fate of every single student enrolled in an accredited Korean school is decided. Claiming that a standardized test is the most important day in someone’s life might feel like an extreme claim reserved for the privileged first-world. I get that. However, the startling suicide and depression rate following the release of these test scores tell a different story. The Korean SAT not only shapes the path of a student’s life, but in some ways, it affects whether students continue to live their lives at all, both figuratively and literally.
Reports released following Suicide Prevention Month this past September, compounded by the disruption to schooling and uncertainty brought on by two years of the global pandemic, render this year’s test particularly concerning. According to the most recent report conducted by Statistic Korea, South Korea has ranked 1st for having the highest suicidal rate out of OECD Member countries. In 2019, the WHO (World Health Organization) announced a report on suicide rates per 100,000 population in 15-19-year-old students. South Korea ranked in the top 30th worldwide and ranked 13th with the Asia and Oceania region filter in the dataset.
Numbers aside, I feel the weight of this exam on the shoulders of my peers, as I am a Korean high school senior myself. Depression and suicide have become so common amongst fellow teenagers that students will talk about suicide as if it’s just part of the daily news as if it’s a “viable” option if their scores do not pan out. The spike in depression and suicide rates begins before the test date. Students will study so intensely for the exam, often in isolation and going days without sleep, that mental breaks occur under duress.
As I write this article, I am more thankful than ever for the privilege of attending an international school since the fourth grade. Even then, my young mind was so eager to escape the rigidity and pressure I experienced in Korean elementary school. My friends who attend Korean school have just one more day to see whether their years toiling away in a hagwon, Korea's lucrative industry of “cram schools,” will deliver a test score that will land them into Seoul National University, Korea University, or Yonsei University — the elite “SKY” institutions.
Korean students like myself who are attending international school face our own pressures as we prepare to apply to overseas colleges. My burden is comparatively light, considering many American universities have made standardized tests optional this year. Even if I do take a standardized exam, I have multiple testing opportunities. Yet, the rates of depression and suicide among Korean teenagers do not distinguish between the nature of one’s school.
Korea’s startling mental health statistics, especially among young people, lead many to speculate that South Korea must have a weak health or education system. Ironically, South Korea has been top-ranked in both categories. In the 2021 Mid-Year Report, South Korea ranked 2nd for the healthcare index with a rate of 82.36 and 5th for education worldwide. Plus, South Korean parents spend over $15 billion on private education annually, about triple the average rate of other OECD nations. So it seems that economic opportunity in Korea is not to blame. That’s because the pressures students experience around their education is just as much of a cultural issue as it is a logistic one, and it starts in early childhood.
The cycle of pressure experienced by this age group begins at home with parents who want their child to be the best. It continues in hagwons and schools with teachers ranking students relative to each other and publishing that information publicly, not just within the school but across the region. Then, students are conditioned to put pressure on themselves as they literally compete with their peers at every turn. Before entering high school, I always thought of peer pressure as being forced to do something to fit in. But for my friends attending Korean school, the pressure comes from watching other students stand out due to their success.
As if the pervasive cultural, family, and peer pressures are not enough to significantly compromise a teenager’s mental health, the competitive nature of the school system also compromises the quality of relationships in students’ lives. A fellow student who was once a friend in elementary school became my competitor the moment a hagwon ranked us against each other. Our talks of having joint study sessions and forming shared study guides went out of the window. Not only did we stop discussing academics together, but we eventually stopped confiding in each other at all. God forbid I slip up and become vulnerable with him. When students like us feel that we can no longer confide in their peers or parents about this issue, our mental health becomes even more challenged even more in this isolation.
When students enter high school, they automatically trade their personal passions and interests to only study for the Korean SAT. This would actually be detrimental to my chances of admission to a U.S. university. The American university admissions process allows students to write supplemental essays with personal passion and stories, express themselves through extracurricular activities’ descriptions, and provide multiple chances or even super score their SAT or ACT scores. As for Korean universities, the test score is all that matters. And as for respected Korean careers, the tier of the university is all that matters.
Students my age often turn to Naver communities, which is like the Korean version of Reddit, to voice their concerns. As recently as last week, I read a post about faculty members publicizing a test score to amplify peer competition. Some posts are far darker, with students publishing their suicidal thoughts. These forums get a new post every hour, especially with Suneung Day approaching. Sadly, we know what will happen on the other side of this year’s Suneung Day. Some students will fail and commit to goshiwons, tiny bedrooms that students use as homes intense studying, for another year. Some students will pass and breathe a sigh of relief, and some other students will fall deeper into suffering.
This is one cycle that I sincerely hope will not continue. When will we stop publishing reports and actually make a change? While the American college testing system is imperfect, one thing it has gotten right is offering multiple test dates for students throughout the year and allowing students to test before senior year. If the Korean system simply offered multiple test dates and allowed students to test prior to senior year, it would be a major win for students’ health. Perhaps schools can also consider making the SAT optional because, frankly, Korean students are at a disadvantage when they enter the university because high school taught them how to pass one single test rather than how to think critically and creatively solve problems.
Education is meant to be a tool, not for survival, but for personal development and discovery. Otherwise, what else is all of this for?
Benny Hwang is a senior at Korea International School, Jeju Campus, with a passion for policy and people. He intends to attend university in the United States, where he will major in international relations and public policy.