On Thursday in South Korea, hundreds of thousands of high-school seniors sat down to take the Suneung, or the College Scholastic Ability Test. As students walked to the exam centers, well-wishers handed out “yut”—a type of taffy and a sign of good luck, so that test-takers would “stick” to the university they want. Some of the students’ parents prayed at churches and temples; some may have even waited, pacing outside the gates, while their children endured the eight-hour test. Businesses delayed opening to keep traffic off the streets, and planes paused takeoffs during the English-language listening section of the test. For students running late, local police offered taxi services. It’s as if the entire nation of South Korea is focused on getting students to the test and making sure they do as well as they can.

The best result is admission to one of the country’s top universities: Seoul National University, Korea University, or Yonsei University. Those who don’t do well, don’t pass, or aren’t satisfied with their score can retake the test—in one year. That’s after 12 years of education spent preparing to take it the first time, the last three of which involve hours of extra study time daily in a sprint toward the Suneung.

As a point of comparison, the major college-entrance tests in the United States, the SATs and ACTs, clock in at under four hours each. Whereas for most South Korean students, the Suneung is the determining factor for where they go to college, in the United States, SAT or ACT test scores make up a smaller portion of the admissions decision—and there are hundreds of universities and colleges moving away from considering the scores at all.

Given the stakes, the preparation for and discussion surrounding the Suneung in South Korea can be, as Ye Dam Yi, a recent college graduate who works for a trade company in Seoul, described it, apocalyptic. “Most teachers emphasize that if we failed Suneung, the rest of our lives would be failure, because the test is the first (and last) step to our successful lives,” said Sina Kim, a 25-year-old currently looking for a job. The exam is seen as “the final goal and final determinant of our lives. We thought that if we successfully finish the test, then the bright future would automatically follow.”

The Suneung isn’t the only way to get into university, but it is the most common and respected one. The alternative Susi process, not unlike the U.S. formula, usually requires “a good GPA, extracurricular activities (recognition, test scores, etc.), and either an interview [or] essay test,” explained Ye Dam. Dongyoung Shin, a 36-year-old who recently completed her masters at Yonsei, entered university through this non-traditional path, and said there’s a stigma associated with it; college acceptance via the Susi—and not the Suneung—is seen as the easy way in.

South Korea’s modern-day testing fixation has evolved over centuries, according to Michael Seth, the author of Education Fever: Society, Politics, and the Pursuit of Schooling in South Korea. The Suneung has its roots in the civil-service exam that began in 10th-century Korea. Passing the exam and securing a job in the government guaranteed status. “Even if you weren’t attempting to enter into government service,” Seth said in an interview,“you wanted to be a degree holder to maintain the status of your family.” Informed by the special place Confucian scholars held in society, Seth explained, “education was a means to moral authority.”  

The civil-service exam was abolished toward the end of the 19th century and, with the nation under Japanese colonial rule, Seth writes, “access to education beyond the elementary level was restricted as part of Korea’s subordinate status in the empire.” After the empire fell following World War II, illiteracy was widespread, with “less than 5 percent of the adult population [having] more than an elementary school education,” according to Education Fever. The only university in Korea at the time enrolled primarily Japanese students.

The modern form of the college-entrance exam came into being in the 1950s. And while the nation endured “political turmoil, economic chaos, and warfare,” Seth told me, it kept making progress in education. A large part of its success, he added, came from the state’s focused effort to raise its citizenry to a “shared standard of education” instead of focusing on its elite class, as had been the tradition before Japanese colonization. Within half-century after imperial rule ended, Seth writes, “90 percent [of students] graduated from high school. There were over 180 colleges and universities, and the proportion of college-age men and women enrolled in higher education was greater than in most European nations.”

Mothers and grandmothers pray for their family member's success in the college entrance examinations at Jogye Buddhist temple in Seoul in 2011. (Jo Yong-Hak / Reuters)

Over the six decades of the modern-day Suneung’s existence, its nature, and how much it should be weighed in college admissions, has been subject to debate. But the one constant throughout has been the intense pressure on all students, who according to Seth prepare “from kindergarten till they’re a senior in high school.”

Once the students enter high school in 10th grade, the studying intensifies. A typical day, former South Korean students told me, consists of around 10 hours of school, a quick dinner break, and the rest of the evening spent in mandatory study halls until 10 p.m. Students might return home to continue studying or head to hagwons, cram schools. Se-Woong Koo worked at a cram school and described the experience in The New York Times: “Hagwons are soulless facilities, with room after room divided by thin walls, lit by long fluorescent bulbs, and stuffed with students memorizing English vocabulary, Korean grammar rules and math formulas.”

This obsession with education helps put South Korea consistently atop the global school rankings. In last year’s national rankings of students’ math and science scores by the Organization for Economic and Cooperation and  Development (OECD), South Korea came in second place worldwide, after Singapore. The organization also found that “over 70% of high school graduates go to four-year universities.”

But there’s a cost, both for the students and for their parents. The government’s own survey found in 2014 that South Korean children were the least happy among those of 30 countries studied, most of them in the OECD, with the Health Ministry citing “academic stress” as “the most relevant factor.” In 2014, South Koreans spent $18 billion on private education to better their children’s chances on the Suneung—an amount three times the OECD average. A South Korean newspaper, The Hankyoreh, noted that South Korea’s spending figure in 2014 marked the “the highest rate in the organization for a fourteenth straight year, and evidence of the country’s still-heavy reliance on private spending for public education.”

Another complaint is that the exam, the score, and university acceptance form such an acute focal point in the South Korean education system that all other aspects of scholarship seem to fall aside. Dongyoung recalls, “In my three years of high school, not once did any teacher ask me what I would like to do or what I would like to study in college. No one really cared about my interest or what I’d be better at.”

Regardless, Thursday will be a cold day in South Korea, former test-takers assure me. Even though the test date changes from year to year, they say that examination day always has a distinctive chill to it.