Testing times: South Korea holds high-stakes college exam as COVID-19 cases rise

Students wearing face masks wait for the start of college entrance examination at an exam hall in Seoul.
Students wearing face masks wait for the start of the annual college entrance examination amid the coronavirus pandemic at an exam hall in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, Dec. 3, 2020.
(Kim Hong-ji / Pool Photo)

For eight hushed hours Thursday, a second-floor hospital room at the Mokpo City Medical Center at the southwestern tip of South Korea will be transformed into a test center — not for the coronavirus, but for admission to college.

Five hospital beds have been wheeled out, making way for a lone school desk. Nurses clad head-to-toe in white protective suits, goggles and masks will take turns serving as proctors. At the center of it all will be an 18-year-old high school senior with the coronavirus, taking the most important exam of her lifetime.

South Korea is forging ahead with its annual nationwide college entrance exam despite unease over rising coronavirus infection rates. Nearly half a million students are set to take the test Thursday as the rest of the country grapples with a third wave of COVID-19 cases, with daily infections hovering around 500 in recent weeks.

A student wearing a mask prays before the start of the annual college entrance examination at an exam hall in Seoul.
A student wearing a mask prays before the start of the annual college entrance examination amid the COVID-19 pandemic at an exam hall in Seoul on Dec. 3, 2020. South Korean officials are urging people to remain at home if possible and cancel gatherings as about half a million students prepare for a crucial national college exam.
(Kim Hong-ji / Pool Photo )

In this hyper-competitive society where college admission is seen as predetermining many facets of one’s life, including jobs, income and social status, the exam is a tense affair even in a typical year. Companies delay their workers’ commute so students can get to test centers on time, the stock market pushes back its opening bell by an hour, and planes stop taking off so as to not interfere with listening-comprehension sections.

Add to the mix a raging pandemic, and you have a nation on edge about whether the test is putting students, their families and the entire country at risk and whether the seniors will get a fair shot at the high-stakes exam. The coronavirus has wreaked havoc on their academic calendars and caused outbreaks in several of the country’s myriad cram schools, where students spend long hours in test prep.

“It’s such a big turning point in life. How you do on this exam really changes your future,” said Yang, a 20-year-old test taker who asked to be identified only by her last name. “The psychological pressure is immense.”

A worker disinfects a test center as a coronavirus precaution for the upcoming college entrance exams in Seoul.
(Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)

Among those taking the exam Thursday will be 35 students who have tested positive for the coronavirus, as well as an additional 387 who are being required to isolate after coming into contact with a known patient, according to the Ministry of Education. They will take the exam at two dozen hospitals around the country, including the one in Mokpo, or separate test centers for those in quarantine, with no more than four students per room, officials said.


Yang, who is taking the annual test a third time for a shot at a higher-ranked university than the one she got into last year, recalled how nerve-racking the test day was in her first two attempts. She said she couldn’t imagine having to take it in a hospital room.

“This is an unprecedented situation for the students, the schools, the parents. Everyone is anxious,” she said.

High school seniors aren’t the only ones whose futures have been jeopardized by the challenges of holding large-scale exams in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A cluster of infections last month at a cram school for teacher qualification exams resulted in 67 aspiring teachers being barred from the test, which many spend several years preparing for. Would-be accountants protested after test administrators announced that anyone with COVID-19 would not be allowed to take an upcoming certification exam in December. Earlier this year, a local development corporation in the city of Ansan held its employment exam for job applicants in a soccer field so as to have an open-air environment with ample space between test takers.

The pandemic has helped highlight the extent to which South Koreans hang their hopes on high-pressure exams to determine their future prospects. Job seekers spend years preparing for public service exams for coveted government jobs. Major corporations including Samsung and LG rely on exams to weed out applicants, spawning an industry of cram schools and prep books tailored specifically to their exams. Both companies conducted their tests online this year because of the pandemic.


“South Korea has way too many exams, and especially high-stakes exams where everything is decided on that one day,” said Kim Ki-hun, a senior fellow at the National Youth Policy Institute. “The fact that it’s going forward even in this extraordinary COVID-19 situation — that shows you how deep-rooted it is.”

At Thursday’s grueling all-day college entrance exam, students will be required to wear masks throughout, with plastic dividers separating their desks.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said the exam was even more of a challenge than the general elections the country held in April because it involves students, proctors and support staff — about 610,000 people, all told — spending the entire day in a confined space.

“The degree of risk and nervousness is much higher,” Moon said.

At a temple in Seoul, parents pray for their children on the eve of South Korea's national college entrance exam.
Parents pray and light candles at a temple in Seoul during a service to wish for their children’s success on Dec. 2, 2020, the eve of South Korea’s nationwide college entrance exam.
(Ahn Young-joon / Associated Press)

One student taking the test Thursday said she has been taking practice exams with a mask, but found it challenging because it kept shifting her glasses.

Her mother has been attending daily prayers at church for her daughter’s sake. The girl had been spending more than 15 hours a day at an expensive cram school, but two of the students there tested positive for the coronavirus, leading the school to be shut down while everyone who was in contact was tested.


“Getting one question right or wrong can make the difference in which school you get into,” said the girl, Cho, who also asked to be identified only by her last name. She said she hoped to get into a top-tier university to study engineering.

At the Mokpo medical center, two students with mild cases of the coronavirus had initially been scheduled to take their exams, but one was discharged with two days to go, said hospital administrator Kim O-cheon.

The remaining student is doing well with virtually no symptoms and seemed to be calmly preparing on the eve of the exam despite the unusual environs, he said.