April is the cruelest month, they say. Well, in Korea, although it may not be the cruelest, it is definitely a cruel one, especially if you’re a student: it’s time for mid-terms. You might have noticed less students cavorting late into the night, more students at coffee shops hovered over stacks of books, and middle and high school students in uniform with concerned expressions on their faces.
Tests and exams are a huge part of life in Korea. We are born and raised to it and become quite accustomed having regular exams thrown our way as we live our everyday lives.
It starts at an early age. Kindergartens administer aptitude tests these days for applicants to “check the child’s ability” and some exclusive schools will test the parents as well. Most mothers (and some fathers) make sure their young child know the basics of Hangeul (한글, the Korean alphabet) even before they enter kindergarten, although in kindergarten itself not many “official tests” are taken. However, since many mothers are convinced their child is a genius – I swear, I would be filthy rich by now if I had received money every time I heard a mother say this – by the time a child is in kindergarten, they would have gone through not only the aptitude test but also probably an intelligence test of some sort to see whether they are truly gifted or not.
Then comes the real thing: school. There are tests, exams, mock exams, pop quizzes, try-outs, evaluations, and more tests and more exams with every title possible. You get tested on every subject in school, and also you have to contend with the tests they dole out at the hagwons (학원, private institutes), too.
Elementary school starts off easy, but then you also have extracurricular activities either at hagwons or private lessons such as music, sports, and art. Which all have contests to enter, and what are contests but tests in just another format? My friend’s daughter who is in the 3rd grade participates in contests for swimming, piano, and also writing compositions and she’s just a normal Seoul 3rd grader. Kids who wish to enter a specialized private middle school study for the entrance exams once they become the higher grades.
Middle school and high school all culminate in the epitome of all school tests: the college entrance exams. It’s not an overstatement to say it is what dictates those 6 years of school; everything you learn is for that exam (and of course life in the long run, but no one really tells you that during that time). And all those tests you take in between? The mid-terms, the finals, the national scholastic tests, the school administrated exams, the many other little tests? They are simply preparation tests for the big thing.
Of course, sometime during these school years, you would have taken a standard IQ test, EQ test, and aptitude test to determine whether you should head into liberal arts or natural sciences.
So you made it into college, a respectable university! Time to let loose and get rid of those late-night no-sleep stuck-at-school-until-midnight study blues, right? Nope. Sorry. You’ve got to graduate, right? And graduate with good grades on top of that, no? Yes. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and competition is fierce for those highly coveted dream jobs. First you have to master your major (and double major and minor), and then English, and then other foreign languages if you feel inclined, some computer tech stuff and knowledge of basic software programs; college is setting you up to take more tests in order to enter the real world. You need to be prepared 100%, and how do you know if you’re prepared or not? Of course, take tests!
For those who have a clear career path in mind, studying is focused on those special tests and exams. Exams to become civil servants or diplomats, bar exams for those who want to pursue a career in law, exams to embark in the world of broadcasting and journalism, exams to take to qualify to become a teacher, language proficiency tests to take in order to study abroad, the list goes on and on.
Even after being thrown into the real world, many companies carry out tests and exams of their own to evaluate employees. Most are just bluntly called “promotion tests”; if you pass, you get promoted; if you don’t, you don’t. Besides the promotion tests, tests are carried out after educational training sessions, to assess certain skills the job would take, and there are also “leadership quality” tests and other career oriented personality tests that many companies like to take. Tests are a constant in the working field as much as it was in school.
Not all tests are academic, though. Korea isn’t a country just full of booksmarts. There is also focus on mad skills: cooking, tailoring, construction, painting, knitting, plumbing, car repair, upholstery, etc, etc. In order to be recognized in a specialized field, you must take a test and get a license or certificate, you got to get tested. There’s a reason why people hang diplomas on their walls. The paid their dues, worked their behinds off, took the test, and passed!
After school, probably one of the tests taken most widely is the test to get your driver’s license. (Although you may think at times that Korea may not have a strict driving test, the way some people drive.) There is a rigorous process you have to go through in order to get your license which means it’s yet another test to tackle.
Tests and exams aren’t all negative, though. They are methods for us to check where we are in that certain subject or field. They give us criteria upon which we can evaluate our efforts (or lack thereof). And it’s not the test or exam which is the true focus. It is the value of the effort, the hard work which is the most important. Korea is a land of tests because it is a land of continuous effort. Korea is always moving forward, always trying to progress to a higher level, always trying to be better than before. Thus, all these neverending tests. Of course, all these tests are going to stress us out, but if that stress results in a better me, a better us, a better everybody, isn’t it worth it?
(This could be my brainwashed-with-tests Korean self talking but I think my point is valid.)