Suneung Day: One Childhood, Eight Hours

Once a year in November, something special happens in Korea. Planes are grounded or rerouted. The number of buses and subways running increases. And some students are escorted to their destinations by police.

As for parents and younger siblings, they can be seen praying at temples for good luck or gathered outside the testing centers, cheering with motivational posters.

Today is Suneung Day. The day once a year where Korea comes to a halt.

So what is Suneung Day and what is its correlation to the Korean startup ecosystem? This blog will explore just that and show that there are two major negative spillover effects of the Suneung upon the potential of the startup:

  1. High levels of pressure placed upon children crush any chance at childhood exploration and growth which then affects decisions in adulthood
  2. Monotonous studying kills all creativity

The Suneung, A Primer

The Suneung (수능) is shorthand for the College Scholastic Ability Test (대학수학능력시험) and it is the Korean equivalent of the SAT but much harder and far more decisive for college entrance. It is administered once a year and lasts for eight hours so if you perform poorly, you have to wait an entire year to take it again. This happens more often you think with 20% of students opting to retake the exam.

Much like the American SAT, the Suneung covers subjects such as Mathematics and the native tongue (Korean) but also additional subjects such as Social Studies and Foreign Language.

This exam is the reason children are studying eight hours a day outside of school and why the rate of youth suicide is astronomically high and still growing.

This test is so intense that there have been multiple complaints filed against the test proctors for offenses such as as eating chocolate, sniffling too loudly, or even standing in front of certain desks for too long.

How This Ties Back to the Startup: Too Much Pressure, Not Enough Creativity

“To live in modern South Korea is to live with constant pressure. The Suneung exam, it’s an emblem [of that],” — Daniel Tudor, The Economist

A Life Spent Worrying

The above quote perfectly encapsulates one of the largest issues with the Suneung and what it represents which is the constant pressure that defines Korean society. From an early age you learn of Suneung Day and participate in the annual ritual as more and more of your friends sit down for the eight hour onslaught. Because of this, even before you begin studying for it you are aware of its presence and have at least a slight understanding of the power it has over your future.

The Suneung accounts for just %.005 of the time an eighteen year old has been alive and yet it is the focus of their life, the nightmare in their dreams, what consumes them.

A decade of studying for just %.005.

The fact that so much of a Korean’s youth is dedicated to this exam is devastating for their future and the future of the economy. At an age when children need to be discovering what they want through trial and error and exploring new things, they are instead stuck in cram schools doing whatever they can do get the extra leg up. This means that their ability to think critically and creatively as well as willingness to try new and different things is stunted and will hamper them in future job prospects such as working for a startup.

When you enter the workforce, all you really know is how to study hard and memorize. You’ve not given much thought to what you want to do and why you want to do it. Startups rely upon introspective thought of individuals in order to create the next thing that can change how society operates and that’s not possible without a childhood of exploration. People need to be willing to think differently and challenge entrenched norms but when they’ve spent their life following instructions and doing exactly what they have been told, this isn’t possible.

Creativity: All Work and No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy

A key pillar of a startup is creativity. Creativity is necessary in developing a new product, challenging an industry that has been thought unchallengeable. It is about creating the new, the never before seen. For this to work, it requires a person capable of thinking outside the box, someone who had time to grow and learn during their childhood and was not trapped inside studying all day.

On top of this, creativity is further hampered by the style of teaching involved with the Suneung. The pedagogy focuses on memorization over creativity for the exam with creativity or critical thinking seen as hurting one’s chances of excelling.

Forcing children into raw memorization over any type of activity that can stimulate personal growth makes gaining these skills later in life that much more difficult. This is especially true when you realize that many of the highly sought after jobs and graduate programs (e.g. law and medical school) require similar type of tests to just get a job/school interview so you spend your late college years preparing for these.

Memorize answers to get into college. Memorize answers to get a job. Don’t create, just memorize.

This isn’t a recipe for growth, it’s a recipe for disaster.


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