Suneung (수능) Explained by a Korean


This post covers the Suneung exam and why it’s so important to Koreans.

I go over the basics of the test, some interesting facts and things only Koreans know.

Let’s check them out!

Suneung (수능) Explained by a Korean

What is Suneung (수능) or CSAT?

Suneung is the Korean acronym for College Scholastic Ability Test (대학력시험).

It’s like the SATs in the United States, but three times as long.

Suneung also has more weight in college admissions than the SAT.

To exaggerate a bit, CSAT results determine the futures of Korean students.

Why is Suneung so important in Korea?

Education has always been a top priority. But especially after the Korean War, the only way to escape poverty was through education. There’s even a proverb:

“개천에서 용 난다”
“a dragon rises from a small stream”

It means that a person from a poor background can become successful. Although more Koreans believe that this proverb is no longer applicable, since rich families spend way more money on education to send their children to top universities, the Suneung is still a fair exam.

What is the format of Suneung?

Suneung consists of multiple choice (5 options) and short answer questions (only for Mathematics). At the beginning of each test subject, inspectors hand out a large test booklet and OMR card answer sheet. The number of questions in each subject are:

  • Korean (국어): 45 questions
  • Mathematics (수학): 30 questions
  • English (영어): 45 questions (the first 17 are listening questions)
  • Korean History (한국사), Social/Science/Career Exploration (사회/과학/직업탐구): 20 questions
  • Second Language/Chinese Characters (제2외국어/한문): 30 questions

This may seem manageable, but each question is a few paragraphs long. Time management is critical since you need to get through all questions and mark down the answers on a separate answer sheet.

What is the timetable and length of Suneung?

Suneung is a 9-hour long marathon exam.

Students should enter the exam room by 8:10 AM. To make this as smooth as possible, most Korean parents drop them off at the assigned school for the exam (which is different from their school to prevent cheating like hiding notes), or police escort them. Banks and most companies open late on the CSAT day to minimize traffic.

Korean parents carefully prepare a lunch box for their children. Test takers avoid eating Miyeok-guk (미역국 or seaweed soup) on Suneung day since it’s slippery and will make them “slip” or fail.

There’s a double meaning here where Koreans can express 합격하다 or “pass” as 붙었다 or “stick”.

So, they want to eat something sticky like Yeot or Chapssal-tteok, not something slippery like Miyeok-guk to gain entry to the university of their choice.

During the English listening comprehension test after lunch, flights are grounded for ultimate silence.

Students can select one Second Language (제2외국어) from German, French, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, Arabic, Vietnamese or Chinese Characters (한문). However, this subject is optional and not every university requires it.

When I took Suneung, I chose Arabic, even though I couldn’t read or understand it, just to get assigned to a better test site. Students aiming for top universities take a Second Language (제2외국어), so their exam environment is much better and quieter. If you’re wondering how I answered the Arabic questions, I simply marked at random.

Korean (국어)8:40 – 10:00 (80 minutes)
Break10:00 – 10:20 (20 minutes)
Mathematics (수학)10:30 – 12:10 (100 minutes)
Lunch12:10 – 13:00 (50 minutes)
English (영어)13:00 – 14:20 (70 minutes)
Break14:20 – 14:40 (20 minutes)
Korean History (한국사),
Social/Science/Career Exploration (사회/과학/직업탐구)
14:50 – 16:32 (102 minutes)
Break16:32 – 16:50 (18 minutes)
Second Language/Chinese Characters
(제2외국어/한문)
17:00 – 17:40 (40 minutes)

10 interesting things about Suneung/CSAT

  1. No airplanes can take off or land during the English listening test. Flights on these routes need to maintain a holding pattern and circle around.
  2. Military training is stopped because guns and grenades going off are distracting.
  3. Stock markets open 1 hour later at 10 AM to reduce traffic.
  4. Most companies, including banks, open late to reduce traffic.
  5. Test takers who are running late can call 112 or 119 to get rapid transportation. 3,000 police cars and 200 fire trucks are on standby for the Suneung.
  6. Sick or injured test takers can contact their city or province office of education in advance to take CSAT in a hospital guarded by inspectors. If they’re sick on the day of Suneung, they may take their test at the school health center.
  7. All test takers are assigned to a different school to prevent cheating. If a student wants to go to the bathroom during the test, they need to raise their hand and tell the inspector quietly. The inspector in the corridor will scan their body with a metal detector and may accompany them to the bathroom.
  8. There are two inspectors (수능 감독관) in each classroom, usually the main one is a high school teacher and the supporting one is a middle school teacher. Inspectors need to arrive by 7:30 AM, and submit their mobile phones (and even smart car keys). It’s an extreme job since they need to supervise everything in the classroom and detect cheaters while staying completely silent. They get compensated with 140,000 won (about 130 dollars) at the end of the test.
  9. 300 exam writers (수능 출제자) consisting of high school teachers and university professors are selected in secret (writers are not allowed to talk about it) and locked in a secured place about a month before Suneung. No one knows the location. Agents of the National Intelligence Service cut all communication methods, including internet, and police officers guard the place. It’s completely separated from the outside world for a month. Even the garbage is disposed of after CSAT.
    One time, exam creators played foot volleyball (족구), and a ball accidentally went over the wall. The security agents immediately ran to grab the ball and tore it to pieces to check, making exam creators very sad. They can only go outside when a direct family member passes away, but still, security agents will accompany them, and they need to return in half a day. They’re known to receive more than 10,000,000 won (about 9,222 dollars). This is to compensate them from being locked up for one month in a prison of sorts.
  10. Suneung test papers are classified documents until the test day. The test papers are printed for about a week in a secure and guarded printing factory, then transported across the country on Monday. All transportation is guarded by police, and by the navy in remote places like Jeju Island. The test papers are distributed to each test site at 2 AM on the CSAT day. The truck drivers will be locked inside for a day and receive about 160,000 to 200,000 won (147 to 184 dollars).

Which items can students bring to Suneung?

Students need to bring their ID card (신분증) and test ID slip (수험표).

They can also bring:

  • black pencil
  • eraser
  • sharp lead (0.5mm, black)
  • white correction tape
  • black computer marking pen (컴퓨터용 사인펜)
  • analog watch without any communication or payment function, Bluetooth or LCD/LED display

Prohibited items are:

  • mobile phones
  • smart devices (smart watches)
  • digital cameras
  • electronic dictionaries
  • MP3 players
  • camera pens
  • electronic calculators
  • radios
  • portable media players
  • all electronic devices such as watches and electronic cigarettes
  • earphones with Bluetooth functions

Since Suneung is very time-sensitive, Korean students use a stopwatch when studying and practicing for CSAT. (But they can’t bring one to the test.)

Which gifts do Koreans give to students taking Suneung?

Classic Suneung gifts are Yeot (sticky Korean traditional confectionery or 엿), Chapssal-tteok (Korean rice cake or 찹쌀떡 like Mochi), and chocolates (초콜릿).

For some reason, Ferrero Rocher is a go-to chocolate gift for Suneung takers in Korea.

I remember receiving a lot of these gifts before the test, but I was too nervous and careful to eat them the night before. I only brought some chocolates to the exam to “sweeten up” my brain.
(Chocolate and sugar are known to help you focus in Korea.)

How hard is the Korean SAT?

If you’re fluent in Korean, you can check out 2020 Suneung questions and answers for 2021 college admission here.

Although difficulty fluctuates every year, I can say that it’s fairly hard.

Korean students need to not only study 7 to 9 subjects, but also manage their physical and mental condition while timing answers perfectly without making mistakes.

This one exam is the culmination of a Korea person’s childhood study from kindergarten to high school.

Other Suneung/CSAT FAQ

How do Korean students study so long?

Well, I just grew up doing it, so it felt natural to study all day. You can get used to anything if you have to. This experience taught me the importance of self-discipline and I’m glad I did it, although I hated it as a kid.

How many hours do Korean students sleep?

12th graders (고3) in Korea sleep 5.4 hours a day on average. I slept 6 hours and it was very normal.

Is life in Korea hard?

Yes. Childhood is very brief and then it’s off to intense study until they get to college. There, Koreans have freshman year to socialize and enjoy their youth before getting a job or men joining the military.

Why is it cold on Suneung?

For some reason, Suneung day has been always cold. Temperature drops to minus Celsius on CSAT and gets warm after. Some Koreans believe that test takers and their parents pray and call every type of ghost and spirit, including ancestors. Just like in western countries, the presence of ghosts causes things to get colder in Korean culture.

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Did we miss anything?

Suneung is an important part of growing up in Korea.

Now we want to hear from you.

Let us know your favorite Suneung fact in the comments!

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