Silence. No hammering from construction sites. No planes taking off. Even the banks stay shut on the most important day of the year for South Korea’s students.

But crowds cheered and beat drums at the gates of some 1,190 test sites where more than half a million students were about to sit the national university entrance exams.

The ‘Suneung’ or College Scholastic Ability Tests (CSAT) take place on the third Thursday in November, after 12 years of hard work.

"For us, Suneung is a very important gateway to the future,” 18-year-old Ko Eun-suh told the BBC. “In Korea, going to university is very important. That's why we spend 12 years preparing for this one day. I know people who've taken this exam up to five times."

Even the police get involved: The Korea Herald reported that hundreds of officers were sent out across cities to help students get to their exams on time.

While the students sat the exams, some anxious parents headed to Buddhist temples or churches to pray for their success. But they’ve got a few agonizing weeks to wait until the results are officially posted online.

High achievers

South Korea has some of the most highly educated people in the world - 70% of 25 to 34-year-olds had a tertiary education in 2017, according to the OECD.

Its focus on education has powered its economy from being one of the poorest in the world in 1960 to becoming the fifth largest exporter. The high-tech nation is also the 15th most competitive economy in the world, according to the World Economic Forum.

South Korea has the highest educated people in the world
Image: OECD

Competition for university places is intense - this year, 11,397 more people applied to take the test (a total of 595,924) than last, according to the Education Ministry. It’s the top three universities - Seoul, Korea and Yonsei, known as Sky institutions - that everyone’s aiming for. But only fewer than 2% will get in.

There’s a huge gap between wages for the big conglomerates, including LG and Hyundai - known as chaebol - and most other employers, so students believe their academic performance will lead to a higher-paid job.

But a good education doesn’t guarantee work. In August, unemployment hit an eight-year high, at 4.2%, its worst level since the global financial crisis of 2008.

Meanwhile, tutoring children through the exams at ‘hagwon’ academies has become a 17.8 trillion won industry ($15.8bn), which a 2017 report linked to household debt and lower birth rates in the country, as families struggle to compete.

In 2016, 83.6% of five-year-olds and 35.5% of two-year olds attended private academies according to a survey by the Korea Institute of Child Care and Education.

On average, Korean 15-year-olds who sit the OECD’s PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test, have already taken 6.4 years of extra courses.

Under pressure

South Korean students showed low levels of life satisfaction
Image: OECD, PISA Database

Besides the economic cost, the pressure to achieve may also be taking a toll on students’ wellbeing.

According to the OECD’s triennial PISA report, more than 20% of Korean 15-year-olds in 2015 reported they were not satisfied in their life, compared to less than 4% of students in the Netherlands.

Less than one in five (18.6%) reported they were very satisfied in their life. Only students in Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and Macao reported being less satisfied.

And it’s not just students who aren’t happy.

South Korea has some of the longest working hours in the world, with more than 20% of workers pulling a 50-hour-plus week. It also has the second highest suicide rate among OECD countries, with 25.8 deaths per 100,000 people in 2016.

Suicide rates in South Korea have increased over the last decade
Image: World Health Organization

A 2017 study by the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs found that more than 90% of the 7,000 surveyed said they were under some form of stress, and a quarter were under high stress.

But the country is beginning to address its mental health problems.

Earlier this year, the government capped the working week at 52 hours to encourage a better work-life balance.

In 2016, the government allocated 48.2 billion won ($42.5 million) for suicide prevention and mental health projects. And in 2012, it started the National Youth Healing Center offering a treatment programme for those suffering from conditions including depression.

Only time will tell how well this year’s students have performed, but their future will only be brighter and happier if these wellbeing concerns are also addressed.