The World’s Hardest Exam

Every year in the English summer, the newspapers are full of two things. The weather, and how exams are getting easier. First you have the obligatory story of someone with 7 A* at A-Level and 15 A* at GCSE who failed to get into Oxbridge. Then come the statistics about rising pass rates, soft marking and endless re-takes….yawn.

I wonder whether in an attempt to appease the tabloids, our next government might consider replacing GCSEs and A-Levels with the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) also known as the Seunung exam used in the Republic of Korea for university entrance. It is the educational equivalent of a Man vs. Food challenge, a 9-hour long exam. The longest exams sat at A-Level are a paltry 2 hours, but like many others I was entitled to 25% extra time as a student, which would take the Seunung up to nearly 12 hours! I cannot begin to imagine the mental fatigue a student would have to fight through in order to do this exam. The breadth of the exam is equally problematic; as it covers the entire syllabus in one go. English students have the luxury of an exam timetable, which allows them to plan revision, focus on different subjects at different times, and effectively forget each subject after the exam. The very idea of having to remember that volume of knowledge puts me in mind of the end of the most recent Indiana Jones Film. The main villain is killed when aliens force-feed her too much knowledge. It is a multiple-choice exam, which has the reputation especially in the UK of being “easy” but I doubt this is the case in Korea.

In fact, it is so big it’s even possible to feel sorry for the question setters. Working with lots of teachers, this is something I never thought I would be saying. Our tutors in London spend their time trying to challenge and prepare their students. Rumour has it that a carefully selected band of educators are ferried off every year to a secure location, known only to a handful of officials, and kept in seclusion until this behemoth is finally delivered to the government. I dare say that a sudden fluctuation in pass rates would have far deeper consequences for them than it would their English counterparts!

This exam seems to be part of the national culture in Korea. As a student, I remember each night before an exam being the same, desperately imploring family, often fruitlessly to keep the noise down so I could revise. Then setting four alarms to prevent any possibility of my tired brain oversleeping! In Korea, international flight paths are re-routed so as not to disturb the concentration of the candidates. Those that miss their alarm call can rely on police motorcycles to ferry them to their academic judgment day. In a strange way, I feel almost jealous.

One thing I am not jealous of however is the pressure. I was lucky enough that my parents limited themselves to the odd good luck text and a joking threat of the consequences should I do poorly. What I did not have to deal with was superstitious parents attaching messages of encouragement to school fences and national news cameras hunting the most moving appeals and sob stories like in the X Factor! This happens in Korea. I cannot help but think this would have made a pressurised situation even worse.

Is it coincidence that Asian countries including Korea top the educational performance charts? Should we follow their lead? I think the answer lies in two parts. Firstly, a change in exam culture in the UK needs to happen. Exams and exam success need to become part of the national culture as the Seunung is in Korea. Secondly, I hope this article may shock some of the naysayers into seeing where calls for harder exams can potentially lead.

Or next time your son or daughter complains about homework, just send them this article, I guarantee they will never complain again!

Additional resources:

The Wandsworth Test
The Art of Studying
Survive, Even Thrive, in Oxford Finals

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