South Koreans take first mask-free college exam since pandemic

By Daewoung Kim and Jimin Jung

SEOUL (Reuters) – Half a million South Koreans sat for the annual nationwide college entrance exam on Thursday, the first time in four years that the exam, often considered life-defining in the highly competitive society, has taken place free of pandemic rules.

This year, nearly 505,000 high school students, graduates and others signed up to take the single-day, five-session College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) held at 1,279 test sites across the country, the education ministry said.

Test-takers were not required to wear face masks, unlike the previous three years.

The annual exam is widely considered one of the most important tests in the country. Even airline flights are suspended during the listening comprehension portion of the English test.

South Korean financial markets opened an hour later than usual at 10 a.m. (0100 GMT) to ease traffic.

Outside schools, parents cheered for their children, hugging them and some wiping away tears.

“I feel so nervous. Maybe I’m more nervous (than my daughter),” said Kim Mi-jae, mother of a 18-year-old student, after sending off her daughter for the exam at a high school in Seoul.

The difficulty of this year’s exam has yet to be confirmed, but South Korean officials have said it would not include the so-called “killer questions” typically drawn from material not covered in public school curriculum.

President Yoon Suk Yeol has blamed such questions as the cause of excessive spending in private education, one of the factors behind the country’s declining fertility rate.

South Koreans spent a record 26 trillion won ($19.97 billion) on private education last year, despite a declining student population, a government report showed.

(Reporting by Daewung Kim, Jimin Jung; Writing by Soo-hyang Choi. Editing by Gerry Doyle)