Friday, November 11, 2011

Can You Go to College in Korea? (Take the Exam!)

This past Thursday was the most important day for 690,000 Korean high school seniors -- it was the day of the dreaded College Scholastic Aptitude Test. It is not an exaggeration to say that much of Korean students' lives were dedicated to that one day. Korean society does everything it can to assist the students' test taking. Buses and subways run more frequently, and airplanes are prohibited from taking off or landing during listening comprehension portion of the exam.

CSAT takes up a major portion of college admission, although each college is free to set its own standard of how much CSAT score will be reflected. Colleges generally choose to reflect anywhere between 20% to 100%. To the extent CSAT does not count as 100% of the admission requirements, schools look at: high school GPA; high school attendance; community service; a separate essay exam; interview; audition/tryouts, etc. (Interview and audition/tryouts are usually for students looking to major in athletics or arts.)

CSAT's format changes slightly every year. But basically, CSAT is made up of seven sections: Korean, Math, English, Natural Sciences, Social Sciences, Occupational Sciences and Second Foreign Language. Students are not supposed to take all seven sections. The way in which test-takers choose the sections to take is slightly complicated, and this is how:

- CSAT is made up of five periods, going from 8:40 a.m. to 6:05 p.m.

- All students take Korean, Math and English in the first three periods. Math is divided into Math A and Math B, and students choose one or the other. Math B is a little easier, but most science/engineering colleges require Math A. There is a one hour lunch period between the second and third periods.

- Fourth period is for "Sciences" sections. Social Sciences section has 11 subjects (e.g., modern Korean history, world geography, economics, etc.) Natural Sciences section has 8 subjects (e.g. physics, chemistry, etc.) Occupational Sciences section has 17 subjects (e.g. accounting, fisheries and maritime, programming, etc.) Students are required to choose one of the sections, depending on the majors for which they plan to apply. Generally, humanities majors choose Social Sciences, science and engineering majors choose Natural Sciences, and those applying for a technical degree at a 2-year college choose Occupational Sciences. Within the section, the student chooses up to three subjects to take. (Last year, it was four.) Generally, colleges require the scores from at least two subjects.

- Fifth period is for the Second Foreign Language section. Second Foreign Language section has eight subjects. Students are not required to take the Second Foreign Language section. But if they choose to take it, they may select one subject in the section. Certain majors (e.g. Chinese literature) require Second Foreign Language in a specific language, and certain colleges allow students to substitute a Second Foreign Language subject with one of the subjects in Social Sciences section.

With that said, here is something that (as far as the Korean knows) has never been done before:  you, an English speaker, can try your hand at taking CSAT in your language. Will you be able to go to college in Korea?

More after the jump.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

This is what the Korean did. The Korean took the CSAT exam from 2010, and created a miniature version consisting of Korean, Math B, English, two subjects from Social Sciences and two subjects from Natural Sciences, and translated the questions into English (and vice versa as to the English section.) Basically, this is approximately a 1/7 scale model of the 2010 CSAT.

A few words about the way the Korean chose to scale down CSAT. The Korean took care to make it relatively easy within the scale of the questions presented. Please note that the Korean chose to have Math B, not Math A which is more difficult. For Natural Sciences section, the Korean chose Physics I and Chemistry I, which are easier compared to Physics II and Chemistry II. (Other subjects in Natural Sciences are Biology I and II, and Earth Science I and II.) For Social Sciences section, the Korean chose World History and Economics because he believed that those two subjects would "travel well" for those who never attended a Korean school, relatively speaking. (Other subjects in Social Sciences are:  Ethics, Korean History, Korean Geography, World Geography, Economic Geography, Modern Korean History, Law and Society, Politics, Society and Culture.)

Every question is accompanied with the original question, except in English because that would make it too easy. (Because of the translation, "Korean" essentially became a test about English comprehension, and "English" essentially became a test in Korean comprehension.) The Korean chose the questions as randomly as he could.

If you choose to take the model CSAT as closely as Korean students would take it, this is how you should approach it. (This set assumes that you are applying for a four-year college, hence the lack of Occupational Science section.) First, decide whether you would like to major in something in the humanities, or something in science/engineering. If you are going to be a humanities major, take Korean, Math B, English, World History and Economics. If you are going to be a science/engineering major, take Korean, Math B, English, Physics I and Chemistry I. The entire thing should take just 40 minutes, as long as you are honest with the time allotted in the exam.

Please note that for Korean and English, there is a listening comprehension section. If at all possible, have someone else read the prompts for you. Please also note that the last question in Math B is not a multiple choice. No calculator is allowed.

Now, here's the fun part. To get into a mid-tier college in Korea (equivalent to, say, Virginia Tech, Baylor or Duquesne,) students generally have to score 90 percent or higher in CSAT. Note that this is not 90th percentile -- it's about earning 90 percent of all available scores in the exam. In the abbreviated CSAT below, there are 28 questions. In other words, you have to get approximately 25 questions right in order to get into a mid-tier college in Korea. (The Korean says "approximately" because each questions are weighted differently, between 1 to 4 points. Scaling down the weight of the questions was just too much work.) Students who make it to Seoul National University, the most prestigious university in Korea, generally score around 97 percent.

So here is the challenge: Can you get into a mid-tier college in Korea? Please report your score in the bottom section, preferably broken down by subject. The answer key is at the last page of the exam. Given that Anglophonic people do not learn Korean like Koreans learn English (which knocks out 6 of 28 questions,) the Korean would be very impressed if you can get more than half right in the given time. (But 50% will not get you to any college in Korea.)

Good luck!

CSAT -2010

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. The biggest question I have about the Korean CSAT is, why can you only take it once a year? If Korean society truly does "everything it can to assist the students' test taking," why don't they do the obvious and allow you to take it any number of times a year, like the SAT in the US? This would greatly reduce the amount of stress involved and give schools a much truer assessment of students' abilities.

    (PS thanks for making this test - I'll try it when I have a free 10 minutes)

    1. that would be cheating cuz ur taking the same exam a number of time this doesn't show your ability people would be able to find out the answer of something they got wrong and use it the next time they have that same exam.

    2. Technically it's not. In Singapore, students are allowed to retake their major exams and we have 2-3 major exams (depending on which educational path you take). The reason as to why this IS NOT cheating is because it's the examination board's responsibility to change the questions every year. The reason for having exams is not to memorize answers but to test students on the concepts they've learnt throughout the entire school year and how they are able to apply these concepts. Retaking an exam is simply giving a student the extra chance to strengthen their foundation and their understanding of concepts so that they are better equipped for the working world.

  2. I failed math and physics. I passed everything else with flying colors.

  3. But you need to reword the Japanese history question to be which of the following video images is in the correct spot, because as it is, it sounds like the test wants us to put them in order.

  4. Holy mother of god.. I never IMAGINED somebody would present an equivalent version of CSAT in ENGLISH. Thumbs up.

  5. This looks like fun! I did a couple of the questions, and I have one slight correction. You translated Question 17 as:

    "What is the probability that two students from the same country will sit such that the difference [of] the seat numbers will be either 1 or 10?"

    Based on my limited Korean, I think you did a good translation, but perhaps the Korean isn't very well worded...? In Korean, the question may be correctly (but ambigously) describing what's wanted, but in English, it's incorrect. One simple way to fix this is to change "difference" to "differences". This would help make it clear that a single pair of students matching the 1/10 criteria isn't sufficient.

    But to make it even more clear, I think it should read:

    "What is the probability that each pair of students from the same country will sit such that the differences of their seat numbers will be either 1 or 10?"

  6. I'm going to fail this, I just know it. I didn't read any of the questions yet, because I do want to try it, but yeah.... This is going to be hard! I think I can handle English, and might get half of the math depending on how hard it really is. I'll be lucky to get much of anything right in World History, Economics, or Korean... Yeah, pretty sure I wouldn't get into ANY Korean college, and I'm a college student right now. Can I take a year to study for it first, though? xD

  7. YES! AWESOME! I'm not really sure I can pass this version....but I love that it exists!

    My plan now is to teach in Korea for three years to save money, pay off debt, and somewhat master the language. This is a really cool post, because once I master enough Korean, I plan to apply to hanguk foreign university and major in translation/interpretation, korean-english. (I already have an undergrad degree in Linguistics and TESOL). Thank you for this facinating post! I now have an idea of what to expect in a few years. I gotta study like crazy!

  8. Just be aware that this year the suneung was Mool-suneung, meaning that the questions were easier than the last year's exam. The cut offs were pretty high too

  9. I doubt if I would pass any test to get into any university anywhere, not having studied for many years.

    If TK wants to prove that the Korean sooneung is tougher than other countries' tests, Koreans are smarter, hooray Korea, etc, then give it to people preparing for SATs in America now.

    It is interesting to see what's in the test, admittedly, although the text is a bit hard to read.

  10. @Changmi

    I think people like the idea that at this one special time everyone is thinking about the test and rooting for the students. They want a sense of universal participation and a sense that it's special.

    Having the test multiple times per year would also mean multiplying the work of writing the test, grading tests, and the risk that test contents would leak out.

    Maybe one day they'll try it though.

  11. it's a little harder on the SAT in terms of the science and math section, but the reading comprehension is pretty easy... and since there's many choices to what you can take, it's not too bad (sort of like the SAT 2 in the US)...

    I would say that it's the same as the SAT given that the students in asia take more math/science from 1-12 than the students in the US.

    I took the SAT when it was still 1600 max, and i scored nearly maxed on the math section (760 out of 800), I can't say the same for the english since it's not my native language, however if i was to take a test in my native language i would have scored 90%+ for sure... these tests are simply tests, there are ways to take them efficiently as long as you have good solid foundation.

  12. another important note, the korean place emphasis on this test since 1st grade. When I took my SAT there was no prep, i didn't go to any class, had any tools to prepare, unlike the students today. Me and my friends simply go sign up and take the dam thing and pray we did ok :). it worked out for me and my friends but that was just not a good way to approach these tests.

  13. Sweet! SKY here I come...

    Only missed the Japanese history question (shamefully) -- and there's no chance in hell I would've understood the English>Korean listening question if I couldn't read it. Got the Korean reading, but I'm sure it took longer than test conditions would allow.

    Math #10 had me thinking a bit. Korean>English, economics and the other math questions were super easy (after I noticed your translation error in #17). Some of the physics and biology I didn't feel like I really knew, but I thought them through and managed to guess well. (Been away from those subjects for a long time.)

    Actually, though, this doesn't tell me enough without knowing the range of materials encompassed by the test. It seems like the concepts in physics and chemistry would be fairly easy for me to "get", but if there's a ton of different aspects to it then it could really be a bitch.

    Now, where are the linguistic reconstruction problems? The semantic scope ambiguity problems? How about a question concerning the differences in quantification between Korean and English that led to your mistake in math #17? That's pretty interesting, i'nit? Alas, my own field is almost universally neglected, allowing the goddamn literature people to teach kids how to think about the nature of language... sigh...

    1. Where did you study?? I wish I could have passed all the questions, but some I did not understand at all! I am so bad at studying and school in general.

  14. so glad i don't have to go through all that BS of standardized tests anymore.

  15. This comment has been removed by the author.

  16. Fun. Before I look at the sections: can I use a calculator? Simple arithmetic, scientific, graphing?

  17. Holy mother of marscapone.
    I went back and took the science sections after.

    Korean: 5/6
    Math: 1/4 (it has been a *long* time since I've done some of that stuff, but I'm not sure I could have done it with that time limit back in the day)
    History and economics: 2/3
    Physics: 1/3
    Chemistry: 2/3

  18. I'd say it's *much* harder on science and math than the SAT; chemistry at least is GRE-level. I'm very curious to see what's taught in the first-year science courses at university - do they get to dive into the really interesting stuff right away?

    I love that some commenters are pretending that American high school students have a good chance at doing well on this test, or only need a little more preparation.

  19. Next try the German Abitur

  20. This is great. Thanks for the effort. Still, university entrance exams are archaic. That some countries still use them, and use them to the degree of creating social stress among the test-takers, is bewildering. The very fact that the CSAT is often regarded as a primary motivation for teen suicide should be reason enough for Korea to reconsider how it establishes its entrance into post-secondary education.

  21. I wonder how well Korean adults would do on CSAT. The point being that this exam encourages too many schools to teach to the test, which means that 99% of the students are not learning the underlying skills, such as writing, critical thinking or even mathematical thinking. Rather, they memorize the "correct" solutions to every question out there, which are happily forgotten within 12 months of taking the exam.

    That's not to say that the US system is any better. But, the real challenge isn't whether I can get into a mid-tier college in Korea. Rather, the questoin should be whether the cost of participating in the Korean education system is justified by its rewards. Cf.

  22. Totally failed it! No Korean college for me.

    Managed a few of the reading types.
    Maths was wayy to hard same for chem and physics.

    I'm a pharmacy student! at university (Korean college level) !! We study maths and chemistry but this was super hard!

    I did well in my GCSEs (age16)and okay in my alevels(age18) - enough to get me onto a pharmacy course!

    Yay for english schooling system!

    I'd never get more than 90% on the Korean college test.
    If having lived in Korea and prepared for it I'd probably get about 70% ( taking into consideration you would learn and prepare for a lot and only some would be questioned)

  23. To be honest, the math and science sections are similar to the countrywide tests that kids in India take to enter high school and college. I think the prep for that also is similarly intense with more competitive schools accepting students that score over 95%. Also, most questions (atleast when I took it) are essays. My mother also pushed me to go to these extra classes called 'coaching classes' in addition to attending high school. The bottom line was, at the end of it I was so tired and saturated, I would skip these classes and hide in an internet cafe...

  24. I've spent half an hour writing an extra-long comment, and when i logged in to the google account, it disappeared.
    So I'll write something shorter.
    I'm student in Poland. I'm going to take our polish equivalent of CSAT next year. I'm taking extended maths, so i tried to make maths B here. And... It's horrible! I CAN make this exercises, but I need 30, not 10 minutes! And I use calculator!
    I think, Korean education system is not good. As far as I can judge, you don't learn hot to solve problems, but how to make typical exercises in a very short time. You don't use calculators. But if you get a good work, and you will be expected to count something, you will use calculators, computers, and all the modern equipment. So, in my opinion, CSAT doesn't prepare you to your future job. You spent few years learning to the exam, and you will never use the skills you have acquired. Because this skills are practically useless. You don't have to count like a machine, because you can buy the "counting machine" for a few dollars. Instead if this, you should learn creativity to solve unusual problems. We have computers to solve typical problems.
    That's my opinion. If you have another one, i would be happy to discuss it here :)
    I hope my English was understandable enough. If mot, I'm terribly sorry. I'm not going to make extended level exam in English, so I'm focusing on Maths for some time. I promise I'll learn English later, if i get into college :)
    Finally - good luck for all the Koreans attending CSAT. Remember, learn at least 22 hours a day, or just move to Poland, you are always welcome!

  25. These questions are easier than the Turkey 's college entrance exam's questions.I think Koreans comparing their education system with US's.And it looks like there is a big level difference.But Turkey's secondary school equals America's high school.

  26. I'm going to call out Question 17 of the Math section (#3, the student seating arrangement). It's either some translational error or none of the answers given are the right ones.


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