Cheering crowds greet South Korean students taking make-or-break college entrance exams

The annual entrance exam takers are surrounded by cheering fellow students.

SEOUL, South Korea -- Five hundred students stand in front of the school's main gate. With determined attitude, they take off their school uniform jackets, raise their fists in the air and, with all their might, yell as loud as they can. Their voices together form a loud thunder. But this eye-catching performance is not a prep rally for a football or basketball game -- it's South Korea's annual event to cheer on students who take the college entrance exam.

As part of the country's tradition, on the day before the national exam, high schools in South Korea throw exuberant ceremonies to cheer up students who leave for the exam. The eve of the exam is considered an important part of test preparation. Students check out their seats at the exam site so they won’t get lost on the biggest day of their lives.

South Korea is a competitive country where nearly 70 percent of high school graduates enter college. This year, nearly 590,000 students sat for Thursday's exam -- officially called the College Scholastic Ability Test -- that will most likely determine their paths to a successful career.

This year, the college entrance exam was delayed a week for safety concerns. A series of earthquakes hit the southeastern part of Korea on the eve of exam leading to the first postponement in the exam’s 24-year existence.

Cheering ahead of this year’s examination was extra loud to give test takers more emotional support.

High school sophomores and juniors in South Korea cheer for their seniors in various ways. There are flags and chants in each school to reflect their school tradition and characteristics. Among those, Joongdong High School’s event is famous for being the biggest and the loudest.

Student council members play a key role in managing this cheering. The chants and routines go on for 30 minutes. The highlight of this once-a-year event is when they form a huge circle together and roll their feet on the ground for the final chant. After that, most of them are soaked in sweat despite the sub-freezing temperatures.

First graders in Joongdong High school volunteer to cheer for the seniors. At the beginning of a fall semester, student council members put up a notice to recruit those who want to participate in this traditional event upheld for more than a decade. For months, these students give up their lunch breaks just to practice chants and routines.

"Students come up with cheer routines to pass on the positive energy to seniors taking the exam," said Minha Kim, representative of the student council at Joongdong High School.

As senior students pass by the enthusiastic cheering, teachers wait in front of the main gate. They give warm hugs and words of encouragement to ready their pupils for the big day. This elaborate cheering tradition is not only meaningful for the students themselves, but also teachers and parents. Some parents even light candles and pray for the success of their children on the exams.

"Students take high pride in this cheering for seniors," said Hong-ju Kim, whose son takes the exam this year. "My son was one of the sophomores cheering, and now he’s taking the exam. It is very touching."

The fervent longing for their school seniors to excel on the exams continues until the actual day of the examination. Excited and nervous at the same time, the cheering squad gather on the eve of the test day and wait overnight in front of the designated exam sites to greet seniors early in the morning from the best spot.

"I was moved by the cheering in front of the gate," said Jun-yong Lee, a senior at Joongdong High School taking the college entrance exam this year. "The cheers gave me strength and I want to do well on the exam to not let them down."