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

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