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Top 10 exam rituals from stressed students across Asia

  • 3 March 2016
  • From the section Business
lucky cats Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Paws for thought: If lucky cats are not enough, what are your preferred pre-exam rituals?

Exams are a time of great stress. Especially in East Asia, where the pressure is on to achieve sky-high results.

Whatever the cultural differences, all students have their own rituals and superstitions, whether it is playing a lucky song, eating special food or even wearing a pair of lucky pants.

Here are some of the ways that exam-crazy students from across Asia ensure they pass with flying colours.

And there is a comment form at the end to let us know your favourite exam rituals and special ways of preparing.

Image copyright YOSHIKAZU TSUNO
Image caption KitKat in Japanese sounds like "surely winning" and has become a good omen for exams

1. How KitKat got lucky.

Traditionally, Japanese students would eat Katsudon before or on the day of an exam, comprising a warm bowl of rice topped with egg and a deep-fried pork cutlet.

The dish name's likeness to the word "katsu", meaning "winning" is thought to bring students luck.

But KitKat in Japan has also been marketing itself as a bringer of good luck.

Pronounced as "kitto katto", the chocolate's name is similar to the phrase "kitto katsu", meaning "surely winning", making it a good candidate for a good luck charm.

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Image caption Fruit of learning: Hong Kong students eat apples before exams

2. An apple a day.

Canteens across Hong Kong University campuses serve apples, and a variety of apple dishes, in the run-up to the exam period.

"The pronunciation of apple in Chinese is "ping guo", which also means "safety". So it's considered that you will safely pass the exam," says Chong Wang, from Nanjing in China.

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Image caption Bad hair day: Rinsing away any chance of success

3. Avoid washing your hair.

In your vicious cycle of all-night revision, microwave food and highlighter pens, you may have forgotten to have a shower.

But not to worry - in South Korea, it's thought that washing your hair could wash all the knowledge out.

"There was one boy in our class who didn't wash hair before exams. The rest of the time he was very clean, but once you came to know his exam ritual, you didn't want to go near him," said one student about a classmate.

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption It's all in the name. For Chinese students, the name for cashew nuts is like "wish to pass"

4. Going nuts over the exams.

Around a month before exams start in Hong Kong, students in clubs, societies and residential halls, will gather for "superpass", or ging guo.

"Superpass" is a series of activities aimed at helping you pass your exams with a top score. The first part is the superpass dinner, which is usually held at a Chinese restaurant.


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It's important that students eat pork cubes with cashews, one of the signature superpass dishes. The Chinese word for "cashews" sounds like the word for "wish to pass", and "pork cubes" sounds like "desire for a distinction".

Homophones, or homonyms, play a big part in ritual and superstition in many East Asian languages.

Image copyright TED ALJIBE
Image caption Cutting a roast pig is a part of many ceremonies in Hong Kong, including "superpass"

5. A slice of luck.

Returning to the hall, it's time for everyone to have a turn at slicing through a giant roast pig, considered to be an important sacred offering in China.

Each participant is given one try at cutting the pig into two halves.

Those who succeed are thought to go on to pass all their exams the first time round, and those who fail, will have to re-sit some.

This is followed by eating kiwis, as the Chinese word for the fruit sounds like "easy to pass exams."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Parents in South Korea praying for their children as they take exams

6. Praying for success.

Many students in East Asia have the attentive support of their parents, whether they want it or not.

"Some parents wait for their children outside the exam hall praying for them to pass," says South Korean teacher Ji-Youn Jung, "My mum did, but my test results turned out to be awful."

Ultra-keen parents will go as far as praying at Buddhist temples every day for the 100 days leading up to the exam.

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Image caption Slippery customer: Seaweed soup could mean exam disaster

7. Lucky watch versus a slippery soup.

In South Korea, the slipperiness of the widely-eaten seaweed soup is thought to mean you will lose all the knowledge from the notes you've been revising like mad.

"I try not to have seaweed soup before important plans like exams or interviews. But if I happen to eat it without consciousness, I don't worry too much," Ji-Youn says.

But Chong Wang from China says: "My personal tradition is to have noodles for breakfast on exam day, as noodles mean "everything goes smooth" in Chinese. But I also take my lucky watch."

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Could chickens help boost your brain power?

8. Chicken power.

A bit of sugar might give you an energy boost, but South Koreans also believe that this sugary snack could have exam-passing powers.

Yeot, a traditional sticky food, is eaten before important exams, especially university entrance exams.

Ji-Youn explains: "Yeot is a sticky sweet, and the Korean words for "sticky" and "pass entrance exam" sound the same."

Or else drink some chicken juice, which is thought to give your brain a boost.

Students in Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore and China tend to drink this while revising for exams, and on the morning of the exam itself.

"It's nothing superstitious," says Dylan Lee Soon Yoong, a Singaporean student at University College London.

"I drink chicken essence on the morning of the exam... you down it like a shot after heating it up. It's supposed to help your concentration and is marketed pretty heavily to students in Singapore."

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Image caption Well read: All you need to remember for exam success, lucky red pants

9. Wear red underwear.

Red is widely believed to be a lucky colour in China. So many believe that it's a good idea to wear some red clothing, or more specifically red underwear, during an exam.

When a person is particularly successful, there is a Chinese saying, "Are you wearing red underwear?"

But Chong Wang warns: "Some people may avoid wearing red during exams because in China, fail scores are written in red on score sheets."

Image copyright NUS
Image caption Singaporean students can pray electronically to the "Bell Curve God"

10. Pray for mercy from the "Bell Curve God"

The Bell Curve God is an embodiment of university students' fears of the bell curve grading system used in Asia's top universities, such as the National University of Singapore and Nanyang Technological University.

Bell curve grading means not just measuring how well you did in an exam, but rather how you did in relation to everyone else in your class. In an already high-achieving country, that pushes competitiveness to the max.

Shrines to the Bell Curve God have been set up at both universities, where food and candles are left as offerings to the "God".

The National University of Singapore has gone as far as setting up a website, Facebook and Twitter account for the Bell Curve God, so that students can pray electronically.

"As students, we are subject to the omnipotent, inscrutable force that is the Bell Curve God. He is the arbitrary being that decides our grades," Dylan Lee Soon Yoong explains.


In the month before exams, I do wash my hair properly but I do not dare to get a hair cut! Wongani, Malawi

In our hometown a ritual before exams that everybody follows is eating a small amount of curd with sugar (Jaggery) just before leaving for exam. The belief is curd is like a mind coolant that keeps the candidate calm. Also there is a belief for wearing dress with colour according to the day. For example - light coluored dress if going for a exam on Friday. One more - never talk of exam that has passed. Kumar, India

Dance to the song Let's Pretend by Al Jarreau before setting off for the exam room. Joe, Ghana

I had a pen and a pen pouch, which I thought were lucky for me. So, I always would carry them for exam. Sahar, Dubai. UAE

We live in Japan, in snow country. In the third grade of Junior and Senior High school, students do not have ski classes. The reason: because they will "suberu" or "slip" (fail) their exams. (suberu is also used to refer to skiing in this area.)I like to think that it's also a bit of common sense thinking to prevent injuries just before the all important exams! Students also apply to a back up school that is usually lower level than they hope to get into. This is called your "suberidome" school; that is, it will stop you slipping all the way down into failure. Suberidome also means "anti-slip", so in Hokkaido at least, people give horse shoes from the Banba horse races. They are huge, heavy, with anti slip bumps on them. So, a traditional good luck horseshoe with extra protection! My son is in the throes of senior high school exams right now, and it really truly is exam hell. Vicky, Hokkaido, Japan

Here in Zambia some people believe that during examination times one should not shake hands with other students as that might transfer all your knowledge to the other person. Because of this belief some students won't shake your hand for fear that you will steal their knowledge and pass at their expense. Limba, Zambia

Rituals in India: 1. Eat curd and sugar 2. Study in morning 3. Visiting temples and offering coconut to the lord 4. Forehead Tika - a tradition where a diluted sandalwood paste is applied in the center of forehead vertically. 5. Eating Non Veg - A large amount of Indians go vegan on selective period which includes examination. Ashay, India

These methods may actually help alleviate, release or dispel the dreaded exam/test brain freeze orperformance anxiety. This study and "find luck" atmosphere sure beats the slow, relentless build up of anxiety coupled with dubious nutrition, eighteen cups of coffee and two or three hour total sleep per night during study week! Prep and focus. Kimberley, Alberta, Canada

There was an exam taboo in Bangladesh. In the exam day students were not allowed to eat egg. Parents thought if their children eat round or zero-like shaped egg their children may get zero marks or marks below pass marks. But this exam taboo is ceased to exist. As a student I don't perform any rituals in the exam days. As far as I know Bangladeshi students and their parents don't perform any sorts of ritual except point 6- "Praying for success". Students, along with their parents pray in accordance with their respective religious belief for good result. Arif, Bangladesh

I always study in bed because if I have a nap it will help me to consolidate what I have learned. Shona, Brisbane, Australia

Unlike my sister, I would not study the night before an exam - my reasoning was that if I didn't have a good understanding of the material in the test already, madly studying at the last minute wasn't going to help. I preferred getting a good night's sleep. I also would suck on menthol cough drops during the exam as they seemed to 'kick my brain' into focus. And I would carry my St. Michael's medal for 'good luck'. M. Portland, Oregon.

I have come to perform a certain constant ritual on my own prior to examination thus, I remain mute right after leaving home and keep every word to myself because I think talking too much and going for an examination renders you little strength on mental performance hence you tend to forget some piece you had in mind, and it has helped me on various moments. Mac-King, Accra, Ghana

Some of the rituals may sound crazy but it sometimes it helps. I also drink chicken essence or soup on the morning of the exam... but not in a shot. I use a small bowl. Heating it up help to prevent the "bad taste". It help a lot in your concentration and gave more energy to sail the 2 to 3 hours exam period. Remember if you suffer from flu, the best medicine may be some chicken soup and bed rest. Verus, Malaysia

My routine was to take a long, hot bath the week before the exam. The night before I always drank a cup of herbal tea and ate a few pieces of dark chocolate. Melissa

On exam days, we used to avoid inauspicious foods (eggs, meats, crabs,round shaped sweets), bow before elderly members of family to get their blessings, carry small flowers offered earlier to God, and write (in small font)on top of answer sheets "May God help me". John, Balasore, India

I remember the ritual of wearing the same shirt and socks for each exam - unwashed. It must have worked because in my final exam (Maths) I got my highest mark. Keep my name outta this...

I would always read a trashy novel in the week preceeding final exams, taking it in between periods of study and paper writing. It was like switching channels in my brain, for an hour or so. Then back to study. Patricia, Santa Cruz

On the way to the exam center, I used to softly sing the hymn with these first two lines in the first verse,:"My God Accept My Heart This Day, And Make It Holy Thine." Was always successful. Kenneth, Accra, Ghana

In Poland, secondary school students organise studniówka, literally "a hundred days before" party around three months before their final exams. Red underwear (30 years ago for girls, now for all students) is considered to boost your luck at the exams. In Kraków, after the party you are also expected to visit the Main Market Square and hop on one foot around the monument of the romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz. Although the direction (usu. counterclockwise) and number of rounds vary, what once was an oddity only some would yield to has become a custom practiced by whole schools. Piotr, Krakow, Poland

The local museum where I grew up had an Egyptian sarcophagus. I created my own ritual of secretly rubbing its nose for luck before exams. Here, at Harvard University, we have a bronze statue of the founder, John Harvard. Students rub his foot for luck resulting in it always gleaming like it has been polished. Humans are nuts. Brian, Boston

What exam rituals have you followed or seen among your friends? Why do so many people have superstitions around exams?

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