It is deeply ingrained in many South Koreans’ mind that in order to succeed in life and bring honour to their family, they must do well in their college entrance examinations (수능, su-neung, CSAT) at the end of their high school education and qualify for a spot in one of the country’s top three universities—Seoul University, Korea University and Yonsei University—SKY. This has resulted in the creation of a rigorous education system and the heavy academic pressure many South Korean students face.
The CSAT, College Scholastic Ability Test, is so important in South Korea that even the population will work together to help students get to their exam venue in time and complete their papers without disruptions. This includes businesses adjusting work schedules to ease the peak hour traffic, police escorting and clearing the road, and even planes grounded so as to not produce excessive noise.
While the CSAT is not the only way of entering a university, it is the only method that allows students to choose up to three options so that they don’t end up without a school to go to. Students who fail the first round of examinations or are not satisfied with their results can opt to retake them the next year.
Alternatively, students can sit for tests offered by individual universities. However, this route does not offer students a second or third choice. This means that if they fail to pass the examinations, they will have to attempt the CSAT again or try for another school. Therefore, in order to score well, South Korean students spend hours studying every day for the best chances of success.
Unlike Singapore where lessons and extra-curricular activities end before 7 pm, South Korean students don’t head home until past 10 pm. A typical school day begins between 7.30 am and 8 am and lasts until 4 pm to 5 pm. However, students will continue taking lessons or engaging in self-study at a cram school, also known as a 학원 (hag-won). Some of their weekends are also used for studying instead of unwinding and experiencing life as a teen.
The immense amount of stress these students go through is amplified by their family as many South Korean parents go to great lengths to ensure their children receive the best education. They value learning and see education as the only way to succeed. While many students may fare well for their examinations, parents still worry about their average grades and pay for more tuition. This has resulted in a large number of suicide cases in South Korea, ranking the country fourth for global suicide rates. Researchers have also found that more than half the Koreans between the ages 11 and 15 reported high levels of stress daily, which is a higher percentage compared to the other 30 developed nations part of the OECD, or Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
South Korea’s harsh education system is not new to most around the globe as many hit drama series from Korea have accurately depicted these issues. For example, SKY Castle and Penthouse: War in Life.
Learn More: What can we Learn from Penthouse: War in Life?
In both series, parents share tips and tricks to help their children prepare for major examinations, spare no effort in finding the most eligible tutors in the nation, and students even pit against one another in an attempt to secure their own spots.
This stressful education system has resulted in much unhappiness. In fact, according to a survey conducted in 2014, South Korean children are crowned as the least happy in developed countries. However, this will likely remain until the country changes its perception of education.
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