November 30, 2023

Education: Competing Against the World

South Korea

Young South Koreans are more likely to graduate from high school than those in any other developed country.

Cynthia Barnett | 8/1/2006

ALL WORK: Young Sun spends most of her time in school -- including Saturdays -- or studying. Competition is so intense, says Young Sun, that there's little time for extracurricular activities or even friendships.

Young Sun Park, 16
Jung-Shin High
Seoul, South Korea

Family: Young Sun is the only child of two journalists in Seoul.

School: Jung-Shin High is a public high school for girls. Young Sun walks to school, about a five-minute trip, though many students take subways or buses.

School year: First semester begins in March and ends in July. Second semester begins in late August and ends in lateDecember. Students come to school for a short session in the middle of winter vacation, then have a two-week spring break before the school year begins again in March. The school day begins at 8:30 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m. Students must arrive promptly by 8:10 a.m.

Track: South Korean high school students choose between liberal arts and science tracks and then take a set of predetermined courses based on that track. Young Sun is on the liberal arts track.

Courses: Literature I (by genre); literature II (by period); non-literature English 1; English conversation; algebra; statistics; law; French; Chinese characters; physics; computer technology; physical education; dance; and the Bible.

Post-high school hopes: Young Sun hopes to become a lawyer. She'd like to attend one of the so-called "big three" Korean universities. Seoul National, Korea University and Yonsei University are collectively nicknamed SKY. SKY diplomas are keys to both the best jobs and the best marriages. But "the hurdles are quite high," Young Sun says. Competition is so intense that many parents send teenagers to "cram schools" where they study all evening after the school day to prepare for the nation's college-entrance exam. Young Sun's parents do not send her to cram school or hire tutors, also common among her peers. For that she's grateful.

Non-academic passion: Young Sun says competition to get perfect scores in high school is so great that there is little time for either extracurricular activities or friendships. "It's a big, wild fight for three years of high school," she says. "No friends, no love, just fight."

Most of Young Sun's peers have tutors or attend 'cram schools,' studying until 11 on weeknights and 8 p.m. on Saturdays in preparation for the all-important national exam.

And She Has It Easy

Young Sun Park has no choice in the classes she takes, juggles a grueling course load, spends most of her waking hours in school or studying, has to attend school on Saturdays, and next year will face a college-entrance exam that has driven some teenagers to suicide. Yet, she says she has it pretty easy compared to many of her peers.

Most of her peers at the all-girl Jung-Shin High School in Seoul either have tutors or attend afterschool schools called "hak-won" -- "cram schools" -- where they study until 11 p.m. on weekdays and 8 p.m. on Saturdays in preparation for the CSAT, the national exam administered during the last year of high school. (The test is so important to the nation that businesses close to alleviate noise and congestion near the test sites; police and volunteers direct traffic and order quiet; even the stock market opens late.) Young Sun says in some schools teachers strike students for not following strict dress codes.

Tags: North Central, Education

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