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South Korea

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.

Young Sun and others wear uniforms, must keep their hair the right length and may not dye their hair. Young Sun attended ninth grade in the United States because of her mother's job and says one big difference is how familiar American students seem with their teachers. "Asian students take the relationship between students and teachers very seriously," she says. "For example, you can't call your teacher by his/her first name." She calls American students "free and easy" and says they may need more discipline, but overall, she'd prefer to study in the U.S. For one, she liked being able to choose courses. Most of all, she wishes that the CSAT allowed retakes like the SAT. "We only have one (chance)," she says, "and if we fail it, it's over."

No Balance

Students call it the 'four in, five out' system: Four hours of sleep gets you in a top university. Five hours of sleep won't cut it.

? Young South Koreans are more likely to graduate from high school than those in any other developed country, a testament to the Asian nation's intense focus on academics over the past 25 years. Around half of those born in the 1950s never completed secondary school, but 97% of those born in the 1970s have done so, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

? South Koreans are also among the most likely to earn university degrees. Beginning in preschool, parents and teachers work to prepare children for the all-important College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), a one-shot exam that determines whether a student will end up on one of the SKY campuses -- "a South Korean student's crowning life achievement," according to the Asia Times. The competition and the stakes are so intense that many students routinely describe high school as the most miserable time of life.

? Whether at cram schools, with tutors or at some regular public schools that make students study until midnight, high school students live by the popular saying, "four in, five out." It means those who sleep four hours a night will get into a top university, while those who dare sleep five will not.

? Some South Korean parents are beginning to ask whether the rote, rigorous system is worth it. A spate of student suicides was reported during last year's CSAT. The Financial Times and New York Times over the past year have reported on the phenomenon of families, or at least mothers with their teens, heading to the U.S. or Europe for high school so that their children can lead a more balanced life.