The Difficult Life of a Korean Student

by Sharon -- June 21, 2010

Here in Korea, we have had the privilege of spending a lot of time with a family friend who happens to be 14 years old.  He also happens to be taller than Jason.  This friend of ours is named Jinho, and he is the subject of this post regarding the education system in South Korea.

As a general background on the school system in Korea, their structure of grades is very similar to that of many US schools in terms of Kindergarten-High school.  The main school subjects are English, Korean, math, social studies and science (although in High school they take 11 subjects).

Once students enter Middle school, their lives change quite a bit.  They are supposed to start taking school much more seriously in preparation for the big exam they take to determine which high school they attend.  In Korea, High schools are ranked academically, and you have to score well to get into a good high school.  Then, they have the burden of the college entrance exam, which is basically the most important thing in a student’s life.  If you don’t get into a good college, you have much less of a chance to be traditionally “successful”.  Students attend after school lessons at private institutions called “Hagwons” which is basically schooling on top of their regular schooling.

Since English and math are two of the main subjects in Korean schooling, they usually attend an English Academy and Math hagwon as well.  Our friend, Jinho, doesn’t usually come home from a normal weekday until 11pm-12am.  Then he has homework to do!

Korean schooling is also held on Saturdays.  Our friend Jinho has class every other Saturday, but I’m not sure if that is the norm or not.  Also, when he is preparing for a test, he often spends his Saturdays and Sundays at Hagwon or at study hall from 10am-11pm, rotating between class and self studying.

Although many Korean teenagers achieve amazing test scores and may know how to solve a math problem better than I did when I was 15, it’s really depressing when I hear that these kids are locked up in study hall all day.  They miss out on their childhood because they’re too busy studying and stressing out about classes and tests.  Jinho doesn’t have time to play outside with his friends after school because sometimes he comes home at 1am!

An interesting thing about Jinho is that he lived in the States for a few years when he was in Elementary school, so he knows what it’s like to be able to play outside at 4pm after school.  When we lived in Seoul, sometimes Jason and I would come over to his parents’ house to have dinner during the weekends, and Jinho would often take a break in between self studying at school to come along.  At this time, at least twice I have seen his teacher call him on his cell phone to ask why he isn’t at school… at 6pm… on a Sunday….so he has to miss dinner and go back to school.  He’s still a kid, and you can see the disappointment in his face when he has to miss dinner and is summoned back to study hall.

Due to the constant pressures of tests and the bleak childhoods that come from the strenuous education system, South Korea also has experienced an increase in suicides relating to low test scores.  It now has the highest suicide rate amongst the member countries of OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) and that rate continues to grow at 5% each year.  Often times, high achievers who experience bad test scores are suicide victims.

Another difference with Korean schooling is its emphasis on fact-based, strictly objective testing (which is supposedly meant to eliminate corruption and provide fair results).  There is only rote memorization of meaningless facts for tests.  I can only imagine that that sort of ideology from a young age can create a “black or white” philosophy on life.  If I don’t get this score on this test, I won’t get a good job, so I won’t make a lot of money, and I won’t find a husband/wife; if I don’t get into the top school, my life is over.

There is so much constant academic pressure put on children at a young age here but it doesn’t end there. After college, the pressures to find a good job are enormous, not to mention the fact that once they start working, they put in 12 hour work days EVERY DAY.

As much as Korea may be top achievers in academics, they don’t seem to provide a very nurturing, creative environment for kids once they enter middle school.  (A friend of ours once taught English at a school here in Korea that punished children for smiling too much.  I don’t think most schools are that strict, but having any schools like that is ridiculous in itself).  I know there are parents in Korea who would like for their child to have a more joyful childhood, but the bad news is that if they let them, their child will fall behind quickly.  It seems to be a problem; if you want your child to have a prosperous life here in Korea, you have to follow the “rules”.

*Some facts were taken from the Wikipedia site on Education in South Korea.

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11 Responses to “The Difficult Life of a Korean Student”

  1. wow…. that was slightly depressing to read, but very insightful! I wonder where I would have ranked! ( maybe on the lower end :) ) I wonder how they handle kids with ADD or ADHD. It sounds unacommidating, but I could be wrong. :(

  2. I was just telling Mike the other day about Jinho and his crazy schedule! I really miss him and his parents and I hope he can come back to live in CA soon.

  3. hey guys! nice post about korean schools, it’s seriously so depressing. i went out to dinner with my coworker and a random korean high school grad we met and he just spends all day long studying for his college entrance exam, he already failed once so the pressure is really on. poor guy! hahah and i like the call-out about the horrible school i used to teach at.

    i wanna come visit busan for a weekend sometime, is there a weekend that’d be good for you guys? i want you to show me around your new home! :)

  4. […] The Difficult Life of a Korean Student: Sharon at Life After Cubes has been living in Korea and posting about life there.  I knew that Korean students worked much harder than Americans, but I never knew the extent of it — and while I try SO hard not to judge other cultures, this made me feel so sad for Korean kids! […]

  5. Hey Lucy! Thanks for the comment, and your HS friend sounds like the exact reason why I posted this.

    We are usually pretty open on the weekends, so let me know when is good for you. YAY! Come to Busan!


  6. hey they are so good to do that

  7. […] and nobody is there to simply push them. Here's a sample on how high test scores can be achieved: The Difficult Life of a Korean Student | LifeAfterCubes Tiger Mothers: Raising Children The Chinese Way : NPR 3. Those specialized High Schools are not […]

  8. I can sympathize with this… My childhood consisted of math and English books, never playing outside with friends… I’m so glad my parents brought me to CA before I started 4th grade there. Now, I have more free time than I ever did,even though I’m a sophomore in high school. :)

  9. punishment for smiling ??? wha!!!!??

    seriuos if i was there i would get told off for every single day !!

    >>>>>>>>>>> im a smiler <<<<<<<<<<<<

  10. I’m a Korean and I have just came to Australia for 1 year as an International Student. Having a friend sharing this, I would say that Korean study is very depressing even though I’m only in year 8! I study 7 days a week. I go to bed at about 2 in the morning and wake up at 5. Your parents will also force you to do tutoring. After school, you won’t be able to go home, you will have to go to hagwon until 9 (’cause I’m still in middle-school) Than I will have to do my homeworks, and I will get to go to bed whenever I have done my work but usually it’s about 1 or 2 in the morning. I haven’t experience live of an high schoolers in Korea, but for be, experiencing the live of an middle-schooler has already been a really hard time.

  11. I’m a Korean student.
    Actually, an elementary student.
    Still, it’s very hard.
    I go to an English academy(3hrs, 2 days a week), a math academy(6hrs, 4days a week), discussing academy(2hrs, 2days a week), and a science academy(4hrs, 1day a week).
    I usually sleep at 2:30 am, and wake up at 6.
    I bring my academy hw to school so I would do them in recess.
    I seriously never have break time.
    My mom always explains while breakfast or dinner how you have to go to Seoul, Korea, or Yonsei Universities(the top leading universities in South Korea.
    Even though I just turned a sixth grader, I’m doing 11th grade math, 9th grade science, and much more advanced subjcts.
    Korean edu. system sucks, and I mean it.
    I mean, if elementary is this hard, what about middle and high school?
    Boy, I’m worried…

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