Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Peak of Suicide Season: A Prayer for Korean Students

Today is the day of the Korean College Entrance Exam.

Last night, I went downtown to see Girlfriendoseyo, and we had a very pleasant night. However, on the way through the winding alleys of Samchungong, we passed the entrance to a high school, and saw a cluster of underclasspersons sitting together, wrapped up in blankets.

You see, every year, High School Seniors take the High School Entrance exam, basically the most important test of their lives. Their score on this exam determines what University they can enter, and which university they attend, in this credential-obssessed society, basically determines your employability for life.

For example, despite all the efforts of the Education ministry to reduce the dominance of the three top universities in Korea (SKY: Seoul National, Korea, Yonsei Universities), 80% of the judges appointed between 2003 and 2008 were SKY graduates: a veritable stranglehold. You would find similar unbalances in most other sectors where power, money, and influence concentrate.

Because of the importance of the exam, students NOT in their senior year gather at the entrances of their high schools to cheer on their seniors, as they enter the school.

Today, roads will be blocked off to eliminate traffic noise around test sites. Airports will even re-arrange flight approach paths, so that airplanes' drone does not distract students in their seats, during the exam. Police wait by subway stations to speedily escort late students from the subway exit to their exam site, to help them arrive on time. High school seniors have been living on four hours of sleep a night for the months leading up to today; some parents even rent their kids a room in a goshiwon -- a cheap hotel -- so that they can study without distraction from their brothers and sisters, or from the TV or internet.

SeoulGlow made this video, interviewing students waiting outside a university's gates, a few years ago.

The dark side of the hope and expectations tied up in this one exam (and it's big: I've asked adults in their 30s, "What would you change about your past, if you had a magic wand?" and one of the most common answers was "I'd study harder in my last year of high school, to get into a better school: eighteen years later, people are STILL looking back at THIS test, as the turning point of their lives), is the depression and despair that comes with the fear of failure.

This article, "On a College Entrance Exam Deathwatch," suggests that probably 200 (mostly teen) suicides a year in Korea are directly connected with anxiety over this test. The stories the writer tells are sometimes shocking.

This is a story about students protesting the exam: they wore masks to hide their identities, because they were afraid they'd be put on some university admissions blacklist if their identities were known. They're just that afraid of not being able to get into a good school. A Korean Teachers' Union actually told their students to cheat as a way of protesting the exam. . . and were rightly called by Brian from Jeollanamdo for putting their students' careers on the line, rather than putting their OWN careers on the line, if they believed so strongly in their cause.

The exam is mostly multiple choice...and soul-killing, and emblematic of a lot of the things I criticize about Korea's culture (I even wrote about it on my "Five Things I'd Change About Korea" post. . . )

So if you know any Korean kids writing the exam, say a prayer today (their moms have been praying eight hours a day for a month now; you can at least spare one or two), and hope that this year, more students choose to skip suicide, and instead do that other awful things underperforming students do, and put their entire life on hold in order to study for ANOTHER year after graduating high school, just to get a better score and get into a better school.

The public school teacher exam was on Sunday, too, so a lot of people's futures are hanging on the results of this week's tests.

(the number of years lost to studying by Koreans taking these once-a-year-exam, including the civil service exam, the bar exam, the public school-teacher exam, and the high school exam, and the number of person-years of lost productivity, as well as the drain on the finances of the parents of these study-monkeys, ought to be calculated, in order for their impact/drag on Korea's economy to be quantified...I'd bet the only thing holding Korea's economy back MORE than all these years of work lost, from some of Korea's brightest people, is the gender empowerment gap.)


Jason said...


WICKED link to the video! Thanks for sharing that.

I've read tons of articles on this,and blog entries too.

The video, though, conveys stuff through visuals that just can't be described in words.

Awesome post,

jw said...

Yeah, good post, and worth bring up again, and every year, until change is evident in either the students or those around them (ie. parents and those to do with the school system).

Meantime, a challenge for you:

amongst those characters in Korean society of which you and yours are aware, which ones did NOT go to, or graduate, university?

jw said...

Erghm, I mean, which successful characters...

JIW said...

I see the affect of not getting into the the top "3" university first hand nowadays. My boyfriend is struggling to get a job because of this one blemish on his record.

He expresses anguish and depression ... also wishes he grew up in America.

As much as I wish Korean system of education would change... I feel it is tied with the whole Korean system which is stuck in its ways. So change will come but an icy pace.

Anonymous said...

Even if you do get into the top 3 schools, it doesn't guarantee that you have a job. You have to pass those company entrance exams and go through rigorous set of interviews.

Roboseyo said...

that may be true, Anon, if you want to work for a top company like Samsung. on the other hand, I've met SNU grads who were offered, for example, hagwon jobs for no other reason than so that the school owner could put "SNU" on their advertising materials. . .

full disclosure: I haven't compared the percentage of SKY grads occupying Korea's positions with the percentage of Ivy League grads in the USA's top spots, but I'm still going to go on a limb and say that in the same way Korea's chaebols dominate Korea's economy to an unhealthy degree, SKY dominates Korea's educational/job applicant scene to an unhealthy degree...

especially when the test assures that the students going there are not the best, brightest future leaders: just the best test performers.

Jon Allen said...

Even the stock exchange opens one hour later than normal which means a not trivial change to load of parameters at our place to be able to handle it.

What a ridiculous waste of time and effort for this 'event'.

Anonymous said...

hi, i linked this post in my blog:-) i just wrote about this, too.

Anonymous said...


I agree with your point. Their chances of getting any job is favorable compare to others. But if you went to a SKY school, I would think there is high expectations to get into a big company from their peers and family. Have to get into a top school. Have to get into a top company.

I am aware of some SNU grads that have not pass any company tests and still jobless (for those big and mid size companies) while their peers have already pass the tests and obtain these highly prized positions.

btw- I enjoy reading your blog. It gives interesting insights about the culture of Korea from different perspectives.

Anonymous said...

For the record, I don't think that the Korean Teachers Union has EVER told students to cheat on the CSAT. The topic was another test entirely, one designed "to encourage competition" between schools. Think NCLB in the U.S.

And yes, the careers of countless teachers are affected by the principled positions that they take on education in Korea.

Roboseyo said...

You've got me to rights, Jay. It WAS a different exam.

Doug L said...

We spend 1-4 hours/night with our children on their homework (3rd, 3rd and 5th grade). We have for years; they have no 'normal' extracirricular activities like sports, although we try to get them out to do something like that at every opportunity (not too many). Modern U.S. teachers are now the parents.

Test taking is a skill, measuring very little about a student's practical understanding. Testing measures your ability to test, not understand real life. I never took tests well, but I am an advanced engineer that people rely on to save their 'acedemic' engineers from project destruction.

Academia keeps changing the way people do things; new methods of addition? Give me a break; as an experienced engineer, I could not figure out how to use this addition concept, or why you would use it when it was so complicated. Yet my son scored low, indicating he can't add very well?! No! He adds fine! When you let him add however he wants to!

The U.S. would benefit by using more practical methods of understanding rather than relying solely on test scores as a measure of success. The 'real life' problems my fellow students encountered in our senior design project were insurmountable. They wanted to coat everything with a large pile of dark matter to make it look like we knew what we were doing. It was a joke, and I had to do the entire thing myself. I can't stress enough; real life applications, not academia, will produce intelligent students.

Roboseyo said...

 First of all, I'm really surprised that you know Korean culture very deeply and pointed out the very problems of educational system in this country. I'm one of the students who majors in education in Korea and going to be a teacher in few years. Whenever I find the articles and news about Korean students and their reality, I feel so sad and I can imagine how much they are suppressed by their parents' expectation. It's really difficult for Korean students to have their own dream because everyone thinks entering SKY and other prestigious universities in Seoul is the only one way to succeed in this society as you mentioned. I feel kind of responsibility as a future teacher and I want the students to be happier than now.