Numbers really do matter when you’re a Korean high school student. The nature of the college admissions and testing process in the Korean education system is among the most competitive and harsh in the world. With the CSAT, commonly known as “sun-eung”, approaching in less than a month, seniors nationwide are buckling down.
The drive to get into the best colleges is a cutthroat survival game in South Korea. This same drive still prospers in the modern Korean society, in which the name of a college can easily sway the future of an individual’s career. SKY – an acronym for Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University – is the finish line that a large number of competitive applicants aim for, yet only a small minority reach.
The CSAT is the annual college entrance exam that is a key – if not, the greatest – factor that determines the results of this race. This standardized test is perhaps the epitome of the nature of Korean education: it’s one chance, it’s all about the numbers, and it reinforces a strict hierarchy. Unlike the SAT, that is held multiple times throughout the year, the CSAT is only once a year. If students do not get the results they need, they have to study for another full year before re-applying. According to Daniel Tudor, a former Economist correspondent in South Korea and author of “Korea: The Impossible Country,” said that “there is this sense that, ‘Oh, you are going to fail at life unless you do well in this exam.’”
The college application process in South Korea is also heavily based on numbers. In past years, the educational system has made efforts to shift into a more holistic admissions approach, increasing the importance of factors like volunteer work and essays. However, even those factors are somewhat restrictive, as what matters is often the number of volunteer hours, and even personal essays are expected to be written to match a particular format.
According to the Korea Times, the Moon administration has been trying to reform the college admissions process to expand the regular admissions. Yet the challenge has been to meet the needs of all universities in the nation, as many of the rural universities have non-scheduled admissions. Spokesman of the Presidential Committee on National Education said that “400 participants will study for a month four or five college admission models and afterwards will take part in a survey and will vote for the best reform.” Such a reform of the standard college admissions process, and even the CSAT itself, may change the competitive educational atmosphere Korea endorses today.
International school students in South Korea have a very different challenge. The SAT and ACT, or the American college entrance exams, are decreasing in value as more colleges are no longer considering such scores (or considering them less) when admitting or rejecting students. Colleges in the United States generally judge applicants based on a multitude of other factors, including one’s Grade Point Average throughout four years in high school, application essays that genuinely shed light on who the applicant is, or creative extracurriculars.
This holistic approach has its drawbacks. While there may be less test-prep involved, there are so many factors that count, to the extent that admission results are often unexpected or vague. Every system has its flaws, but the Korean system does seem to put a stronger emphasis on pure academic effort than the American system.
It would be unfair to compare the “quality” of each system. According to the Business Insider, the Korean process has its roots in the nation’s culture and history. Even in the early Chosun Dynasty, a civil service exam was mandatory for a rise to the aristocratic class. And in modern history, “in the carnage of the Korean war of 1950-53, many of the old social hierarchies crumbled, convincing people they could succeed by their own efforts.”
While in a foreigner’s eyes, the emphasis on education may seem ridiculous compared to the relatively more liberal American approach, the culture of hard work in Korea has indeed succeeded – its success reflected not only the nation’s economy, but also test scores and Korea’s international success as a leader of technology today. At the same time, the American system fosters creativity and leadership in a way that the Korean system cannot.
“I have a friend who attends a Korean public high school, and she often spends ten hours a day studying for the CSAT,” said Annette Choi, a junior student at Seoul International School. “A big misconception is that international school students have it completely easy. While we don’t study for ten hours a day and academically speaking, we have a less rigorous system, the burden of having to juggle leadership positions, clubs, sports, competitions, and a good GPA for four years (not just one test) can be extremely pressing. I think perhaps a happy medium between the two systems could be what Korea needs.”
E Ju Ro, Grade 11
Seoul International School