September is one of the most beautiful months of the year in Korea, and this year Koreans celebrated the harvest holiday of Chuseok from September 7-9.
Yet, while Koreans visited their ancestral hometowns, many students at international schools in Korea did not have the time to enjoy the delights of autumn and instead were studying with books and computers as they prepared for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT).
At Apgujeong in Seoul, a street crowded with hagwons, students carried their SAT blue books at 8 in the morning and plodded back from cram schools at midnight during the Chuseok break. Unlike what others would assume of a Chuseok break filled with family time, students spent their time at SAT hagwons solving critical reading and writing practice problems.
“The SAT exam dates are approaching… and quickly!” said Jamie Koo, a junior at Yongsan International School of Seoul (YISS), in an interview with JSR.
“I slept at 2 am every day memorizing vocabulary words and finishing off practice exams,” said Jane Hong, a junior at Seoul Foreign School (SFS).
Some hagwons required students to stay until they passed a daily 500 word vocabulary exam. As a short break, students would plod down the stairs and walk over to convenience stores for quick snacks and drinks to fulfill their growling stomachs and then walk up the stairs again to finish memorizing vocabulary words.
The ordeal didn’t end with SAT preparations. Some students attended academies for Advanced Placement (AP) classes and to prepare for upper-level SAT 2 exams.
“I’m taking the SAT Chemistry exam soon and I’m preparing for it over the break,” said Korean International School (KIS) sophomore Kevin Han.
This “pressure cooker” atmosphere may be harming students, and a 2011 Jakarta Post article by Hyung-Jin Kim speculated that pressure to achieve perfect scores may be a reason why Korean high school students have one of the highest suicide rates in the world. Korea is ranked fifth for highest average suicide rate in the children and youth category amongst the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations.
Fortunately, many students were able to take a day off from their burdensome schedules to visit with their family members.
“It was really nice seeing everyone together,” said Judy Chung, a senior at YISS.