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I took the Suneung three times to meet my parents’ expectations.

The South Korean education system is known for being intense, with students expected to spend up to 13 hours a day studying due to societal pressures that place a strong emphasis on academic success. Research suggests that the proportion of South Korean students who place high expectations on themselves and want to be among the best students in their class far exceeds the average proportion in other OECD countries. The competition to get into the best South Korean universities is fierce, and many students suffer from mental health issues and burnout.

We spoke to Seo-yeon, a resident of Seoul, who took the Suneung, the standardised national university entrance exam, three times in order to meet her parents’ expectations of her as a model student and daughter.

Hi Seo-yeon, thanks for speaking with us. Can you explain what the Suneung is?

Seo-yeon: We have a once-a-year exam for entering university. We are ranked by our score. We can say every Korean student or every Korean parent can name the top 3, top 5, top 10 universities in Korea, because the score decides everything. And the test is one time a year so we spend the whole day, whole night being in class. So I took several subjects. The number of subjects depends case by case, but generally 6 to 8. The three most important subjects are Korean language, English and Maths. The other four are something that students can choose. We divide students into two parts, those with more focus on maths and science, and the others are focusing on language or history. So I chose the latter one. You spend the whole day for the exam day, then like two weeks later I got the scoring card from the government. The Department of Education covers the whole administration. So if I get my score, I can choose three options to apply for university. If my parents are not satisfied or if I am not satisfied, then I need to take the next exam that will be held the next year.

So you’ve taken the exam three times. Presumably the first two times you didn’t get the score you wanted.

Seo-yeon: The first time of course I failed the exam because the scores that I had normally been getting in the proxy exam was much higher than my real score. So my parents recommended me to take next year’s exam. I kinda agreed with that because the score didn’t represent me. In this Asian culture, the education background is so important. It influences your whole life. Actually I was kind of a model student. I had the whole ‘leader’ thing in school. And I couldn’t prove myself by not entering a top 5 university. The first time I had a chance to get into a top 10 university. The second time I got a high score but my parents wanted more. Like I said, every Korean student has three options to apply. So I needed to choose the best ones that fit with my major or personality and my score. But my selections were too high for my score, so no university accepted me. But the last time [third time], I did it.

Where does all the pressure come from? Is it you placing it on yourself, from your parents or from society?

Seo-yeon: The bottom line is society. Our society is so competitive. Being competitive and comparing is quite common in Korea. Like, being thin is not enough. Being thinner than someone is important. Being good is not enough. Better than someone else is important. It sounds very dark, it sounds very funny but I should admit that I am one of them. In this society, almost every sentence we say reflects the competitiveness and comparison. And I’ve been abroad to many countries. People are different.

Let’s say, for example, that you didn’t get the score that you wanted the third time. Would you have retaken the exam again?

Seo-yeon: No. It’s too much, and it can give a [negative] signal that it took four times for me to enter university and that’s kind of a failure. I can say to someone that I meet for the first time, I’ll ask what university have you graduated from or what is your career background. If I say I spent three years for the exam, most people will go “ahhh”. You spent that much time. That’s the “ahhh” moment. You understand, right?

Yep, I understand. Interesting. So, there are people who study up to 13 hours a day. They go to school and then they go to ‘hagwons’, private schools. What was your typical day like when you were studying? Did you have time for anything else?

Seo-yeon: 13 hours is not a surprising number for a Korean student. It’s quite common. Standards are very high. In high school, I was in a dormitory school. My whole environment was focused on my study life. My teachers and parents supported that. So I didn’t have to do cleaning or other stuff. Everyone around me, around us students, were supporting us to be more focused. I got up at like 6am and we had jogging time. A 30 minute run in the morning. It is not common in other Korean high schools. It’s specific in dormitory schools. And then I had breakfast. Maybe you’ve heard of yeonsi, the preliminary study before regular classes start. Regular classes in high school start at like 8 or 9am. It depends on the high school. But there is another hour before the class. That hour is mainly for students to do self-study. Regular classes start from 8am and run till 5pm. During that time we have lunch, of course. After regular classes, we have dinner and then 30 minutes or 1 hour of refreshing time. Most of my friends spent that hour getting stuff ready for the next day, and then self study starts from 7 to 10pm every day. And then we have a small snack that parents have prepared for us and then go to sleep. But even some students took additional time [to study] after the 10pm regular routine. So in the 24 hours a day, except the sleeping time, we spend the whole day for study. That’s our reality.

What’s the impact of this mentally? Maybe some people want to leave South Korea and study abroad.

Seo-yeon: I’ve been in the Netherlands for two years and some countries in Southeast Asia, and those countries are connected with their continent. In their mind, people can move to other countries. Language is also a big difference. Koreans use Korean. Japanese use Japanese, so we are a bit more narrow-minded. Not every Korean is comfortable speaking in English. I’m not that good at English but I can express what I think. That’s an endless possibility that I have. So as a high school student, I had no idea to move to another country and there is another perspective that you can have. Some parents move their children to English speaking countries. Those who have money. I have very normal parents, both of them are working parents, so I had no chance to do that.

So many people feel stuck?

Seo-yeon: I really recommend this soap opera. I don’t recall the name but it was a popular soap opera in Korea about 4 years ago. The topic was all about this. The pressure, students, parents, being competitive. It reflected our society.

[The show Seo-yeon mentions above is likely to be SKY Castle (SKY 캐슬), aired in 2018/2019]

Ok, will take a look. There’s an understanding that in Korean society, social status matters a lot, which is determined by education. Let’s say someone doesn’t get into a good university? Are they treated differently?

Seo-yeon: Well, being employed by a good company needs a good educational background. That is something we cannot deny in Korea. We have face. You understand? The Asian thing. So we don’t confront someone in front, directly. But on some level, we can see the class of people who get along with similar backgrounds. In recent years it has got better. We respect people with other backgrounds such as some athlete or musician, some specific background. But with similar pathways, I can say that some can look down on other people who have a lower level [of education]. Business leaders almost all have good educational backgrounds. Maybe in time this can be changed.

There’s a phrase in Korean, you have good ‘baek’. People say that? Is it just about education? Or maybe whether your parents have good connections?

Seo-yeon: Baek is all about opportunity. Koreans feel that Korean society is not that fair in terms of giving equal opportunities to everyone. For example if my parents had more fortune than others, then I will have more internship opportunities. Or I would enter a good private academy. Even some child aged 5 or 6 years old, they go to private academies with teachers who can speak perfect English. Generally the people who has baek has more fortune.

What is considered success in South Korea? Is it just about getting a good job, for example, in a company like Samsung?

Seo-yeon: I see gradual changes in our society. Getting employed by a good company means that I get paid well. That is obvious. So we have top 10 conglomerates including Samsung. So if I see people walking in the street and they have, for example, a name tag, someone from Samsung, someone from LG, someone from Kakao, then I can guess how well they are getting paid. But if someone chooses the other pathway, not being employed, having their own business, then that is a different story. But I think in general Koreans aren’t that keen to go for their own pathway.

There are examples of people who haven’t gone to university and have still been successful. You mentioned this a bit. Do you think society is changing?

Seo-yeon: People in Korea have been saying that capital from working cannot be compared to capital from investing. Investing in something can give us much more. Some say it’s easy money, but it’s not. People are getting tired from all the competitiveness in Korea and they’re finding different ways [to earn money]. That’s how Koreans are feeling. I saw several Korean articles where the question is “What is you dream job?” 10 years ago, it was lawyer, CEO, something like that with social status. But this generation says I want to become a YouTuber. Many people feel this difference.

Looking back at your own experience, with all the pressure and studying, would you change anything?

Seo-yeon: If I went back to high school, maybe it would be the same. Because at that time all the students, all the people around me had the same routine. Everyone is in the same situation so it gives some relief.

What would you say to someone who’s in the same situation you were in and is currently feeling a lot of pressure?

Seo-yeon: What I had in mind as a high school student was, this study is for my parents. That was the time when I needed to endure so that later I could have more choices that I could make myself. But in this conversation, I think a lot of what I said sounds very negative. I would say people in Korea have [good] memories even in this situation. People have happiness, sadness, every feeling even in this environment. I had strong companionship with my friends and we struggled together.

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