“As her children approached college age, Choi Jung-woo girded for the final battle. She gave up her job and diverted a quarter of what was left of the family income into school fees. The whole family even moved to a smaller and much more expensive house to be closer to good schools.
Choi stayed up until 3 a.m. prepping her kids for the tests that would determine whether they made it into one of South Korea’s top three universities. In short, Choi at 49 is a “Daechidong mom,” so called after the enclave of Seoul that is a breeding ground for scholastic achievement.”
This article from a recent Korean English newspaper illustrates the point: In competitive Korea, education is an obsession. One famous online tutor, who has become famed in Korea for helping students achieve higher grades and obtaining entrance to the top universities has the following to say about the topic: “School teachers are concerned about creating moral people. We focus more on getting the students better grades in a short amount of time. That’s why we are needed and popular.” He should know, he’s so popular that he’s earning more per year than almost all of the top baseball players in the country’s professional league.
From an early age, Korean children are subjected to lengthy academic schedules that get longer and more serious the older they get.
Education will usually start at Kindergarten followed by Elementary school. During this time, students still have free time and even free afternoons between schooldays and afterschool classes. Kids of this age will usually attend public school for regular hours and visit two or three hagwons for additional education in different topics like music, Chinese, English and Taekwondo (Korean Martial Arts).
During this time, families are often divided by sending students, sometimes at a very young age, abroad with one accompanying parent. Usually, the father and sibling will stay behind in Korea to fund this expensive project of International education, often costing up to $75,000 per year per student. Think on these figures and you’ll begin to understand why most modern families prefer to have no more than one child. It’s simply too expensive to have more.
Once students reach middle school their lives gets turned upside down rather immediately, and their carefree days brought to a sudden end. The amount of after school academy’s now increase as well as the hours of actual school time. Private tutors are often hired for additional instruction in subjects that the child might be struggling in.
At the end of High school, students are usually studying up to sixteen hours a day, for six or seven days a week. A brutal schedule indeed. The climax is reached on the day of the University Entrance exam in late November of every year. This day, traffic is cleared in the bigger cities by having schools and businesses open an hour later than usual. The night before, temples and churches are filled with praying parents and even the irreligious might be found kneeling and lighting candles to some unknown deity. All for their children.
Students with the very highest of test scores might be able to gain entrance to the top three Universities is the country: Seoul National University, Korea University and Yonsei University.
These three are locally and almost reverently referred to as the SKY Universities (The first letters in the Universities names form the acronym).
With the immense pressure placed on teenage students from competitive peers, overbearing parents and private tutors, many students simply dissolve under the load. Add to this the normal problems that accompany the difficult time of puberty and some students opt for what seems the easy way out: Suicide.
One such student serves as an illustration. Pushed and driven by his parents, he proved unable to cope with the untimely and heavy responsibilities and eventually jumped from a building with a note in his hand: “I hope you’re happy now”, addressed to his mother.