The Harsh Reality of High School Life in South Korea

“The chances of getting into a really top school are the chances of you getting hit by lightning”

The race to success in South Korea is very intense, and success is often measured by the university you attend. This puts immense pressure on high school students, as there are extremely high stakes in getting accepted to a reputable university.

Here’s a few examples of the harsh reality behind high school life in South Korea:


1. Suicide is the leading cause of death among teens

Flowers left on a fellow classmate’s desk after she jumped to her death at the young age of 16.

“In my three years of high school, not once did any teacher ask me what I would like to do or what I would like to study in college. No one really cared about my interest or what I’d be better at.”


2. Most high school students are in their classrooms studying until 11PM.

Officially school is over by 4PM, but students either go to private cram academies (hagwons), are tutored at home, or attend an in-school study hall.

“Most teachers emphasize that if we failed Suneung, the rest of our lives would be failure, because the test is the first (and last) step to our successful lives.”

“Hagwons are soulless facilities, with room after room divided by thin walls, lit by long fluorescent bulbs, and stuffed with students memorizing English vocabulary, Korean grammar rules and math formulas.”


3.South Korea reportedly ranks highest in stress levels experienced by 11 – 15 year olds, for countries in the top 20 developed nations.

“I feel like Koreans have a disease. The ‘busy’ disease. Students are busy studying all the time. They don’t have a life away from studies. Schools have become a prison. I think this is a characteristic of being a Korean. It’s like this for adults who work, too.”


4. The South Korean college entrance exam, Suneung (College Scholastic Ability Test CSAT), can be taken only once throughout the entire year

Students are graded on the percentage of correct answers in every subject (Korean, English, Math, Social Studies, Science) and the results are classified into 9 categories.

“The [Suneung exam] is the final goal and final determinant of our lives. We thought that if we successfully finish the test, then the bright future would automatically follow.”


5. Airplanes are grounded on the day of the Suneung during the listening portion of the test

Planes pause during takeoff during the English-language listening section of the test so that students will able to clearly focus on the exam. Planes that are already in the air fly around until the section is over.

“Because flights don’t take off during the listening test, and the work hours are changed so there’s no traffic on the road when we go to school, it feels like the entire country is changing its schedule for this exam. That in itself is huge pressure”


6. For students running late the day of the CSAT, the local police offer a “taxi-like” service to escort them to school

“This single exam will determine your life, basically.”


7. Temples and Churches hold special services for prayer on this day

Families offering special prayers for their children

“The fact that your parents and teachers are cheering for you puts you under more pressure. You feel like you have to do well so you don’t disappoint them.”


8. There are a number of strange superstitions that students follow on the day of the CSAT

Students like to eat “yut,” a type of taffy or “dduk,” a type of rice cake so that they will “stick” to the university they want to go to and try to avoid “seaweed soup” out of fear of “slipping up” on answers.

“On the day, you’re not supposed to eat anything heavy that might affect your performance. I think I ate porridge only.”


9. Approximately 25% of students will retake the test.

Students who take it twice are called “Jaesoosaeng” and for those who take it three times are called “Samsoosaeng.” A big feeling of shame comes with those titles. An auditorium is filled with students attending a seminar for “Jaesoosaengs” on how to study for the Suneung exam

“The exam determines your future. If you don’t do well on the exam, students will study one more year to take the test again in the next year. My brother took it three times.”


10. A number of students reported being “lost” or “feeling empty” after taking the Suneung

After the Suneung, students throw away their books and study materials

“We study for this exam from the moment we enter grade school. That’s 12 years of studying and doing well in Suneung being the end goal. After the exam, I didn’t know what to do with my life anymore.”

“Here was something I had been running towards for the last 12 years of my life, and I was suddenly there. What next?”

Source: NPR, Al Jazeera, BBC News, The Atlantic and Donga Ilbo