Monday, November 15, 2010

If at First You Don't Succeed, Study Study Again

Tens of thousands of Korean high school graduates delay college each year so they can retake the college entrance exam hoping that a better score will carry them to their choice schools.
I met a few such students recently in my own neighborhood in Seoul. I noticed four teenaged boys walking out of a large cram school at lunch time, and I asked them why they were there in the middle of the day, and not in high school. They explained the private academy is specially designed for “study-again students” or jae-soo sang, like them.  They "failed" the first time they took the test last fall, they said, because their scores weren't high enough for top colleges.  
From left: Hoon Lim-Tae, Ji Yong-Chang,
Sun Tae-Mu, Oh Dong-Kwoang
So for the past 10 months they have been engaged in around-the-clock test preparation hoping to gain 30 or 40 points on a 500-point exam. Along with more than 800 other students, they report to the seven-story building every day at 7 a.m. and stay there until 10 p.m., including Saturday. On Sunday, they study from 10 a.m. to 5:40 p.m. 
“Our week is Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Friday, Friday," said Ji Yong-Chang,  laughing about his weekend-free year. 
Rules are strict: no dating, no drinking, no noise during self-study time. The goal is maximum focus. The school has a reputation for being “very severe,” Ji said.  That's why his family sought it out from his home town in Taean, southwest of Seoul. He lives in a dormitory down the street.  

The young men I talked to have different aspirations: an acupuncturist, a government worker, an economists. There are different study-again schools for students working for careers in the hard sciences.

Billboard outside school
They are going for their second try with on the test, but more than 100 of their classmates are on their third or fourth try, their teacher told me.  The school, called Coryo is actually a chain of three schools.  A billboard outside shows the faces of more than 300 graduates of their program who last year got accepted to Seoul National University, often rated the best school in Korea.  Tuition at Coryo runs about $600 a month, though a few scholarships are offered to students whose starting scores are relatively high.
I had a chance to briefly visit a classroom at the testing academy on a Monday morning. I sat in the back of an English lesson in a small room filled with more than 50 students sitting in tight rows, two by two. Most of the teens were dressed for comfort in  sweat pants and flip flops with socks. Many had their own seat cushions and blankets on their laps.  The windows were frosted, the buildings outside invisible.

The teacher wore a suit and spoke with the help of a headset and an amplifier, explaining nuances of English grammar and vocabulary mostly in Korea and referring to the sample reading passages the students had in front of them. He talked about the difference between "anterior" and "posterior," "that and which" and whether it's better to say, "before they start" or "before they will start."

Later in the day, the students would go through similar sample test questions in their Korean, math, and social studies tests.  With exam day rapidly approaching, they are also taking simulated tests every other day.   
Many universities in South Korea are starting to develop more western-style admissions processes, so all their decisions will not be based only on the test scores.  Even Seoul National over the past decade has gradually adopted ways to accept students through alternative routes, in an effort to find students with exceptional talents or leadership potential or strong analytical skills. But these efforts are still very new in Korea and their full impact remains to be seen. As long as the admissions system remains even partly geared toward the results of this test, there will likely be a demand for this kind of full-time test prep service.

If you're interested in reading more, I found a good story in the New York Times' about a similar school and the trend of study again in South Korea.

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