Surviving Senior Year in a Korean High School (and getting into SKY)

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By Bo-kyung Byun

Halfway into my senior year, I decided I’d had enough. After spending two and a half years in high school trying to keep up with my workload—sleeping erratically, eating comfort food at night to stay awake, and spending the rest of my time glued to my seat hunching over piles of books—I could feel myself slowing down both physically and mentally. My joints creaked whenever I moved. My mind was constantly groggy. So I decided to perk myself up by working out. From that day on, I woke up at six in the morning and jogged for an hour at a gym near my house before going to school.

The first day at the gym was slightly disconcerting, though. It was hard not to notice I was the only non-adult. People sneaked glances at me none too secretively, with curious looks on their faces. Later on, as I was changing back into my uniform in the locker room, a cleaning lady approached me and asked what grade I was in. “I’m a high school senior,” I told her. I watched her eye me up and down with a quizzical look on her face—probably trying to figure out whether I was a total genius who didn’t have to study, or a complete failure who had given up on life. Because in Korea, that’s what high school seniors do: they study.

The students at my school are hardly an exception. There’s no magic formula to how our school has maintained the highest national average for Korean SAT(suneung) scores for several years running; it’s just that teachers and students alike take studying to the extreme. Students use a different school building starting from senior year, sequestered from the hustle and bustle of freshmen and sophomores. Seniors are excluded(or banned, to be more accurate) from most school events including field trips, sports days, and festivals. As suneungs approach, guys stop shaving. Girls stop washing their long hair—all so that they can pour their undivided attention into their studies. From morning to 10:30 p.m. when school finishes, students sit and cram.

Of course, for me and my other friends in the English department, things are a little different. Since most of us aim to apply to foreign universities, we do not have to take the once-in-a-lifetime suneung (the Korean SAT) test. That doesn’t mean we have it easy, though. In my case, for instance, I started off this year with January SATs. The day after SATs finished, I launched into intensive cramming for five AP subjects (most of my other friends took more). Then came mid-terms in April, SAT IIs and APs in May and June, and finals in July. On top of that, there was homework, volunteer work, and club activities squeezed in between. It was hectic. I never want to repeat the process again, even if it meant a straight ticket to Harvard—which I doubt it would.

However, the greatest source of difficulty during such hard times came not from tests and scores, but rather a creeping sense of inferiority. Throughout my three years at Daewon, I often caught myself comparing myself to my classmates and it was hard not to feel insecure. There were national pool debate champions, economics Olympiad winners, music prodigies, ballet concours medalists. There were people with higher GPAs, more APs, more extracurriculars. Then there were also the rich, the better-looking, the more outgoing. The list was endless. I felt proud to have such friends, but at the same time I felt slightly lightheaded to realize that these were the people I would ultimately have to compete with. After all, top American universities do not accept more than a few students from one school. My friends were my rivals.

But I have no idea what I would have done without them. One would imagine cut-throat competition in such an atmosphere, but that was anything but the case. During mid-terms and finals, for instance, we upload study materials online to help one other get good grades. Those who ace in certain subjects help others who lag behind without expecting anything in return—our math whiz actually gives after-school lectures to a classroom full of avid students to help them understand particularly complicated questions.

The school math whiz tutors other students during free time.

 

The emotional support is also great. I can’t say about the others, but in my case I was able to identify most easily with friends within my own school department. After all, our schedules and goals are completely different from our peers who aim for Korean universities: while they live and die to raise even a mere decimal point of their GPA and suneung scores, we take it (comparatively) more lax with GPA and instead concern ourselves with other board scores and club activities. When they’re well-rested and refreshed, we’re knocked out after a night’s worth of AP cramming. When we have time to play, they’re busy fretting over suneung tests that we hardly know about. Of course, such differences did not prevent me from being friends with students aiming for Korean universities, but they did make me realize how easy it was to talk to friends in my own department in comparison. Having people to empathize with over a bad literature essay score without having to explain the specifics of a Petrarchan sonnet, or people with whom I could count on to have mental breakdowns with on facebook at two in the morning over lists of yet-to-memorize CR vocab words to be quizzed the following day was great. Plus, we all come from more or less similar backgrounds, share similar goals(studying abroad), and spend more time together than we do with even our own families, what with school, volunteer work, extracurriculars, and academies. In retrospect, I guess it would be strange not to bond with such people with interests and values so freakishly similar to my own.

The mutual support reached its peak during college application season. One of my seniors once told me that the school workload during senior year is much less than that of freshman or junior year; too bad she didn’t tell me the psychological burden is infinitely heavier. As college applications became a reality instead of something in the distant future, all sorts of worries came flooding in. Time to finally face the grim reality of Bs in math dragging down your GPA, and wallow in self-reproach at not having studied harder for SATs. Or perhaps wonder how in the world your middle-class parents are going to pay $50,000 a year for your tuition, and ask yourself whether you really have the right to ask them for such a big investment in your murky future. Whether it be low GPAs, financial problems, or indecision on where to apply, everyone has worries of their own.

The life of a high school senior in Korea: I feel lonely; I want U.S. citizenship too; should I take a stab at early college apps or not; everything's just so messed up; why're the teachers making us buy KSAT books; cafeteria food sucks; why do we have to go to school anyway?; college tuition; I'm getting fat; the gap between my once-dream-school and myself now. (©Somin Lim)

I was no exception. Three months before early application season, my parents broke the news that they could no longer afford to send me to an American university due to family problems. Since I had always taken for granted that I would leave Korea for college (and my parents had backed the belief), the sudden change of tide was a great blow. I felt like all I had done for the past few years was for nothing. With the scores and activities I had prepared over the past few years, my chances of getting into a good Korean university were much lower than that of being accepted by an American university—even my parents openly acknowledged that point. The sudden loss of my long-nurtured goal made me feel empty and lost. My sullen attitude made any family time at home strained. I spent most of the rest of the summer avoiding my parents, sitting absent-mindedly at quiet cafes.

It was only after opening up to a few close friends about my situation that I was finally able to pull myself out of my own mire of self-pity. Though they probably were busy—it was the last summer before college applications, after all—they spent hours talking things over with me. They kept me company when I wanted to be someplace other than home. They sent me random texts to keep my spirits up. But what’s more, they approached the situation rationally and reasoned out the benefits to be gained from studying at a Korean university. They also advised me to try to putting myself in my parents’ shoes and make an effort to understand what they were going through. Listening to their sensible words made me realize how immature I was being in comparison. I snapped out of my moping, and started preparing for Korean university applications in earnest.

Thanks to their support, some intense cramming, and probably also a considerable amount of luck, I got into my school of first choice. After squandering a couple of weeks in lethargy after completely finishing my applications (resume, essay exam, interview and all), I just felt extremely relieved to see my name included on the accepted list, posted on the school’s website.

I thought I’d live a worry-free life happily ever after if only I got accepted, but I’ve begun to realize that is very sadly not the case. I did enjoy a few carefree weeks idling time away: taking a round-trip bus around Seoul on a whim, watching more dramas than I have during my entire three years in high school, and sleeping until my back hurts. Eventually, though, new challenges and problems to attend to surfaced, ushering in new worries and anxieties.

I guess that’s just life—a never-ending stream of challenges to face. And as difficult as high school was, I guess it was but one of countless challenges to come. I’m just glad that phase is all over. I wish the best of luck to my friends waiting for their regular results, my Korean-university-bound friends still half into their regular applications (the latest of them finish in February), and of course my friends who made the courageous decision to jaesu (spend another year studying to take another shot at the next year’s suneung exam). I also wish luck to next year’s soon-to-be seniors. If I may give them one piece of advice: don’t sacrifice your health for your studies. Pulling an all-nighter or skipping lunch to cram for a test may admittedly have some advantages in the short run, but it’s just not worth it in the long-run. These days I spend a great deal of my time going to hospitals: no matter what department I go to they all tell me I have some sort of problem, from scoliosis (from sitting at a desk for too long) to astigmatism (from straining my eyes) to so-called normal weight obesity (I guess morning exercise alone wasn’t enough to compensate for an otherwise completely sedentary lifestyle). Studying is important, but take care of yourself as well. Work out a bit. If you’re worried about what nosy ajummas will think about a high school senior wasting time not studying, come to my gym. People there are now used to strange students who have their priorities all wrong… at least, I think.

_____________________

Bo-kyung graduated from high school on February 6 and will begin her first semester at Korea University in March.

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16 Responses to “Surviving Senior Year in a Korean High School (and getting into SKY)”

  1. Jin Says:

    A good look inside the more competitive high school world in Korea. Must be liberating to be out of that pressure cooker. But, wait, you now gotta prove yourself in college to prepare for the ugly world of employment. Better get some rest.

  2. JW Says:

    Bo-kyung:

    You are a high school student, so you’re very immature. You don’t realize how fortunate you really are. I’ve taught at 압구정 유학원 that KIS/SIS/GISS/Daewon etc students go to. I probably know some of your friends. All you kids talk about is known as ‘first world problems’. You students sit there and actually have the audacity to complain about the fact that they have TOO much opportunity to learn/study and get a quality education. Do you realize what you’re complaining about?

    Parents who will pay for EVERYTHING and drive you to succeed. Schools who give you all the resources you need to learn. Technology that is all free for you. Meanwhile, none of your privileged friends have part time jobs and will go to private universities and rack up >$100 grand in fees, none of which you will work to pay for.

    On the other side of the world, minority children (not in some poor african country) in communities like Chicago and the southern USA would DIE to have a fraction of what you have. Instead, they are faced with institutional barriers: teachers who expect them to fail, parents who have no money and don’t care what their children do with their lives. Yet, you write some article here like you are being victimized? You are being given a GIFT of opportunity and you should embrace it.

    And as for the long study hours, you should cherish them. Think of all the kids who grew up working part time jobs to afford a car, a bike, new books, clothes…even food. Have you ever had to worry about that living in Gangnam and going to school at Daewon?

    The sickening thing is that none of you kids even earn scholarships to go to Standford/Dartmouth etc. You take 6 AP classes, score 85% percentile on your SATs, and still are forced to pay full tuition and set your parents back $45,000 a year…disgusting

  3. Kathy Says:

    Thanks for sharing your story Bo-kyung. It’s rare for this sort of story to find its way into English. People like JW seem to think that just because kids have parents who are overzealous, obsessed, hyper-attentive and overly invested, that makes life for a teen or younger kid so privileged. Little do such critics think about what is lost for those kids, what they miss out on, what the burden can actually bring to bear on a kid like… the illnesses you’ve had. Everything is relative, for sure, but that doesn’t mean you all are some spoiled brats who had things handed to you. Alotta kids don’t make it and end up classified as failures who can’t get beyond what they did in adolescence. That existence can be as horrible as some kid in a third-world country who makes shoes.

  4. Lee Scott Says:

    Doesn’t whining about first world problems count as a first world problem? What about whining about the whining? DAMMIT!!

  5. KS Says:

    Hey, JW. Harvard, Princeton, Dartmouth, Stanford and other Ivy League schools do not offer academic based merit-based scholarship. If they do, everyone who attend those schools would have one. Financial aid is need-based.

  6. MGH Says:

    You can lose your youth one way or the other but in this case at least Korean kids get an education. Doesn’t seem to me that the author is complaining so much as offering gratitude to those who helped her through a tough time. And a hellish a high school may have been I bet you’ll still miss it~

  7. smooth Says:

    In a way I actually do understand JW’s opinion .
    I also imagine he is a Korean/American , who seems a little bitter .
    What he assumes is that Bo Kyung actually knows , that she should feel thankful .
    She doesn’t KNOW because she has lived a privileged , and sheltered life so far .

  8. June Says:

    People who haven’t actually grown up in the Korean system can’t say a thing, really. For kids like BK the rush for education begins very early and the testing not long after. It doesn’t end and the time for being a kid… you know riding a bike and chasing ants…is seen as a negative. Next thing you know your parents put a flute or violin or some instrument in your hand and you have to do that too, and not for fun. Next thing you know you’re told you have to get into a top middle school and then the high school and then uni. So don’t tell me you can’t complain. Sure Korean kids are grateful to our parents (most of the time) but we also get pushed to the edge of sanity over and over and over. Ever wonder why suicide is so high? No, I’m not worrying about dying from a gun shot in Chicago or not having enough food, but I am worried about whether I am worth anything, whether I’ll be a failure, an outcast.

  9. Korean Gender Reader, Feb. 9-15 | The Grand Narrative Says:

    [...] Surviving Senior Year in a Korean High School (and getting into SKY) [...]

  10. Julia Says:

    JW:
    Yes, these are first-world problems. But we live in the first world, and we have to face these problems. You can’t just exclude yourself from your own society’s pressures by saying, “well, look at other countries!”

    Plus, Bo-kyung sounds far more mature than a lot of people I went to high school with.

  11. Trey Says:

    It amazes me that more Korean kids don’t rebel against the machine. At some point there’s going to be some kind of shift in how the whole system works. Seems to me that the old guard knows this and is trying, ever slowly, to loosen things up.

  12. Yu Bumsuk Says:

    The problem with first-hand accounts in English is that if a HS student has the English skills to articulate their experience (and Bogyung’s English better than 99% of Korean English teachers) they’re part of a very elite group.

    A good third of Korean HS learn almost nothing at school and are hopelessly below standard in their academic subjects. Go to a technical or vocational school and see what is and isn’t happening. It’s not the side of Korean education that gets discussed in English media. The percentage of Korean students who are graduating with passing marks in all their subjects is likely lower than in America.

  13. Seri Says:

    The idea of ‘first world problems’ is such a racist one that anyone who uses it really just gets the roll-eye from me.

    You talk about Chicago like the same doesn’t happen in S.Korea. And the types of worries and experience she expressed can also (and does) happen in Ghana or Nigeria… so screw you really.

  14. Kim Says:

    If anyone thinks that Bo-Kyung is trying to speak for all Korean kids then why read or can you read? As Bum says there are few who can put this stuff in English–think about any country. How many American kids can write about issues in another language? The girl is trying to tell her own tale. Why hate on that?

  15. DK Says:

    Wonderfully written. My classmates in college who were from Daewon were a bright bunch and worked very hard (much more so than their *wealthier* Korean counterparts who attended boarding schools in the States) – I had heard similar stories from them.

    I am surprised however, that Daewon, considering the extreme (perhaps, ridiculous) effort they put into getting students into top foreign schools, doesn’t exert the same amount of effort to help students find ways to finance higher education. Considering the combined fortune of the parents/alum of Daewon, I am surprised they don’t create a scholarship fund; perhaps a reflection of the state of Korean society.

    But for the record I would like to note that idiopathic scoliosis (as you were probably diagnosed by your doctor) does not have an identifiable cause and thus should not have been casually attributed to studying for prolonged hours. Sorry girl, your doctor sits on a throne of lies.

  16. Kat Says:

    It’s funny to read this story because it’s familiar but I never thought I’d see it in English or maybe at all. We, the 외고 kids don’t really want to talk about life because we know people will attack us one way or another. The typical stuff tears into us because we are lucky or rich or whatever but there’s no consideration of the amount of work that has to be done to get there. I started working hard when I was about 6 or at least that’s what I remember from the spelling tests, math quizzes and science stuff. Looking back I don’t remember a break or an end to that stress that came from school or 학원 and mom. Now as I get ready to start my 4th year at university I wonder where my childhood went.

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