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On a College Entrance Exam Deathwatch
Korean students are breaking under the strain of relentless competition and parental expectations
Jeff Harrison (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2004-10-23 15:57 (KST)   
This blog entry from Jeff Harrison at Ruminations in Korea is reprinted with permission. It was first posted on Oct. 22.

I mentioned in a previous blog post that "we are now officially in suicide season, where little boys and girls turn into Peter Pan and begin their annual lemming-like plunges off of assorted tall structures."

It's that time of year, again. My absolute least favorite time of the Korean calendar: College Entrance Exam Time (The test is now called the "CSAT"), which starts at the end of November.

I wrote about this subject in one of my very first blog posts a year ago. Within 36 hours of talking about the unbelievable pressure that is put on these kids and the potentially deadly consequences for anything less than near perfection, a girl had leapt to her death after walking out of the exam. 24 hours later, there was another suicide related to the test. It was also revealed that three people had killed themselves a month prior to the exam due to the pressures of the exam.

Parents routinely spend inordinate sums every month for as many as 14 years in order to prepare their child for this pivotal day.
©2004 Kim N.B.
Instead of finding ways to alleviate or reduce the incredible competition associated with this test, they government has decided to reduce the number of university students by more than 15,000 specifically to increase the pressure and competitiveness to enter university. Current estimates are that approximately 200 children commit suicide each year because of this exam. I am afraid that it will only get worse.

As I do not expect this year to be any different that past years, it is only a matter of time before the bodies of needlessly wasted youth begin to pile up, if they haven't already.

Here is a large chunk of what I wrote last year on this subject:

Parents routinely spend US$1,000 to US$2,000 per month for as many as 14 years in order to prepare their students for this one day. The results of the test will determine the student's future. The course of the student's life, what college or university the student will attend, what type of job the students will have eventually.

High school seniors will usually attend school until 4 p.m. after which they will attend the various institutes, cram school, and study halls until midnight or later. In the run up to the exam, many schools stay open and hold classes until 10 p.m. or later. Students will then go to the study halls and take private tutelage until 2 a.m. or so. Then it is up and out the door by 6 or 7 a.m. in order get to the early classes.

The test is so serious that literally the entire country makes accommodations. Official announcements are made to clear the roads for the two hours prior to the start of the test in order to allow the students to get to the test centers. It is not an uncommon site to see policemen carrying students to the test in the minutes before testing begins and crying students running down the street, begging for rides from passersby.

During the listening portion of the test, airline flights are suspended or re-routed. Trains and boats are prohibited from using their whistles. Drivers are asked to refrain from honking horns.

Over the years I have witnessed incredible abuses, including severe beatings, against students who failed to get the grades that their parents expected, or did not study as hard as their parents expected them to, or, God forbid, "fail" the entrance exam. Beatings with switches, fists, books, and other household items have been administered by parents in a misguided manifestation of love and concern for their children and the children's future.

Fourteen years ago, the child in the house upstairs from me was being beaten so badly that I ran up and stopped it and harbored the kid in my house for several hours until the parent had calmed down. Although the manner of expressing the concern is unacceptable, it is clear that parents understand the importance of the test in ways that young students with brains of mush and no life experience cannot begin to fathom.

As mentioned above, this single test, in all seriousness, determines the future of every test taker. Personal relationships are so important. Middle management in companies tend to hire people from the same schools as the company bosses and owners. Business owners who hire directly will tend to hire people from their schools. Add to this, the fact that emphasis is placed on the top schools in Seoul, and you are left with a hopeless situation where more than half a million students are trying to get into the same four or five schools.

Of course, not everyone can go to Seoul National University. Some people do not have the test scores; others do not have the money. They are relegated to smaller community colleges or local universities. This unfortunate situation spells doom for their future. Many companies will not even glance at an application from someone who did not graduate from one of the "lesser" schools.

What are the products of this unimaginable pressure on the young, immature kids to perform on the test, the ridiculous and irrational bias toward the top few schools, and the incestuous hiring practices of the corporate elite? Each year, there are a number of suicides directly related to performing at a less than perfect level.

Just this past weekend [ed. note: last year] someone sent a letter threatening to kill children attending schools in Gangnam-gu and to detonate bombs at the National Assembly Hall and one of the most luxurious apartment complexes in the country. The reason for issuing these threats, states the as yet unknown author, is that "Two years after graduating from a provincial college and finishing military service, I still haven't found a job," and "This is a country that only appreciates people who graduate from top universities."

Something must be done to diminish the importance of the college entrance exam and to allow the individual schools to set their own criteria for accepting students. Companies must be made to consider applicants on the basis of considerations other than what school the applicant attended.
©2004 OhmyNews

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