With a vastly different culture and history, it’s no wonder that the education system in South Korea differs greatly from the education system in the United States. Whether you’re traveling or working in South Korea or even studying abroad, here are some major differences from the schools that you should be aware of!

Entry Class vs Graduating Class

Have you ever watched a Korean drama or heard a conversation where the Korean natives are introducing themselves? Chances are they will mention what university they went to. If they coincidentally they are both alumni of the same school, they will mention their entry class. Entry class is the year they entered the university. This is where the difference between the U.S.A. and South Korea lies. If the conversation took place between American, they will mention their graduating class rather than entry class. In the U.S., people would most likely never talk about what year they entered college. Likewise, South Koreans would most likely never mention what year they graduated from.

Influenced by their culture and history, South Korea places an emphasis on when a person begins his or her university years. One possible reason is due to the mandatory military service the Korean males have to serve after they become 18. In South Korea, there is a strict social hierarchy. Those with lower status are expected to show respect to those with higher status. In this case, underclassmen refer to their upperclassmen as sunbae(nim)/선배(님). If South Koreans use graduating class instead of entry class for their hierarchy, most males would have to refer to their female counterparts of the same age as sunbae(nim). This will most likely cause a problem for the South Korean male-dominated society.

photo of people having a conversation, talking, and smiling after an event in an open lobby by Product School

After School Activities

A highlight of a student’s life is the after school activities. In the U.S., students participate in sports or have extracurricular activities like clubs. In South Korea, students study and study. Because getting into a prestigious college is of the utmost importance and priority of a South Korean student, they study at the library after school or attend private academies called hagwon/학원. Hagwons are essentially cram schools. They help students get into universities by providing supplement materials and guidance for students outside of normal class hours.

A typical American student finishes class at 3 P.M., plays a sport until 5 or 6, and then they go home to eat, rest, and do homework. On the other hand, a typical South Korean student finishes class at 5 P.M., take a quick break, then go study at the library or attend their hagwons until 11 P.M. or midnight. Due to criticisms, the government enforced restrictions and encouraged the students to go home by midnight. In the past, it was normal for students to not get home until 2 or 3 A.M. It’s no wonder South Korea is considered to be one of the most educated countries in the world!

photo of a girl studying and biting her pencil

SAT/ACT vs CSAT

Standardized tests are a common form of practice around the world. Americans have it. South Koreans have it. It’s a relatively fair and objective assessment tool for a student’s academic ability. In the U.S., students are encouraged to take the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) or the American College Test (ACT). Most universities use the test results as part of their admission process. Student spends about three to four hours, depending on the exams, and the tests are administered once a month around the school year.

In South Korea, their standardized test is called the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) or Suneung (수능). Originally, it was designed to test a student’s ability required for college, but currently it is a national graduation test for high school students. It also currently is used as a major part of the South Korean admission test. Essentially, a South Korean student’s 12 years of education and hard work are all training for this very exam. Because it is used as a criteria for college admission and attending a top university is one of the few way for South Koreans to considered successful, students often decide to retake the exam the next year if their scores are unsatisfactory. Unlike their American counterparts, the CSAT is administered only once a year on the third Thursday of November. Due to the importance of the exam, on the exam day, South Korea adjusts to accommodate the test takers. On exam day, the stock markets open late, and the public transportation system is increased to prevent traffic jams and to make test sites more accessible for students. Police officers offer escorts for students running late for the exam. Many stores and operations are stopped or delayed. No planes are not allowed to fly during the listening portion of the exam.

For Americans, the SAT and the ACT are add-ons to the college admission process. Top universities use the test results, but it’s not necessary to attend college. For South Koreans, it dictates whether the rest of their lives will be “successful” or not.

photo of test taking

American vs South Korean School Calendar

Have you ever visited South Korea during the spring season and notice students in their cap and gowns or high schools bustling with friends and families? That’s because the school calendar in South Korea is different than the one in the U.S. In the U.S., most schools finish in May or June for all academic levels. In South Korea, their academic calendar runs from March to February, meaning their graduation occurs during the end of February or early March. However, they still have summer and winter breaks, both occurring around the same time as American summer and winter breaks.

photo of students graduating

How long is the CSAT?

The Korean CSAT is about 9 hours long, including breaks.

Where do the students take the CSAT?

Like the SAT and the ACT, the CSAT is usually taken at local schools.

When is summer break for South Korea?

Summer break in South Korea is usually in late June to mid August.

What are hagwons?

Hagwons are private institutions that help students improve their test scores. They also serve other functions such as being supplementary education to keep up with the regular school curriculum as well as support for students who fell behind in the curriculum. Hagwons can also provide additional training and educational resources beyond the scope of a regular South Korean education.

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