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A moment of national fame - and a life living up to it

Acing the college entrance exam brings pride, pressure and more than a few regrets

Dec 13,2014
Park Ji-won recalls the time when he got a single question wrong on the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT) and became the top scorer for the entire country that year.

It was 2005. Park’s father, a medical school professor, wanted Park to follow in his footsteps and become a doctor. But Park was more interested in law and social sciences. He chose an undergraduate law course at Seoul National University (SNU).

Nearly a decade has passed since he made national headlines for his near-perfect score on a test that is often a barometer of a person’s future success. Since then, Park passed the state bar exam, finished all the groundwork to open his own office next month, and found the woman of his dreams.

But Park, now 27, says he still doesn’t have a clear picture of his life. He didn’t have one in high school or college either.

“My CSAT score got me into a prestigious university and because of that I was able to reduce my basic worries about earning a living,” said Park. “But I had deeper issues: I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do for a living.”

In that sense, his high school education was somewhat misdirected because it didn’t offer him answers to such a fundamental question, he says.

“I’m interested in serving the public interest,” says Park. “I’m now pondering how I’m going to run my law firm and how I can give back to the society.”

Park was one of the five CSAT top-scorers recently interviewed by a special reporting team from the JoongAng Ilbo. The reporters asked the brainiacs of yesteryear what they’re up to now, and how they look back on an achievement that many of their contemporaries deeply envied them for.

The JoongAng Ilbo successfully located the whereabouts of 45 such students, and interviewed five of them in-depth.

Of the 45 CSAT top-scorers, 24 specialized in liberal arts in high school, while the rest specialized in general sciences.

In Korea, high school students are divided into two tracks: those who choose to specialize in general sciences and those who opt for liberal arts. CSAT subjects are broken up into two sections, which are designed around those majors. Among the 45 students, a whopping 85 percent, or 38 students, went to SNU; that trend has been consistent since the CSAT was first introduced in 1993.

But change was found in the most popular majors over time.

For those who specialized in general sciences in high school, that change came in 2000, right after the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. Up until then, physics and electrical or electronic engineering were top majors. But with the turn of the millennium, undergraduate medical courses and dentistry became more popular.

CSAT elites who studied liberal arts in high school saw a big change in 2009, when the government announced it would abolish undergraduate law courses and establish postgraduate law schools. The most popular major switched from law to business.

From 1994 to 2008, 11 of the 14 top liberal arts CSAT scorers studied SNU’s undergraduate law courses; eight among that 11 currently works in the legal field.

But after the introduction of law schools in 2009, eight of the 10 students who received the best scores on the CSAT and studied liberal arts in high school chose to study business in college; six of the eight went to SNU, while the other two went to Yonsei University.

The special reporting team asked all 45 CSAT elites how satisfied they are with their current lives. On a scale of one to 10, they averaged an answer of 7. Asked how content they were with their occupations, they replied slightly more optimistically with an average of 7.2 points.

The following are fuller stories of the lives of four previous CSAT top scorers.



Jeong Seong-taek, top scorer 1994

After graduating summa cum laude from SNU’s electrical and electronic engineering department, Jeong Seong-taek booked tickets for California to continue his studies at Stanford University, where he earned both a master’s and doctorate degree.

Jeong said he worked a few years at a U.S. consulting firm and finally landed in Silicon Valley two years ago to start his own business, an IT venture called Humanvest, which provides services to small business owners wanting to post ads on Facebook and Twitter.

The 38-year-old is also the director of Dolphin Browser, a mobile browser for Android that has been downloaded more than 50 million times worldwide.

“If it wasn’t for Silicon Valley, I couldn’t have even dreamed about running my own business,” says Jeong. “Establishing a company is not merely about capital; trust and cooperation are what matters much more.”

He lauds the culture of the Gentleman’s Non-Disclosure Agreement in Silicon Valley, which refers to a legally non-binding agreement between two or more parties who promise not to leak proprietary business information to others.

“I don’t have hard feelings about Korean education, but I have to admit that my studies here in America were of substantial help for me to establish my start-up company,” said Jeong.

The young entrepreneur criticizes the CSAT, the main determinant of college admissions, saying it has become a “hell” for high school students who ruin themselves over the test.

And that hell, he said, “derives from a society that gives no other choice.”



Yoon Seok-jun, top scorer 2001

“I’ve never seen my parents look at my school report card or even ask me for it,” recalls Yoon Seok-jun, 32.

Family support was his greatest motivation to receive good grades from a young age.

“We really traveled a lot in my childhood,” Yoon says. “A week before my family hit the road, my parents would encourage me to find information about our destination in advance. When I got older and took Korean geography courses in high school, I could think back to my past experiences.”

In all his years of schooling, Yoon says he went to a private cram school for only a single month. And in 2002, he gained admission to the undergraduate law courses of SNU.

Now, he’s working as an international attorney at Bae, Kim & Lee LCC, one of the top five law firms in the country, mainly representing the country in international legal cases.



Son Jeong-gu, top scorer 2004

Years after graduating from the College of Dentistry at Yonsei University and becoming a dentist, Son Jeong-gu, says he has something to confess.

“I’m a Daechi-dong kid,” he says. “I relied so much on private education.”

Daechi-dong in Gangnam District, southern Seoul, is known as the mecca of hagwon or private cram schools.

But Son stresses that the cram schools weren’t what eventually enabled him to get only a single question wrong on the entire CSAT on his third time taking it.

In fact, relying on them was a mistake, he says.

After getting into no university after his first CSAT, Son says, he “woke up to the reality” that crams schools weren’t raising his test-scores, which then led him to drop out of the cram rat race and begin studying on his own.

“Until my second CSAT, I didn’t know what true learning was,” said Son. “It took me two years to develop my own study strategy, which turned out to be understanding concepts from textbooks and writing them down in my own words in a notebook.”

Son is currently running his own dental clinic in Seocho-dong, Gangnam District, but the 30-year-old implies that he’s far from finished in the pursuit of his dreams.

On top of studying dentistry at Yonsei, he received a bachelor’s degree in economics at Korea National Open University. Last year, he qualified for SNU’s law school, from which he is currently taking time off.

Raised by a father who worked in the finance industry, Son wanted the same career in high school, but was discouraged when his father recommended a profession in medicine instead.

“My father told me to first get a stable job, and then pursue whatever study I want,” said Son. And now, he continued, he’s still pursuing something beyond the status quo.



Lee Seung-gyu, top scorer 2012

Two years ago when Lee Seung-gyu received a perfect score on the CSAT, he decided to apply for the College of Liberal Studies at SNU, where he could enroll in classes in nearly every department on campus, except a few that were restricted like medicine.

The 20-year-old, who dreams of studying the human brain, started off wanting to study law and business. Now, he’s grown more interested in economics and artificial intelligence technology. Lee has also signed up for the school’s entrepreneurship club.

But despite all his wide-ranging interests, Lee says he doesn’t feel entirely comfortable chasing his own dreams. The high expectations others have of him after getting every question right on the CSAT actually haunts him, he says.

“I’m afraid people might say I’ve led myself to my own demise after refusing to follow what social norms define as success,” says Lee.

“But CSAT scores only determine which college you get into; they don’t guarantee everything,” he says. “It’s time for me to accomplish something huge.”

BY LEE SEO-JUN AND YOON JUNG-MIN [selee@joongang.co.kr]




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