Students cram for Western schoolsPlenty of Korean students would kill to be accepted by a top-notch Western university.
To date, that hasn’t been necessary.
But to get into an Ivy League school or its equivalent, thousands of Korean students spend practically every waking hour drafting essays, filing applications, studying English and cramming for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). Many move abroad to study in Western middle or high schools; some even go to elementary schools overseas. But now, an increasing number are attending Korean schools that help them make the Ivy League grade.
Their diligence has paid off. In recent years, an increasing number of homegrown kids have been accepted by top-tier universities overseas.
The Study Abroad Program at the private Daewon Foreign Language High School in Seoul has helped 84 pupils get into overseas colleges since 2000. Minjok Leadership Academy, a private boarding school for gifted students in Gangwon province, has sent 43 graduates abroad since 1999.
What does it take to get in? Daewon and Minjok take vastly different approaches. Daewon students follow a traditional Korean school curriculum, then cram like crazy in special extracurricular college-prep classes. Their rivals at Minjok Leadership Academy take Western-style classes that require them to speak, debate and write in English in practically every subject.
Five students from these well-regarded schools told J-Talk how they prepared for college, their reasons for studying overseas and what they plan to do in the future.
Minjok tries total Western immersion
Minjok Leadership Academy students who want to study abroad start prepping as soon as they enroll.
Most apply to its International Field Program when they first enter the school, although they can transfer from Minjok’s ordinary program during their junior year.
Not that Minjok is ordinary. The Gangwon province school is for gifted students. They sleep in dorms on campus, rise before dawn, do martial arts training and study late into the night. Proctors keep close watch on them at all times. If one is caught dozing, he’ll be awakened to continue cramming.
For its International Field Program, all subjects ― with the exception of Korean and Korean history ― are taught in English.
“We follow the basic high school curriculum of the Korean high schools, but our subjects are taught in English and our students are separated from those going to Korean universities,” says Kim Myeong-ju, director of the school’s international program.
The International Field Program had just 18 students last academic year, but the numbers are rising steadily. All 43 graduates have been accepted by top schools, including Harvard, Yale and Oxford, since 1999.
“Our program allows students to study in an environment that’s very similar to American schools,” Mr. Kim says. “Having discussion-centered courses, such as debate class, helps them adapt to American culture.”
This approach contrasts sharply with the idiosyncratic school, where students wear traditional Korean clothing, study in old-fashioned hanok buildings and compete in traditional sports such as archery and martial arts.
Unlike most Korean high schools, Minjok also offers U.S. advanced-placement courses for college credit in subjects such as economics and American government and politics.
Hong Seung-hee, 19, believes that her essays were a key factor in her being accepted by Cornell, Northwestern, Duke, the University of Virginia and Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
She meticulously listed all her extracurricular activities, presuming that the selection boards consider them as a judge of drive and character. “I wanted to show that I was interested in a diverse range of topics to show that I’m a well-rounded person,” says Ms. Hong, who ultimately chose to study political science at Duke. She ticks off her accomplishments: captain of Minjok’s softball team, editor of the school’s English newspaper, vice president of the honors committee ?
For Kim Ji-hoon, 18, who will attend Oxford this fall, applying to a British school meant that his application had to place less emphasis on extracurricular activities and more on grades. He was required by Oxford to take a test in psychology in addition to submitting standardized test scores and his grades from Minjok.
Oxford also asked Mr. Kim to write a statement of purpose. He wrote about his hobby ― the martial art of kendo, in which he holds a black belt ― and why he wanted to practice psychology. Mr. Kim additionally had to submit graded essays that he had written in English in high school.
Since Mr. Kim applied for early admission and was accepted in January, he didn’t apply to other schools.
“The busiest time for the study abroad program students was May, with advanced-placement exams and the SAT,” Ms. Hong says. “But for other students, May was less hectic. So the conflicting schedules disrupted our study environment.”
Mr. Kim says he was still struggling with English as he entered the final stretch. “I worked extra hard to improve my English during my senior year,” he says.
Ms. Hong pats him on the shoulder and says, “Ji-hoon is a Superman. His English skills have made a quantum leap.” Mr. Kim blushes and says, “I just memorized everything that I could get my hands on.”
Mr. Kim said he was attracted to Oxford because it offered a triple major: philosophy, psychology and physiology. “I really wanted to study psychology, and Oxford offers an excellent program. Also, their tutorial approach with its one-on-one interaction with the professor appealed to me,” says the pensive, modest 18-year-old. Oxford is one of the few universities in the world that takes the highly personalized (and costly) tutorial approach to education.
Ms. Hong says she decided several years ago to pursue her collegiate education in the United States. “I felt there was a limit to what I could achieve if I went to a Korean university,” she says. “I wanted to broaden my horizons by studying abroad because my dream is to work for an international organization like the United Nations.”
Western schools don’t come cheap. The annual tuition is 40 million won ($33,000) for Mr. Kim and 46 million won a year for Ms. Hong, plus living expenses, making this venture a huge investment on the part of their parents. Ms. Hong is searching for scholarship support.
After graduation, Ms. Hong hopes to go to law school and then work for the United Nations. Mr. Kim plans to head to medical school once his three years at Oxford are completed.
Daewon makes a tough two-year push
The kids enrolled in Daewon Foreign Language High School’s Study Abroad Program (SAP) spend every day studying alongside classmates who plan to attend Korean universities.
But at 3 p.m., when pupils at most public schools are doing free studying or heading for their hagwon, the 30-odd Daewon Study Abroad Program students huddle together to cram for the SAT.
Their program begins two years before they graduate ― a year late by Minjok Leadership Academy standards.
“If we followed an American curriculum and had a separate class for the Study Abroad Program, then only kids who spoke English well would be able to go abroad,” says Lee Kyung-man, director of Daewon’s International Program, in defense of his school’s program.
“We believe our students must be smart in other areas, as well,” he says. “It’s essential to follow the Korean curriculum along with the U.S. one.”
That comes at a price. “It’s tougher for us because we have to study the Korean SAT curriculum as well as the U.S. one,” says Lee You-kyung, 19, who’s heading to Wesleyan College this fall.
“It was an extra burden, especially during last fall’s exam period, because we also had to work on the application process,” adds Choi Seonkee, 19, who will be attending Stanford University.
The pressure works. Daewon sends more students abroad than any other Korean school ― 84 since 2000. Currently 61 Daewon seniors are studying for next year’s college admissions, nearly double this year’s batch. Daewon also prides itself on its comprehensive research for college entrance standards. In addition, Daewon teachers take campus tours in the United States.
As a result, Daewon’s acceptance rate has improved dramatically, increasing from 9 the first year of the Study Abroad Program to 36 this year.
Students in the Study Abroad Program said that their extensive extracurricular activities might set them apart from other foreign applicants to Western schools.
Ryu Young-ho, 18, who will attend Princeton University, worked weekends at Seoul Children's Hospital caring for infants and disabled children. Mr. Choi served as an English-speaking guide for visitors to Bongeunsa temple in Gangnam. Ms. Lee worked as a volunteer at the Citizen’s Alliance for North Korean Human Rights.
The group noted that it’s harder to figure whether you’ll be accepted by a Western school than it is in Korea. “The difficult part of the application process is the uncertainty,” says Mr. Choi. “When you get your scores for the Korean SAT, you know pretty much which college will accept you. But when applying to U.S. universities, there are so many variables in addition to the SAT scores.”
Another difference between Korean and Western schools is that students don’t always have to declare a major when applying to Western schools.
Mr. Choi still isn’t sure what he’ll study at Stanford. “It’s a good thing I can decide on my major after freshmen year,” he notes.
Ms. Lee says the social studies and film courses at Wesleyan appeal to her. “The school has a strong liberal arts program, which appeals to me.” Mr. Ryu wants to study history and the classics. And he plans to join the crew at Princeton.
Living abroad is a major hurdle for any student, but particularly for Ms. Lee. “Because my father is in the military, I didn’t think I had a chance to study abroad,” she says. Finances were the biggest problem for her.
“My mother was very opposed to my studying overseas,” she recounts. “But I promised my parents that if I were to go to school abroad, I would provide the means to go.”
She won Wesleyan’s Asia Freeman Scholarship, which covers all schooling and housing costs and provides a monthly stipend and round-trip transportation costs. And she’s also a recipient of a Samsung scholarship, which grants financial aid to undergraduates.
For Ms. Lee, the impossible becomes possible in September.
by Choi Jie-ho