Professional students target difficult examsThe flickering neon signs along the streets of Silim-dong in southern Seoul make it seem not that different from any other commercial areas in Jongno.
While discreet compared to the area’s bars and nightclubs, private libraries and dormitory buildings predominate. In rooms throughout the district, candidates for the various government exams burn the midnight oil in self-imposed isolation in hopes they will someday land a coveted job in a highly competitive market.
They study in cram schools and private libraries (dokseosil in Korean) and sleep in dormitory buildings (gosiwon). Even the name of the main street is Gosiwon-gil (gil means street).
A number of student boarders ― gosisaeng ― live here and spend two or three years of their lives preparing for these exams. The entire neighborhood caters to these students, and even karaoke, Internet cafes, video rooms, computer game arcades and comic book rooms ― which in theory should be avoided by all means ― depend on their patronage. Most private libraries and dormitories, academies and restaurants give discounts: dormitories give a 5 percent discount and sell monthly meal coupons for nearby restaurants.
The Silim-dong neighborhood is famous for cram schools offering courses for the three most popular state exams: the bar exam, higher-rank civil servant exam (haengsi) and diplomat exam (oesi). These exams attract fierce competition, as they are considered a shortcut to a higher social status and mean substantial financial reward.
A lawyer with two years of experience can earn more than 60 million won ($58,823) in annual salary, according to Payopen, an Internet wage survey site. Prosecutors and judges are regarded with prestige and respect. High-ranking civil servants and diplomats are entitled to many educational and financial benefits, not to mention lifelong employment.
Last year, 18,894 applicants took the two-part bar exam, which has the most applicants of the three exams. But only 1,009 passed the second test of the bar exam. The civil service and diplomat exams have fewer applicants but there’s fiercer competition. For the civil servant exam, 14,181 applicants competed for 198 slots last year. For diplomatic positions this year, 1,141 competed for 21 slots.
Although it is difficult to tally how many students or college graduates are preparing for these exams, one in 10 two- or four-year college graduates in Korea are preparing for government exams, according to the Korean Education Development Institute. Besides financial compensation and status, mandatory early retirement age and growing unemployment are also factors in strong competition.
“Working at a company does not ensure job security anymore,” said Jeong Il-won, a senior at Seoul National University who is majoring in business administration. “I thought I would be better off if I have a license to practice law.”
The three exams are extremely difficult, and it takes a long time to prepare and pass. These exams often require first and second tests often offered only once a year. For example, the first part of bar exam is in February and the second part is in June. If you pass the first test, you have only two chances to pass the second test.
“Most people consider that it takes one to three years to pass the first test, and four to five years to pass both,” said Lee Jee-yun, a law student at Yonsei University. Ms. Lee passed the first test in February after she began studying for the bar exam in 2003, a time period she says is normal for students.
Studying for these exams, many students sacrifice perhaps the best part of their life.
“There are huge costs,” Ms. Lee said, “such as sacrificing the enjoyment of different experiences and fun that only college students can have. I quit club activity because of studying for the bar exam.” She added that because of the high unemployment rate, students are less in a mood to enjoy college life.
The bar exam is the most rigorous and time-consuming exam. Most law students study at private academies, and even though universities teach classes on different laws. They usually take one or two semesters off to prepare for the exams. A civil law course takes two months to finish, while a criminal or commercial law course takes one and half montha in a cram school.
To prepare for the bar exam, many students study around the clock. For Cha Dong-wook, a law student at Korea University, the day starts at 6 a.m. He takes an early morning class at 6:40 a.m. and studies until he goes to bed at midnight except for a brief lunch and dinner.
Applicants find it very difficult to endure the same routine every day for many years. “The group of people you meet gets smaller, and life becomes monotonous,” Mr. Jeong said.
The biggest problem is that they don’t know when these routines end. If they do not pass, they repeat the exams, and it is common for many of them to continue studying for the exams until they are 30 years old or older.
“There is so much invested and sacrificed in preparing for the bar exam, so it is difficult to give it up,” Mr. Jeong said. “The bar exam is addictive. It feels like if you study one more year, you are going to pass.”
“It is a lonely process,” Mr. Cha said. “I sit alone and study all day, and it feels like I am in the middle of religious training. Sometimes I have a feeling that I am falling behind and am isolated. Life becomes impoverished.”
Mr. Cha managed to pass the first test after two tries. Mr. Cha said he would try to pass the bar exam until he reaches 29 years old, since companies place an age limit ― mostly around 30 ― in hiring new employees.
With 1,000 people passing the bar exam every year, the legal services market is becoming overcrowded, and the privileges enjoyed by lawyers in the past no longer necessarily apply to newcomers.
“There is not as much merit in passing the bar exam as before,” Mr. Jeong said. “There are other jobs that guarantee as much or even more financial return. These days, more people come to think of it as just a license, an advantage to make themselves more competitive.”
The government plans to introduce law schools at the graduate school level in 2008, a new system that is eventually going to replace the current bar exam. It’s a result of criticism that the bar exam is wasteful with so many applicants trying for so many years. The number of bar exam applicants significantly dropped from 30,146 in 2003 to 18,894 in 2004.
But not all are critical. “Not all things are as bad as many critics say about the bar exam,” Ms. Lee said. “I feel that I am gaining professional knowledge for my future career, and that it is worthwhile.”
by Limb Jae-un