Learning to cram the ‘Korean way’During her summer stay at her parents’ house in Korea, Lee Hyun-jung, an international student at Cornell University, decided to enroll at a hagwon, a kind of private institute that has become ubiquitous here.
Ms. Lee was preparing to apply to an American graduate school program and wanted to raise her scores on the Graduate Record Examination, a test required for most graduate school applicants. She sought help at a hagwon, since the institutes are famous for their strict preparatory programs for those seeking to enter colleges either here or abroad.
But she realized that she was not the only international student who was trying to find an empty seat in a packed hagwon classroom.
“There were some very fluent English speakers in class,” Ms. Lee said. “They definitely sounded like gyopos to me.” Gyopo is the Korean term for a Korean living overseas, often used to indicate Korean-Americans or Korean nationals who have lived in the United States for a long time.
While most hagwons are cram schools for Korea’s College Scholastic Ability Test, those in the affluent Gangnam area of Seoul offer classes for local high school students who are studying for the U.S. Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), and for local college graduates wanting to take the GRE.
A long list of students’ names and the top American colleges to which they have been accepted appeared on the Web site of one of the dozens of “foreign language” hagwons in Seoul. It congratulated this year’s successful test-takers, and urged the others who have not yet passed to study harder.
“It’s old news that many Korean hagwons now opt to become prep schools for Koreans to study abroad,” said Jo Sung-jun, a director at Park Jeong Foreign Language Institute in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul. “What’s new is that many of those Koreans who moved to the United States when they were young tend to return to Korea and come looking for us to prepare them for the upcoming U.S. tests.”
He said the summer session was the most crowded time, and estimated that about one-third of the students in each class were studying abroad. The education industry estimates that nearly 4,000 students studying abroad return to Korea every year to use their summer for extra tutoring.
There are many reasons why students raised in the United States would return and stay in Korea just long enough to prepare for an American examination. One is the feeling of security that students find, as the lessons are taught in the language they are more comfortable with, hagwon spokespersons here noted. Another was the efficiency of the way Korean hagwons teach. Instead of typical English lessons, they say they teach one to “look beyond the test questions,” and focus on maximizing one’s test scores.
Mr. Jo said the latter reason was probably why most students from abroad came to study at Korean hagwons.
“We know their weak spots and we teach them efficiently and quickly,” Mr. Jo said. “In three to four months, we train the students to raise their test scores up to what they need in order to enter the school they want.”
Despite criticism that the Korean secondary school education tends to result in fierce competition, students who grew up in an American educational environment said they felt the “Korean way” was in some ways more effective.
Lee Hyeong-ho, who goes by the name Seon in the United States, said he moved to Illinois from Daegu, southern Korea, in the 8th grade. Now a senior at Purdue University, he said he plans to go to graduate school at Stanford. He heard Korean hagwons were “helpful” in preparing for the GRE, so he came back to Korea and found an apartment in southern Seoul, which he said was only a short subway ride from all the high-profile hagwons.
“I have never memorized so many words in such a short period,” he said. “It’s no wonder that so many Koreans get such high scores on their tests.”
Park Hye-sung, an instructor teaching a “GRE Verbal” class at the institute, said her students go through two 400-page workbooks she had put together from various materials. Her students have one month to master the books.
“The workbooks available in stores are just too plain and easy,” Ms. Park said citing international brands. “Students could never get higher scores by studying with those books.”
According to Ms. Park, students raised in Korea were strong in reading comprehension but “terrible at writing essays,” while those raised in the United States were mostly good writers but weak in the verbal section.
“You don’t have to be super smart to know all the antonyms and synonyms,” she said. “I see students holding onto flash cards trying to memorize the word as a whole, but it would be so much easier to just remember the suffixes and prefixes.”
About 100 students were busily writing down what Ms. Park told them in front of the class. When she said, “circle the word, ‘scalpel,’ it is likely to appear regularly on the test,” highlighters squeaked loudly as students underlined the word in unison.
Kim Yeong-gu, 23, said he came to Korea for the first time since he left Seoul when he was in the 7th grade. Also from a college in Illinois, he said he wanted to go to MIT.
“I was shocked to hear that a kid who has never lived abroad received a higher GRE score than I did, just from studying at hagwons,” Mr. Kim said. “I came here to see if it would work for me as well.”
by Lee Min-a