Adding to applicant woesIn place of their daughter, who is a high school senior, Chung and her husband traveled from Cheonan, South Chungcheong, to the COEX convention center in Seoul for an information session on college admission hosted by the Korea Council for University Education. The girl’s entire family - including even her grandparents - is drawing on any resources they have to help with the application process.
“My daughter is good at English, but her GPA isn’t so great, so she is planning to apply as a student specializing in English or global leadership. But there are over 20 different admissions tracks within this field,” said Chung, sounding frustrated. “On top of that, the GPA, essay and interview portions are weighed differently by each school. It’s like looking at a coded message.”
Korean colleges offer specific admissions tracks that allow students to emphasize different parts of their resumes, whether it be their GPA in a specific subject or the fact that, say, they are from a fishing village. Choosing a track that would best bring out a student’s strengths and downplay his or her shortcomings, however, requires much strategizing.
The information session held at COEX, in which 74 colleges participated, attracted 5,000 to 6,000 people a day. Many attendees were from suburban areas outside of Seoul, such as the Chungcheong provinces.
“The system is so confusing that we have no choice but to depend on private consulting companies,” said Lee Sung-wook, mother of a senior.
Another participant added, “The tracks are so difficult to navigate that college admission seems to be determined not by the student’s ability but the financial backing and information-gathering skills of the parents.”
A study conducted by the Joong-Ang Ilbo, along with Etoos Educational Consulting, of 225 four-year colleges found that the number of tracks for both early and regular decision this year total 3,663, which translates to about 16 tracks per college on average. Among those 3,663, there are 2,484 tracks just for early decision - 149 more than last year.
As the schools themselves are unable to explain the options clearly, the only ones who are benefiting are the private institutions that organize the information and advise students on which tracks to take.
In fact, with the record number of admissions tracks, the number of college consulting companies is estimated to have risen to 300 to meet the demands of parents who are unsatisfied with the little attention their children receive from their high school counselors.
A hagwon (private educational institute) in Daechi-dong said that it charges 100 thousand won ($84) per hour for counseling and that the staff is booked back-to-back.
During the busy season, right before regular decision for college admissions, some professional companies charge 500,000 to 1 million won per hour, according to the hagwon.
“Schools say that they are giving opportunities, but it is an unbearable burden for us parents,” said another parent surnamed Cho from Anyang, Gyeonggi.
“When we’re already tight enough trying to afford hagwon to prepare for the tests, are they really asking us to sign up our kids for consulting sessions for which track to take?”
Colleges claim they are merely reaching out to a larger applicant pool through diversification. Colleges in suburban areas seem to be trying to raise their rankings especially hard by offering more tracks.
However, some say the real reason for the many admissions tracks is the money schools make from application fees.
Though students can only apply to three institutions via regular decision, there is no limit on the number of tracks to which students can apply for early decision.
According to the Ministry of Education Web site, 182 four-year colleges last year collected 192.8 billion won, with 53 percent coming from prospective freshmen.
“The application process is complicated as it is. The application fees add another level of stress,” said Park Eun-sook, another parent. “We need a new policy where there is a discount for applications to different tracks at the same school.”
By Park Yu-mi [firstname.lastname@example.org]