November 10th is D-day for 3rd year high school students, the day of the college entrance exams. In a country that emphasizes education, the day itself is important not only to the students who are taking the exams but also to the whole society. Many companies push back work hours to make traffic easier for the students rushing to their test locations. For public transportation, the number of trains and buses are increased in the peak hours of commute and special shuttle buses are set up as well. The police and other motorcyclists are on standby, ready to rush students who are running late.
Korea is a nation obsessed with education and study. Having a college degree in Korea is very important. In fact, it’s considered essential in order to get a respectable job and establish a career. According to a 2011 September research of the OECD countries, 98% of Koreans between the ages of 25 ~ 34 are high school graduates, and 63% are college graduates. It is not surprising the day of the entrance exams attract deep interest.
The entrance exams have 3 main divisions: Language, Mathemathics, Foreign Language (English). Selective divisions are (pick one): Social Studies, Science, Occupation Studies. Social Studies is comprised of 11 subjects, of which you choose 3: Ethics, Korean History, Korean Geography, World Geography, Economic Geography, Korean Modern History, World History, Law and Society, Politics, Economics, Society & Culture. Science is comprised of 8 subjects of which you choose 3: Physics 1, Chemistry 1, Biology 1, Earth Science1, Physics 2, Chemistry 2, Biology 2, Earth Science 2. Occupation Studies are divided in 2 sections: Computer related subjects and Major subjects. There are 4 subjects for CRS of which you choose 1: Agricultural Information Management, Basic Information Technology, General Computer, Marine Studies & Shipping Information Management. There are 13 subjects for Occupation Studies of which you choose 2: Understanding Agriculture, Basic Agricultural Technology, Introduction to Manufacturing, Basic Drafting, Commercial Economics, Fundamental Accounting, General Marine Studies, General Maritime Affairs, Ocean Studies, Human Development, Food & Nutrition, General Design, and Programming.
The 3rd division is 2nd Foreign Language where you choose 1 of the following 8: Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Russian, Spanish, and Hanja (한자, Chinese characters used in Korean).
With the exception of well, exceptional students who are accepted in universities on special merit, students usually apply for their desired universities from August to September. The exams take place on November 10th, starting at 8:40 am and finishing at 5:35 pm. The evening of that day, the city is full of students enjoying their day of liberation from exam stress; some of them celebrating, others trying to wash away their despair with the consolation of others. Every place will be crowded and bustling. When the students are notified of their results on November 30th, there will be even more celebrating and commiseration. The top students will be yelling with joy when they achieve their goal, especially if they’re the 1% who get perfect scores.
As for reaching the SKY? The SKY is none other than Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University, the troika that consist the Korean “Ivy League”. Although the universities KAIST and Postech have ranked higher in recent years, the three universities have been the hope and desire of students for decades.
SEOUL NATIONAL UNIVERSITY (국립 서울대학교)
It is THE university which everyone wants to attend, not only for the top notch education but to belong to the group of the country’s top elite. Many important figures in Korea are SNU graduates, and since it’s a national university the tuition is considerably lower than the private universities, so it’s no wonder why many parents push their children to aim for SNU.
The university was established in 1946, with its main colleges situated in Hyehwa-dong (혜화동), the area which has been referred to Daehakno (대학로, University Street) since then. The university moved to its spacious campus in Gwanak (관악) starting from 1975 with the exception of its medical school which remained in Daehakno.
The symbol of SNU is an assembly of the Korean characters ‘ㄱ’ (for 국립, National), ‘ㅅ’ (for 서울, Seoul), ‘ㄷ’ (for 대학교, University) which remarkably resembles the syllable ‘샤’ (sha), so some students who don’t want to get the “Oh, you go to SNU?” treatment would humbly (or faux-humbly) say they “go to Sha” instead.
KOREA UNIVERSITY (고려대학교)
The Tigers of Korea University are known to be fierce, loyal, and verrrry smart. Established in 1905 as Boseong College (보성전문학교), it is the first modern academy of higher education to be founded by a Korean. The school was renamed during the Japanese Occupation and after independence, was again renamed Korea University in 1946. It was also the first university to establish a business graduate school in 1963. The main campus is in Anam-dong (안암동) and the second campus in Jochiwon (조치원), Chungcheongnam-do (충청남도).
Korea University has a mandatory double major policy since 2004, making sure their students reach their full potential before graduation. The university also has a ‘tough’ image which is represented in their non-academic traditions such as the makkeolli (막걸리) “Bowl Initiation” (사발식) for freshmen, and the 4.18 Marathon commemorating the 1960 April Revolution. The university boasts excellent sports teams, which go full force against their main rival, Yonsei University, in a yearly event called “Ko-Yon Jeon” (고연전, Korea-Yonsei Battle) which also features various competitions besides sports events. Not surprisingly, the university’s cheering squad is also quite famous.
YONSEI UNIVERSITY (연세대학교)
The university with the longest history in the SKY, Yonsei University was first established in 1885 as the medical school Jejungwon (제중원) by Christian missionaries under the rule of King Gojong. The school also set up the Severance Hospital in 1904. The school was forced to change its name during the Japanese Occupation but reestablished itself after independence as a university. Once called Yonhi College, the name Yonsei was adopted in 1957. The university’s main campus is situated in the heart of Sinchon (신촌), with a second campus in Wonju (원주), Gangwon-do (강원도). An international campus has opened in Incheon (인천) and is planned to completely open by 2013.
The university remains a Christian school and carries that spirit in their motto “Truth and Freedom”. A church and chapel are on campus, and there are chapel services every weekday and once-a-week attendance is mandatory for undergraduates. There are also required courses dealing with Christianity and Bible studies.
While Korea University is the tough tiger, Yonsei University is the svelte eagle, with a more polished image than that of their main rival. Their yearly meet-up is unsurprisingly called Yon-Ko Jeon by Yonsei students, and their sports teams and cheering squad also enjoy quite a lot of fame.
Although the SKY universities are prestigious institutes to get into, in the science and technology department, both KAIST (Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) and Postech (Pohang University of Science and Technology) have surpassed the SKY to higher limits. Unlike the SKY universities, the entrance exams have no relevance for the two universities: all of their students are selected on rolling admission, upon recommendation of special merit.
KAIST was established in 1971. After some changes along the way, the official English name KAIST was adopted in 2008. The main campus is in Daejeon (대전), Chungcheongbuk-do (충청북도) near the Daedeok Science Research Complex, with a subcampus in Seoul. Focusing on research and development, the institute’s lectures and classes are mostly conducted in English with the aim of educating international elite. The grading is brutal, and scholarships are mercilessly annulled when students’ grades drop, which was the subject of much controversy.
Postech battles with KAIST for top university in the rankings every year. Backed by the steel corporation POSCO, the university was established in 1986 in Pohang (포항), Gyeongdangbuk-do (경상북도). A research oriented university, the school offers scholarships for all its students and has an extensive network with international universities. The university also has ties with various research centers and industries.
Although all of the universities mentioned above were established in the modern era, it is not as if Korea didn’t have any educational academies in the past. On the contrary. The Sungkyunkwan Academy, already existant in the Goryeo Dynasty, was fully established in 1398 in the Joseon Dynasty and is now Sungkyunkwan University. The main campus is situated in Myeongryun-dong (명륜동), in the area of Daehakno (the university is another reason why the area was named thus), the school boasts the longest history of any academy of higher education. The campus for the college of natural sciences is in Suwon (수원), Gyeonggi-do (경기도).
Other top universities include Sogang University, Hanyang University, Hanguk Univeristy of Foreign Studies, Chung-Ang University, Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology, Kyung Hee University, and Ewha Womans University.
Whatever university they’re aiming for, the students taking the test on November 10th will be very nervous, so if you happen to meet them before or on their way to take the test, wish them good luck by giving them a hearty “Fighting!” cheer.