Surviving the Korean Education System





08/17/19. 17:15. P18

/Surviving the Korean Education System/

/Category: Global/Intercultural Fluency/

/Guide Question: Systems of education and forms of teaching vary from country to country. What have you discovered about the system of education in your host nation compared to the system of education you experience in the US?/

As I don’t need to go back to the U.S. until October, I’ve decided to spend my summer here in Korea. I also thought I would just upload just a few more blog posts just to reflect on my experiences during the school year.

Studying abroad in Korea was definitely fun and I’ve learned so much that I otherwise would not have learned if I haven’t gone. But so far, this has been the most challenging year for me – academically. In fact, during fall semester, I failed a midterm! Keep in mind, I have never failed any test prior to this and I’m usually what one would call an “overachiever”. But boy, that midterm was a really hard blow to the ego! I did study – but I quickly realized I studied wrong.

In my home university, around 90% of my tests were multiple-choice but here at Yonsei, 95% were essays and short-answer questions. I was complaining to my Korean friend about it, but she was just as surprised on why I had only multiple-choice questions for the undergrad level (it’s not just the difference in the courses as I’m doing two majors that are slightly different in content). My European friend also agreed that we had it too easy. I thought, “Huh? Is the American system too easy? Or is it just my school?” I’m not sure… My European friends seem to think that the Korean system is focused on memorizing material. I agree to some extent as that failed midterm was a result of not having the exact “terms” as how the teacher discussed, never mind that what I wrote was similar. But in a way, I feel that the essay-type material also helped me take a look at the material more thoroughly as a whole, as opposed to just pin-pointing key facts like one would study for a multiple-choice type of test. I was also frustrated at the duration of the tests, sometimes being as short as 40 minutes (this coming from a person who when writes essays, takes about 25-30 minutes organizing her thoughts)! Either way, despite the difficulty of having to adjust, it was beneficial to experience this different system as it helped developed my critical thinking skills and forced me to study in a different way. Fortunately, I managed to salvage my grades.

Compared to the U.S., education is prioritized in Korea and most Asian cultures (as I grew up in the Philippines, this I know well). If one would prowl around google about Korean education, there are more than enough articles emphasizing the severe competition. Middle school and high school students often study the whole day, often until a little before midnight as outside of school, they attend after-school institutions called hagwons. One of my friends recalls just being in school and in the hagwon from 10 am to 11pm. In the Philippines, I at least had some play time. You can read more about the Korean education system on this interesting article, I think the competition continues in university. Have you ever heard of an “absolute” and “relative” grading system? Apparently, there are two types of systems, with the absolute being the usual type that we know. In the relative system, as the name suggests, your grade is based on how well you do compare to others. For example, there are ten students, but only 1-2 people can get an A no matter how high their score is. If student C gets a 93, and if in the absolute system, that translates to an A, student C will still get an A. But in the relative system, if students A & B get 95 and 94 respectively, student C is out of luck and gets a B. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how good you are individually, what matters is beating the competition. Korean students must have a tough time with this system.


A building full of hagwons! (Taken from

With regards to interacting with fellow students at my host university during group work, I’m very impressed at Koreans with the way they produce quality output. They work hard and submit on time. I think my “overachiever” status got downgraded to “normal student” in Korean society. In fact, sometimes I felt as if I was the one lacking adequate knowledge in the subject to make a decent contribution. Koreans are really well-educated, and although I feel that I don’t have the right to comment on whether their system is wrong or better, all I hope for is that they get good jobs deserving of their impressive work ethic.


All class presentations went really well!

Anyway, these are the musings and observations of a study abroad student in South Korea. For future study abroad students, especially those that come from my school and the U.S., just prepare to write a lot of essays!! Really! I wish someone told me this prior to coming. Don’t worry about the grading either, most courses conducted in English are graded on the absolute scale. Phew!


Study hard fellow students! It wasn’t a walk in the park as I thought.