In South Korea, school is even more serious than it is in the US. The structure of Korean life revolves around studying hard and doing well, which in some ways is harmful when it comes to students planning for a future outside of academics.
Studying is crucial for learning in college in Korea because your classes only meet once a week. For example, I have my Korean Speaking class every Monday from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. The rest of the week, it is on me to practice what we learned to be prepared for next week. In the US, the same class would probably meet three times a week for one-hour increments. In my personal experience, I found that spacing out classes allows me to learn on a more direct path. In Korea, by the time I meet for my class again, I have kind of forgotten where we left off.
With this in mind, and remembering how serious grades are, I was not surprised to find that every café has areas for students to study. No matter the day, time or town, every coffee spot I have been to over these past two months has had people studying. One cafe directly off my campus even has areas for students to study where you can take your shoes off and sit on the floor, mimicking a living room table.
Even things like fashion trends have a strong academic influence. Korean fashion is by and large more conservative than the US, leaning towards a clean-cut image. Some of the outfits I see people wearing follow my Catholic high school’s dress code to a T – gray skirts and white shirts and all.
Another big trend is university sweatshirts, or really any word printed in a serif font that is meant to look like something out of a campus bookstore. Some of my favorite word choices so far are the gibberish letters, such as “NMFC” or “SMTH.” I also really love my roommate’s sweatshirt that says “PITAPAT” on it. Don’t get me wrong, I also see loads of Harvard and Yale shirts, but I think is says more about the trends that the style goes deeper than just the words. It is the academic aesthetic, whether the words make sense or not.
My final and favorite fashion trend is the university letterman jackets. In the US, letterman jackets are for high school athletes, but every college student has one in Korea. These letterman jackets have their major written on the back (in English) and a year on the sleeve that either correlates to the year the major was started or their academic year. I think these jackets look super cool, and I am not exaggerating when I say everyone has one. In my travels, I have seen so many different universities, but all the jackets follow the same format. I even get one for my one semester of being here.
A ton of things American teens do in high school are done in college in Korea. In the US, high school students play sports, have after school activities, hang out with friends and study. Korean students do significantly less outside of school until they get to college as their studies are all working towards one massive milestone: The Suneung.
The Suneung is like the SAT – but three times as long – and is the biggest factor in a student’s ability to get into college. The test is so serious that taxi drivers offer free rides to high schoolers on exam day, and no flights leave the country. My suitemate Luna said that because all of her high school was spent focusing on academics, she never thought about what job she would want to do after school. She said most Koreans felt the same and lacked any dreams or aspirations beyond academic success.
In the US, most people view their major as a stepping stone towards their future career. For example, I chose to be a Communication, Journalism and Media major because I wanted to have a job that involved communicating with other people. In Korea, students chose their majors based on what sections they did well on in the Suneung.
From what my Korean roommates have told me, a lot of Koreans do not even like their major by the time they are graduating. They either have no passion for what they are studying or lost their interest early on as they decided based on what a test said, not what they actually want to do. With a society so built around academic success, it is not surprising that the students have a hard time imagining what to do once school is over.
Even with such high expectations for academics, my roommates – and I assume other Korean students – find time to have fun. While they may not be in love with their major the same way students in the US can be, they make it through and into the workforce. There is something to be gained in working so hard, but as an American, I think the work would be more worth it if the end goal was more exciting.
I prefer the US way of learning but have gained a lot of skills in self-studying while I have been here. I think I am way more in touch with my own specific needs for learning, as I have had to find a way to learn on my own. For me, flash cards and handwriting my notes are the key to my success. I often practice writing by tracing my finger through the steam on the walls in the shower, which can be a little surprise for my roommates when I forget to wipe it away. Not a ghost, just an American trying to learn Korean.
I will definitely be taking these skills with me when I return to the US next semester, and will miss having quiet coffee shops so available. To follow along with the experiences in South Korea, follow my travel Instagram @eap_travels for weekly updates on Fridays at 8 a.m. EST.