What Is Going to School in Korea Like?

What Is Going to School in Korea Like?


It’s back to school again. Some people are sad that summer is over, but others are excited for the new year. We’ve decided to write about what school is like in Korea and how you can experience it yourself. We’ve also included some shows and movies that will give you an idea about Korean student life.

Warning: This blog discusses sensitive subject matter, including school violence and suicide.

A Look at the Korean School System

Korean schools are divided into elementary schools (chodeung hakgyo, 초등학교); middle schools (jung hakgyo, 중학교); and high schools (godeung hakgyo, 고등학교). Before elementary school, younger children might attend private kindergartens, giving them a head-start in English (which they won’t start until Grade 3).

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This system might seem familiar to Western students. However, there are a few differences.

The school year starts in March and ends in the middle of February. It is split into two semesters: March to mid-July and late August or September to mid-February. Winter break is from mid-December to the end of January, and spring break goes from late February to March.

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Most students in middle and high school wear uniforms. Inside the school, they wear slippers instead of shoes. And instead of janitors, students themselves clean the school!

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Korean students are well-behaved and taught to respect their teachers, since being a teacher is like being a celebrity. That includes bowing and greeting them in the mornings.

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In Korea, the school day starts at 8 am and ends around 1 pm for elementary school students, and after 5 or 5:30 for middle and high school students. After school students also go to evening self-study sessions (yaja, 야간자율학습) or classes at hagwons, which can run until 11 at night. Korean students used to have school on Saturdays, but now Saturday schooldays are banned.

High School, Hagwons, and the Suneung

The high school years are the most intense for students. This is when they start studying for the College Scholastic Ability Test (CSAT), otherwise known as the Suneung (수능). It is an 8 or 9-hour exam that will determine which university the students will enter.

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After regular school hours, many students will go to cram schools, or hagwons (학원). Students can attend either a dangwa hagwon (단과학원) for one specific subject, or an ipshi hagwon (입시학원), where they study all the subjects that will be on the Suneung. They spend over 16 hours at school, from about 8 am to 10 pm at their high school and until 1 am at hagwons and/or after-school studying.

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The Suneung takes place on the third Thursday in November. Students all over Korea take the test at the same time. It’s such a serious occasion that cities literally come to a standstill. Businesses and stock markets delay opening until the test starts, so that students can reach the schools on time. (The police escort students who worry about being late.) Flights and military training are suspended during the listening part of the test.

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Outside the schools, younger students, family, teachers, and community members cheer for the test-takers, wishing them good luck. Inside places of worship, people pray for the success of these students.

The lucky students who score the highest on the Suneung will enter the prestigious SKY universities: Seoul National University (SNU), Korea University (KU), and Yonsei University. A SKY graduate has a better chance of finding a good job, marriage, and success in life.

(L-R: SNU, KU, Yonsei University / Credits to the rightful owner)

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Problems in Korean Schools

The pressure to do well in school, especially on the Suneung, takes its toll on students. They study more hours, with less time to relax or develop into their own potential. In wealthier families, there is a lot of pressure from parents to get good marks. They spend more money on hagwons or tutoring and personally oversee the studies. If the children fail to get into the university of their (parents’) choice, then they are scolded for not studying hard enough.

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A 2019 study by the National Youth Policy Institute found that Korean teenagers on average slept just over seven hours a night. To accommodate their school schedule, the number decreases to 4-5 hours, depending on after-school study. By sacrificing their hours of sleep, some students perform worse in their schoolwork and on their tests.

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The weight of expectations, the hours of studying, and the doubts surrounding students’ self-worth can have a more tragic result than strained family relationships. Some students have become depressed and even considered taking their lives.

A 2020 poll by the National Youth Policy Institute found that 27% of students had suicidal thoughts, 35% of them female students. Suicide is the number 1 cause of death for young Koreans, according to Statistics Korea, and South Korea has the highest suicide rate among the developed countries.

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Another issue at school is bullying. The methods vary, from cyberbullying to damaging property to outright physical violence. Wealthy perpetrators or large groups of bullies intimidate other classmates and even teachers and target people who try to intervene.

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The victims carry the scars of their experience. They are isolated from their friends, become more anxious, eat less/stop eating, and be unable to concentrate on their studies. For some, the trauma is too much to bear.

Fortunately, there is growing awareness about bullying. Movies like “Thread of Lies” and shows like “Tomorrow” are shedding light on the impacts of bullying on teenagers and adults. And more people are speaking out about their experiences. Change is happening, but slowly.

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Alternative Schools and Other Solutions

Some Korean parents send their children to alternative schools (daehan hakgyo, 대한 학교). Here, students choose their own curriculum and have more time for extracurricular activities and sleep.

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Started during the 80s and 90s, these schools aren’t supervised by the Ministry of Education and are technically illegal. Most universities don’t recognize alternative schools. As a result, many students who graduate don’t go on to postsecondary education.

Many Christian families also choose to homeschool their children. Homeschooling is not as common or accepted in Korea as it is in Western countries. There’s no government support, and it’s more difficult for homeschool graduates to get into universities (though there are options to do postsecondary education online).

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For now, the best thing parents can do is not add pressure to their children by forcing them to study for the universities they (the parents) want them to enter. And teachers can advise their classes on how to study in a healthier way. After that, it’s up to the students to remind themselves that their results on the Suneung don’t define them as human beings.

Foreign Students in Korea and How to Do an Exchange

Koreans aren’t the only people studying at Korean school. South Korea is a popular destination for foreign exchange students. According to one study, around 152,000 foreign exchange students visited Korean universities in 2021. Many non-Korean high school students also arrive, for a few weeks, a semester, or even a year.

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Why study in Korea? Well, for a few reasons. Students are interested in experiencing Korean culture thanks to K-pop and K-dramas. They’ve met Koreans on exchange in their home countries. Or they hope their semester abroad will help them get work in Korea after graduation.

High school exchange students can go to a foreign school or an international school. Foreign schools are geared towards international students and Koreans who are falling behind. They have very strict eligibility criteria, and students need to take the Korean GED (Geom-jeong-go-shi, 검정고시) test to get a diploma.

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International schools are for Koreans who want to improve their English skills and global knowledge, and for students who can’t get into foreign schools. They’re less strict with their eligibility requirements and have different curriculums compared to public schools.

It’s easier to do an exchange as a university student. Popular universities include SKY, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU), and Ewha Womans University. They attract many students due to their academic reputation, variety of programs, and the number of courses taught in English.

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Studying abroad in South Korea has its challenges. There is the culture shock for Western students, especially if they had fantasies about life in Korea from dramas. They can also face a lot of academic pressure and stereotyping from teachers and classmates. Finally, most classes are taught in Korean, which can be a struggle for students with weaker language skills.

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Sounds scary, right? But don’t worry. Here are some tips that will make your Study Abroad experience easier!

First, be realistic about your expectations. Don’t expect Korea to be like in the K-dramas.

Be kind to yourself. It may be difficult to adjust to the Korean lifestyle straight away. Learn from your mistakes; later on, you’ll laugh about them with your friends.

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Studying in Korea is expensive. Apply for as many scholarships and bursaries as you can. Pay attention to visas, to see if you can work there and for how many hours.

Finally, learn as much Korean as you can before you arrive. Those basic phrases will come in handy in everyday life.

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We guarantee that these tips will help your exchange go more smoothly. It’s a great opportunity to experience Korea, make friends, grow as a person, and have fun!

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Shows and Movies Set in Schools

Need a break from your classes? Here are some Koreans series and movies set in schools. They might not be accurate about school life, but they feature engaging performances and will make you forget about your assignments, at least for a little while!


Boys Over Flowers (2009)

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We start with a Hallyu classic. Based on a Japanese manga series of the same name, “Boys Over Flowers” follows Geum Jan-di, a working-class girl, who attends the elite Shinhwa High School and meets the F4: Gu Jun-pyo, Yoon Ji-hu, So Yi-jung, and Song Woo-bin.

With charismatic leads, smart fashion, and a dramatic story, there’s not much actual school going on! Modern viewers might find the story cheesy and some of the plot devices problematic. Still, “Boys Over Flowers” is an iconic series and worth watching, at least for Lee Min-ho. 

True Beauty (2020-2021)

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A more recent high school K-drama based on a webtoon. “True Beauty” is about the trio and eventual love triangle of Im Ju-kyung, a makeup “goddess”; popular boy Lee Su-ho; and Su-ho’s estranged best friend Han Seo-jun.

Like “Boys Over Flowers,” “True Beauty” features sharp outfits and a stellar cast. The series touches on inner beauty, friendship, and bullying, relevant topics for today’s students. However, it’s more likely to be remembered for the memes and the unending debate: should Ju-kyung have ended up with Su-ho or Seo-jun?

Weight-lifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo (2016-2017)

Unlike the other shows on this list, “Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok-joo” is set in college. The characters – Bok-joo, Jung Joon-hyung, Jung Jae-yi, and Song Shi-ho – work together to achieve their dreams while also battling their emotions and childhood traumas.

The series is based on the life of weightlifter Jang Mi-ran, who won six Olympic and five World Championship medals. It focuses on athletics and tackles issues of body image and academic pressures. Many of its scenes were filmed at Inha University, famous for its volleyball team. 

Who Are You: School 2015 (2015)

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We’re back to high school with this entry. “Who Are You: School 2015” follows identical but separated twins: Go Eun-byul attends Sekang High School, while Lee Eun-bi lives at an orphanage. The sisters meet, but Eun-byul goes missing, and Eun-bi loses her memories and is mistaken for Eun-byul.

Despite the somewhat confusing plot, this sixth installment of the “School” series is not an easy watch. There are frustrating scenes where bullies tease Eun-bi while the teachers watch. The show also looks at the pressures of parents on their children to do well in their studies. Another popular series, “Who Are You” got a Thai remake in 2020.


Silenced (2011)

This movie led to legislative reform and raised awareness about sexual violence against Deaf children. Based on Gong Ji-young’s “The Crucible,” “Silenced” sees teacher Kang In-ho fighting to save the students of Benevolence Academy from the cycle of abuse they’ve been trapped in.

“Silenced” remains one of the most influential Korean films. It resulted in the closure of Gwangju Inhwa School, the conviction of a former administrator, and the passing of the “Dogani Law.” It also made director and screenwriter Hwang Dong-hyuk a household name, long before “Squid Game” (2021).

Once Upon a Time in High School: The Spirit of Jeet Kune Do (2004) 

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Let’s throw it back to 1978. Hyun-soo moves to a school with delinquents and dictatorial teachers. Hyun-soo decides to learn Jeet Kune Do, a martial arts philosophy founded by Bruce Lee, to deal with the bullies. He also gets into a love triangle with a girl from another high school, Eun-joo, and his friend Kim Woo-sik.

“Once Upon a Time in High School” takes a hard look at school violence and the education system. It’s an interesting look at a time when corporal punishment was still being used in the classroom. It’s also a must-watch for Bruce Lee fans.

Whispering Corridors (1998, 1999, 2003, 2005, 2009, 2021)

(“Whispering Corridors” (1998) / Image: Credits to the rightful owner)

We’ve had romance, action, and social commentary. Now for horror.

The “Whispering Corridors” films all take place in all-girls schools but aren’t directly linked to each other. They feature Korean horror and fantasy characters, including ghosts and kumihos (fox spirits). More importantly, they tackle subjects that were (and still are) taboo in South Korea. “Memento Mori” (1999) was one of the first Korean films with lesbian characters.

My Tutor Friend (2003) 

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We’ll finish this list with a rom com! “My Tutor Friend” is about a university student, Choi Su-wan, tutoring Kim Ji-hoon, a man repeating his last year of high school for the third time. It was the third most popular Korean film in 2003 and inspired a spin-off, “My Tutor Friend 2” (2007).

 Believe it or not, “My Tutor Friend” is based on a true story. The film looks at the Suneung and the struggles to get even the minimum grades to pass. Like Kim Ji-hoon, some Koreans retake the exam as adults several times. And college students tutoring other students is a common part-time job, minus the romantic tension.

Korean students spend a lot of their childhood preparing to meet society’s expectations. What do you think? Do you agree with the education system and its demands? Let us know below.

And to all students: good luck in the new school year!


About the author: Suji was studying in London in the year 2019 and, although being separated from her family, her passion for Korea was growing. She noticed that a lot of her close friends loved Korean culture, food, music, and dramas and gradually started to fall in love with Korea, but there weren't many opportunities to actually "experience" this wonderful nation!

Suji was aware of what she needed to do to introduce Korea to her friends' lives and, conceivably, to those of everyone else who was curious about a piece of Daehan Min-guk.

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