PARK KYUNG-HEE, a mother of two students, is facing a serious dilemma. With her eldest daughter going into her last year in middle school, she is just a year away from deciding whether to send her daughter to a public high school or a specialized, private high school. “If my child can keep up, I do want to send her to a specialized high school,” mentioned Park. “With the current trend in university admission, specialized schools certainly ensure more prepared portfolios and opportunities for extra-curricular activities, which are crucial factors that may determine the kind of university my child will be admitted to.” For many who might wonder why a mother of a middle school student might have such seemingly premature concerns, one has to look into the new trend of the South Korean university entrance—the su-si system, a comprehensive admission system that evaluates not only students’ academic abilities, but also their extracurricular abilities and experiences.
The past and present of the South Korean education systems
Prior to 1997, the year when the su-si admission system was implemented, the only way to get into university was through the su-neung exam. The su-neung results were used to apply for the jeong-si system, an admission track that determines the students’ enrollment solely based on the exam performance. “In my days, most of us filed our university applications based on our performance in the national exam, so it was rather simple,” stated Park, as she recalled her university admission experience in the past. “It was much different from the current system. Now, a sole grade from su-neung does not guarantee your admission; other areas like school transcripts and extracurricular activities play equally significant roles.”
Such an exam-oriented trend in the nation’s university admission track brought about concerns over the years, with many pointing out the limitation that grades from one major examination serve as the sole evaluation criterion. The system was primarily criticized for its myopic selection criteria that suppressed student creativity by prioritizing rote memorization.
To fulfill the need for a more comprehensive system of evaluation, the su-si system was introduced, initiating a fresh change in South Korean education and its university admission. First implemented in 1997 under the leadership of Kim Young-sam, South Korea’s 14th president, the su-si system places greater emphasis on school work and extracurricular activities throughout a student’s high school years.
Su-si, a wide but narrow path
While there are two main university admission paths available, su-si and jeong-si, there has been a noticeable rise in the proportion of students selected via su-si over the years. The su-si admission system is now responsible for the selection of more than 80% of the freshmen population among tertiary institutions.
Su-si is divided into three tracks: one that focuses on school records such as awards and student clubs (hak-jong), one that requires an essay type examination (non-sul), and one that prioritizes special merits such as language and sports (teuk-gi-ja).
The dominance of the su-si system began with the standardization of the hak-jong track. Officially introduced in 2015 under the Park Geun-hye administration, the hak-jong track served as the first government initiative to standardize the su-si applications by setting a fixed list of documents that is required for university applications. These documents include a personal statement, a recommendation letter, and a standardized portfolio, including records of academic proficiency, academic-related activities, as well as extra-curricular activities. These are then systematically evaluated by university admission officers and professors upon submission. Such a standardized and simplified system of su-si applications is thought to be a trigger for the nationwide shift in focus from the traditional su-neung exam to su-si.
Delving into the admission tracks
In an interview with The Yonsei Annals, Yonsei University Admission Officer Hwang Jong-won provided an insight into these two different systems. He talked about the current trend of expanding the su-si admittance and lowering the jeong-si ratio. “After the Park administration’s decision to implement the hak-jong track in 2015, admission through the su-si system now accounts for about 70% of Yonsei students,” said Hwang. The main difference between su-si and jeong-si lies in the types of requirements.
For the hak-jong track, Hwang explained, “We tend to look at how the student’s school activities are intertwined with his or her studying interests; for instance, how a student challenges his or herself by delving deeper into a subject he or she is interested in.” This requires focusing on school transcripts, which include aspects such as awards, reading lists, and school clubs. The written essay exam aims to differentiate itself from the mostly multiple-choice su-neung exam and looks for the “ability to comprehend diverse concepts and articulate their thoughts into words,” Hwang explained. Lastly, the teuk-gi-ja track is different in that students can include information about their extracurricular activities on their application. “We tend to look for students who have natural connections between their school curriculum and extracurricular activities,” emphasized Hwang. On the other hand, the jeong-si admission track mainly considers a student’s su-neung score at the end of the year.
When su-si gets too complicated
However, soon after its implementation, the su-si system was subsequently distorted to breed a new trend in South Korean education. The system has created an ironic phenomenon where competition among students is now focused on building portfolios required by the su-si admission application. Assistance from expensive specialized high schools that provides ample opportunities to build an extensive portfolio, or admission consultants who provide a structured path for su-si preparation have gained significance, with students gradually in need of guidance for thicker, more complicated portfolios for university admission.
Take, for instance, a portfolio of a student who was accepted to Yonsei University in 2018. A graduate from a foreign language high school, he had built an extensive 27-page portfolio which summarized the list of competitions, community service, book reviews and extra-curricular activities he went through during the three years of his high school life. The portfolio documented 28 school awards, 437 accumulated hours of 39 different extra-curricular activities (some of which included Model United Nations (MUN) conferences and individual research projects), 113 hours of community service, a compilation of internal grades, individual teacher comments for each school course, and 92 book reviews across a number of categories. What is even more unsettling is that this is just the general portfolio. A student also has to submit additional documents such as personal statements and recommendation letters to be qualified as a su-si applicant. Though this does not represent all su-si portfolios of Yonsei applicants, the aforementioned example of a portfolio gives a general sense of the competitive atmosphere of the su-si system.
Naturally, without any form of guidance, students and parents would lack information about how the su-si system actually works. The su-si system has no clear boundary as to who gets admitted and who does not, unlike the jeong-si system that has transparent, numerical cut-off lines. Furthermore, the aspects each and every university focus on for their su-si applicants differ, which is certainly not information that non-professionals can gain access to. This has made information on the university admission process vital for preparation, with those who have more access to this information at an absolute advantage.
In an interview with the Annals, Park Kyung-hee, a mother of two pre-college preparation students, complains about the harsh South Korean reality of competition to get into prestigious universities. “As a mother, since the su-si track takes up a big part of university admission, I cannot help but be interested in consultants that give advice to students. In fact, I think they are vital,” said Park. She further pointed out that “the good thing about specialized private schools is that they provide special management and supervision programs for their students,” which would give students much more advantage than those in local public high schools. As a mother, Park is put in the dilemma of whether or not to invest such large amounts of money in sending her children to prestigious high schools, which would, if all goes as planned, boost her children’s chances of getting into a SKY university*.
A “fair” competition?
The Annals further interviewed Lee Man-ki, director of Uway Institute of Educational Evolution, an institute known for consulting pre-college students. Their consulting service, advertised as the “bible of success,” is utilized by many parents and students looking for the roadmap to SKY. Lee told the Annals, “An ‘admissions consultant’ works as a mentor or facilitator to advise students to successfully get into their desired university. They usually manage their clients’ school transcripts by suggesting appropriate school clubs, extracurricular activities and competitions.”
“Consultation services for admissions were also available in the past even before the establishment of the su-si system, but the system and its introduction of various tracks have led to the rapid growth of this industry,” stated Lee. According to Lee, admission consultation started off as services mainly for Korean students applying for foreign universities, advising them on areas such as personal statements and general portfolios that are unfamiliar to students brought up under the Korean education system. However, with the emergence of the su-si tracks and its gradual dominance in overall university admission, admission consultation has now become a service that is sought after by many high school students hoping to get into universities via su-si.
“We recommend private tutors for students who require extra help in certain subjects, and even ask for assistance from students in the particular university that the student wishes to enroll in for areas such as personal statements to increase the chance of being accepted,” stated Lee. Admission consultants can offer such reliable coaching due to their years of experiences in related fields. “Many of them were previously in the field of teaching, and we even have some who were professors or admission officers in universities,” mentioned Lee, as he expressed confidence in the professionalism of the admission consultants.
Though students are able to get the much-needed guidance for their su-si preparation, such services come with a rather costly price tag. “The legally permitted price limit imposed on admission consultation is set at ₩5000 per minute,” commented Lee. With an hour of consultation costing up to ₩300,000, opting in for admission consultation is certainly a decision that exerts a significant financial burden on the students and their families. However, demands for academic consultation are on a continuous climb, with sustained popularity of the su-si track forcing students to seek assistance to build more competitive portfolios. “I think students seek admission consultants because the su-si system at this current stage is impossible to handle alone due to its complexity, and amidst the fierce competition for university admission, such a trend is understandable,” commented Lee. Especially with the recent drama SKY Castle being a huge hit, admission consultation has been popularized with more people inquiring about the service. “It is reasonable that many would take interest in this service. By watching the students in SKY Castle go to such an extent to get admitted, viewers are subconsciously pressured—if others are doing it, I have to do it as well,” commented Lee.
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The emergence of admission consultants and students’ reliance on such external services might be an indication that the su-si system has yet to achieve its aim of securing self-directed learners. However, before we hurl criticisms at these students and parents who use such services, there is a need to understand the fundamental causes behind this trend—the complexity of the su-si system as well as the competitive atmosphere of the South Korean education system. The final comment by Lee has well represented the atmosphere of South Korean education—“if others are doing it, I have to do it as well.” As long as such a competitive environment persists in our education system, the distortion of the su-si system might be a predicament just waiting to happen.
*SKY Universities: A term that refers to the three renowned universities in South Korea that include Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University