A 2016 file photo shows South Korean parents praying for their children's success in the upcoming annual college entrance exams, at the Jogye Buddhist temple in Seoul. Photo: AFP / Jung Yeon-je

Every November, South Korean students sit the test for university entrance. At that time, Korean news media often report tragic deaths of teenagers. Many commit suicide, deploring their poor grades in their exams. Some end their lives shortly before the exam, worrying that they will have poor scores and fail to enter university. Students even say they have to commit suicide, blaming themselves for their poor grades.

Quite a few Korean students think a poor grade on the exam means failure to get into a university, and even a failure of their whole life. Why are Korean students so obsessed with university entrance?

The youngsters, from elementary to high school, study hard for a long time. High school students stay at school past 10pm to study more after their regular classes. After 10 and on weekends many students go to cram schools for private tuition.

Students don’t necessarily want to study so hard. Typically, beyond succeeding in the entrance exam, they have no goals in their lives. Teenagers tend to think that university entrance will guarantee better jobs and higher lifetime incomes.

Teachers are partly to blame for the prevalence and force of those beliefs. Teachers always emphasize the importance of the exam. “All of your classmates are not your friends. You have to compete against them for university entrance.” “Getting into university will determine your entire life.”

With such remarks, it shouldn’t be surprising that schools discriminate against students based on grades. Schools provide special classes based on students’ grades, reserving advanced classes for a few whose grades are extraordinary. Teachers make no secret of their goal of helping students enter prestigious universities.

Such practices make university entrance exams a huge burden on students. University admission becomes a real obsession.

A decade ago, I was one of those high-school students fixated on entering university, while never thinking about my future job.

I was wrong to assume that I could “find a well-paying job, earning more income than others, after entering the prestigious school,” and that doing so would “make my life valuable in the future.”

No one ever told me that my assumption was wrong. I simply believed the teachers who claimed that entering a prestigious university was the only way to be a successful person.

As the clock is counting down to this year’s university entrance exam, students may feel nervous, worrying that a poor grade in the exam will bring failure in their lives. I want students to know this: A university education doesn’t always guarantee a decent job. Everyone can find a great opportunity to achieve success, regardless of university admission. And I hope the media won’t need to report this winter about any tragic news of student suicides.

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