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Korean School System Explained [English Guide]

Jason Park
Published by: Jason Park
Last updated:

Korea has one of the most advanced and impeccable education systems in the world. 

With over 70% of the populace having education beyond high school and nearly a 100% literacy rate, Koreans are incredibly smart. 

Their standards for education, learning and knowledge are impressive.

We’ll discuss the ins and outs of the various education levels and institutions along with what makes them so stellar. 

So, this will be the Korean school system explained in full. It’s intense and demanding, but it does produce the some of the most well-educated people in the world.

Not only do children learn things like math, language and science, but they also learn social studies, history, music and more. 

But, what makes the education so excellent in Korea is the fact that society and the government take a vested role in each student’s success.

Korean School System Explained Overview

To fully understand the Korean school system, it’s imperative to study the initial structure, how they lay it out and each level’s requirements. 

Some aspects of education are not mandatory while others very much are.

  • Standard Curriculum
  • Other Education in Korea
  • Korea’s Beloved Teachers
  • General Education Layout
    • Based on Testing
  • Preschool, Elementary & Middle School
    • About Middle School
  • High School in Korea
    • High School Admissions
    • Typical High School Schedule
    • High School Classifications
    • Korean Vocational High Schools
    • Junior Colleges & Meister Schools
  • The Suneung
    • The Most Important Test
  • University Determines Career Prospects
    • Going to University in Korea
    • Types of Universities
    • Applying for & Attending University
  • Some Criticism
    • Low Birthrates
    • Memorization Isn’t Everything

Standard Curriculum

South Korea’s national curriculum comes directly from the Ministry of Education. They monitor and revise it every five to 10 years to accommodate modern Korean society and culture. 

The following list details the basic rundown of Korea’s education strata:

Not only do students learn and perfect their understanding of Korean, they also learn several foreign languages. 

While English is a priority, they’ll also learn ones like Japanese, Spanish, German and French, for example. Children learn these for their entire educational career, starting in kindergarten.

Other Education in Korea

Other educational institutions in Korea are international schools. There are more than 40 of them and not everyone qualifies to attend. 

These are mostly for students who are foreign nationals or a Korean citizen who have lived abroad for at least three years.

Korea’s Beloved Teachers

Koreans hold their teachers in high regard. They are the pinnacle of the Korean education system, since they are a glowing example of wisdom and knowledge melded with practical application. 

These people have received the highest degrees possible. They not only go to university to specialize in education but they also focus their studies on a particular level of schooling. 

This makes them top-notch and well-qualified. So, a letter of recommendation from any teacher is a student’s certification of high aptitude.  

General Education Layout

Each school year comprises two semesters. The first goes from March to July and the other runs from September into February. 

Just like in the United States, children get holiday breaks for summer and winter. However, they get 10 optional half days at the beginning and end of those holiday breaks.

What’s more, most Korean students also receive other schooling outside of the national standard. 

They attend private schools and/or regularly meet with tutors. Schooling for elementary and middle school children is less rigorous than what high school students experience. 

Plus, the younger ones take classes outside of school for things like piano, karate or cooking.

Based on Testing

But regardless of the education level, the Korean school system bases itself on tests. 

Even for the younger children, these tests are incredibly difficult and students are under an enormous amount of pressure to excel. 

This is because their entire learning record of accomplishment influences their career prospects.

It means that every place a person went to school will determine the kind of jobs/careers they can have as an adult. 

This is why supplemental education and tutors come into their education schedules at such a young age.

Preschool, Elementary & Middle School

Because preschool isn’t mandatory in Korea, it’s not free and the cost ranges greatly with private or government-run options

Children learn the basics of counting, colors and English along with songs, games and puzzles.

For elementary and middle school students, education is mandatory and free in Korea

Elementary school begins at six years of age but almost every child goes to preschool and/or kindergarten prior to that. 

Here, they learn 12 different subjects that include ethics, math, English, Korean, music, art, science, social studies and physical exercise. 

Their testing involves multiple-choice questions along with essay writing and problem-solving.

About Middle School

Once elementary school is complete, students move on to middle school at around 12 years old. They gain admission to any given school based on a lottery system and their location. 

Classes continue and expand upon the subjects already learned. However, they can opt to take a technical education track or advance in science.

Their schedules get bigger as well, taking on tutors and additional classes at other schools. 

This supplemental education focuses on their weaknesses at school while giving them a leg up in other subjects. It’s not usual for these children to study for 12 hours each day.

High School in Korea

High school is not mandatory in Korea and is, therefore, not free. 

These are highly competitive institutions and they go to great pains preparing students for university opportunities later on. 

This places quite a bit of pressure on the average teenager, which begins at around 15 years old.

At this stage of education, the number of subjects reduces from 12 to nine, but they are more intricate and thorough. 

For instance, social studies include Korean history while art sprawls to fine arts and practical arts.

High School Admissions

Admission into high school is much the same as it is in middle school, it happens on a type of lottery system. 

Their location and performance in school determine which one(s) they can attend. Schools select students based on entrance exams, GPA, teacher recommendations, other letters of recommendation and interviews.

This process prepares youth for university. But, this will vary depending on the type of high school.

Typical High School Schedule

The typical high school schedule starts at 8 am and ends at around 4 or 5 pm, with each class about 50 minutes long. 

The students stay in the same schoolroom for most of the day with a 50-minute lunch break. The teachers move between rooms depending on what classes they’re teaching.

After school ends for the day, teens go to additional classes at others schools or join the company of a reputable tutor. 

In some cases, they study until midnight with a 50-minute dinner break. This means Korean high school students will study for as much as 16 hours a day.

As students advance in their high school education, reaching their junior and senior years (11th and 12th respectively), they choose specific fields of study amid basic subjects. 

For instance, they will study things like chemistry, geography, politics, economics, physics and other such topics with electives to support these studies.

High School Classifications

Also, there are different categories Koreans use to divide high school structures. They are as follows:

Gender – A majority of high schools in Korea separate by girls or boys. However, there are some coed schools and this trend is on the rise. Regardless, they all learn the same subjects.

School Type – There are three types of high schools: academic, specialized or vocational. While the academic centers on science and math, specialized schools zero in on things like art, sports, foreign language or other similar subjects. The vocational schools solely focus on blue-collar-type careers and labor jobs.

Elite – Students that attend elite high schools are very well-to-do and generally come from affluent families or exude extreme aptitude with a high IQ. These schools are autonomous in their curriculum and train students for the best universities.

Korean Vocational High Schools

If a high school student is in a vocational-based school, their first year will comprise the standard national curriculum. 

Thereafter, they take classes geared toward their vocation. This can include farming, tech and engineering but it can also be fishery, business or transportation.

Junior Colleges & Meister Schools

When a student graduates from vocational school, they do have access to universities but most opt for a junior college. 

These schools offer shorter programs that continue their high school studies. A small percentage also attend something called a “Meister school.”

These offer specific courses in industries like banking, social services, dentistry or semiconductor development. 

Local companies work with these schools to create modules and curriculum. Experts regularly give lectures and the students receive internships throughout their course of study.

Students who graduate from a Meister school cannot enter university until they have three years of real work experience. 

But, once this requirement is complete, these individuals have it easier than their peers in terms of obtaining a degree.

The Suneung

Regardless of the type of high school a student attends, they must take the college entrance exam prior to applying for university& offered on the second Tuesday of every November. 

Called the “Suneung (수능),” this exam is the official National University College Scholastic Test. This is one of the toughest university entrance exams in the world.

The Most Important Test

This test is such a big deal that businesses open later to ensure each student gets to his or her exam on time. 

Even air traffic and truck transport pauses during the listening portion of the exam. And, in the event students are late, they can get a free police escort to the test site.

It’s literally the most important test a student can take in their lifetime. All their education up to this point prepared them for it. 

It defines their future and what kinds of opportunities they can have, not just choice of university but also career.

It comprises mostly multiple-choice questions and provides access to three different colleges. 

It takes eight hours to finish and includes the nine major subjects studied in high school. However, the students do get to choose the focus of their test.

University Determines Career Prospects

The reason why this system is so stringent in Korea is that job opportunities heavily rely on which schools people to attend. 

It speaks to who they are, how smart they are and what kind of investment they’ve put into their futures. 

Their university degree combines with their formative schooling as it relates to their field. The best universities scrutinize every application down to the letter.

But, once accepted, the school not only trains an individual for a prospective career, but also helps place them in a job after graduation. 

For instance, the Seoul National, Korea or Yonsei Universities are some such places that open important doors for many people once they graduate and attempt to find a job.

Going to University in Korea

Korea boasts more than 400 universities, junior colleges and other such higher educational organizations. 

Most of these are in Seoul with tuition costs ranging about $8,500 per year. 

The amount paid depends on the university, the department and available scholarships for which a student qualifies.

Types of Universities

While most universities offer a wide range of fields and industries, some specialize in a specific field of study. 

The Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) is one such university. The core of each degree incorporates mandatory subjects along with electives.

These specialized universities are somewhat more rigorous than general ones. 

Students must successfully complete 130 credits just to qualify for graduation, though it doesn’t guarantee they’ll graduate. 

They must show an outstanding proficiency for their field as well.

Applying for & Attending University

Universities only accept students with an impeccable education record, recommendation letters, high-test scores and university-specific admission exams, among many other criteria.

Once accepted into a school, they then spend at least four years studying for a bachelor’s degree.

They will commit more time to school if they are also opting for a master’s and/or doctorate degree. 

Much like in Western universities, master’s degrees are two years and doctoral degrees range between two and four years. 

However, in Korea, these may be separate study tracks or in combination with each other.

Some Criticism

The positive results of Korea’s hardcore education system are difficult to deny. But, the demands on children do sometimes have tragic outcomes. 

The pressure to do well, especially on the Suneung, definitely correlates with the rise in teen suicides.

Per a report from Statistics Korea, suicide was the leading cause of death among those between nine and 24 years old in 2013. 

Almost 40% were due to the stress of school admissions followed by family troubles, financial difficulties and general loneliness.

Because of this, the government and schools are making clear changes to the curriculum in the hopes of avoiding such tragedies in the future. 

For instance, private schools suspected of operating too late are subject to government raids.

Low Birthrates

The exorbitant price for education in Korea is a major reason why the country has a low overall birthrate. 

Each student will owe anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000 or more per semester of high school and university. 

Because of this, the debt placed on a family’s finances is overwhelming and they don’t often have more than two children.

Memorization Isn’t Everything

A major part of studying in the Korean education system is the ability to memorize and regurgitate information they absorbed. 

Unfortunately, Koreans believe this to be an equivalency for intelligence. 

Even though memory and academics are useful, the average Korean student doesn’t exude other pertinent skills. 

They should also be able to combine it with communication, creativity and teamwork.

While there are efforts in place to reduce the amount of stress, it’s difficult to say how they will influence the general outcome. 

For instance, there are restrictions on the operating hours of private schools and the national government recently implemented a test-free semester in middle school.

Conclusion

Korea’s education system is rigid and tough. But, it does produce some of the smartest and most innovative people in the world. 

There is much-heated criticism and debate over this, but the results are in the country’s success as a whole in varying industries.

They are the 10th largest economy, the third most popular in skincare/cosmetics, and export entertainment worldwide, such as the case with K-pop and K-dramas. 

They’re a leader in fashion, technology and engineering, to name a few. All of this comes on the back of an excellent educational system.

Even though their educational systems are comparable to Canada or the United States, the study demands are much more intense. 

With vast governmental and social support, students have the opportunity to achieve greatness.

About The Author

Photo of author

Jason Park

Jason has been living in Seoul for over 4 years, and during that time, he has experienced many of the city's hidden stores. He loves to write about his experiences and share them with others. Jason has been quoted and referenced by different major media companies like Mashed, Distractify, ThePrint and TastingTable. In his free time, he likes to watch Korean dramas and learn more about Korean culture.

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