November is that time of the year. No, not fall time, college entrance exam time,  the nightmare and the make-or-break moment of the average South Korean high school student’s school career. @#!*% , you could probably call it the make-or-break moment of a lifetime. Sometimes, having that name brand university on your resume really does make all the difference when applying to that choice job. So what does this kind of high-stakes examination setup mean for both the average student and the idol?
For those not familiar with the system of applying to East Asian universities, here’s a quick rundown: your acceptance to the university of your choice is determined not by a complicated application with a myriad of factors weighing it, from GPA to essays to the number of weeks spent volunteering in Uganda, but a single test. The test in question is the CSAT, or College Scholastic Ability Test, an incredibly rigorous standardized test that requires preparation from a very young age. Thought spending a year or so in SAT preparation classes was miserable? Try the specialized private academies, called hagwons, attended by students to boost academic performance and give them that essential edge come testing time. Parents pour a significant amount of income, and students almost all of their free time into preparing for these examinations. The result of all this cramming has certainly produced visible results. South Korean students score incredibly well on international indicators of success in reading and mathematics, and the literacy rate of the country is among the highest in the world. Work ethic and special emphasis on education has pushed South Korea, not so long ago a ravaged, war-torn country, into a global economic arena.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Well, that would depend on your point of view. Before you pull an Obama and claim that the South Korean education system is the one that the West needs to emulate, consider the increasingly evident adverse effects of this high-stress, restrictive system. Most people know that teenage suicide rates in South Korea are quite frankly, astronomical in comparison to the rest of the world. This can be directly traced to those high-stakes examinations, and the endless years of preparation, fear, and suffering that go into them. Furthermore, the type of rote memorization that these high-stakes exams encourages puts distinct disadvantage when competing with the international college student pool, particularly prestigious Western universities. Just take a look at the dropout rates at top American universities. Fourty-four percent of Korean students give up their studies, as compared to thirty-four percent of American, or twenty-one percent of Indian students.  Coincidence? Probably not. This is a direct result of a focus on memorization and cramming, rather than critical thinking, life skills, and extracurricular activity.

To me, all these cons of the examination system go a long way towards explaining the frankly ridiculous number of entertainment company trainees, and idol star hopefuls. The idol life offers a way out of that intimidating education system, and a possible escape route from less than stellar CSAT scores that would otherwise plague the student in question for much of their young life.  I can also see it being very appealing to the kind of personality just not equipped to handle either studying or testing. Sure, the companies can treat the trainees like garbage. Everyone knows that shady things go on in the business, and the idol life is a sleepless and stress-filled one. But then, compare that lifestyle to the lifestyle of a stressed-out student cramming for exams, all their hopes and dreams resting on a single score, and the idol lifestyle suddenly doesn’t seem like such a horrible one anymore. Either way, you’re going to be getting about three hours of sleep a night, only the idol life offers some glitz and glamour that the restrictive student life doesn’t.

But then, what about idols who don’t necessarily make it big, and need a backup plan? They need those CSAT scores as well, but with the idol lifestyle getting in the way, they aren’t likely to acheive them. How can they attend those private classes and use every spare bit of their time to cram when they’re spending their days filming varieties and music shows, their nights practicing and prepping for photoshoots, then lathering, rinsing, and repeating? After their three to four year life span fades, they’re left with nothing but a few washed out fans, some pennies in their pockets, and few real prospects in the workforce. They could always spend a year cramming all over again, then take the exam with all the highschoolers. By then, though, they’re a few  years too old and falling behind the rest of the crowd.

The South Korean examination and university entrance system, in short, is a gamble on work ethic, circumstance, and preparation, and idols are playing a dangerous game when choosing to forsake the advantage of  years of hardcore training that almost every other student will have over them. What do you think of the university examination system? Do you think that it is wise of idols to pick the music business over education and CSAT preparation?

(Asia Times, The Guardian, Korea Times, South Korean Education)

Thanks kpopboi for the insight!