SEOUL, South Korea — In a trendy Gangnam high-rise, a whiz-kid professor named Lee Sihan urges his classroom of 28 students not to fret. The big exam you’ve been preparing for — the one that could land you a Samsung dream job — won’t be that bad if you put the hours in.
It’s an attempt to reassure, but not everybody in this exam-crazed nation is that confident. In a test prep industry worth many millions of dollars, these youngsters study for four hours a day under Lee — something of a celebrity who, for a price, can help kids get a foot in with the country’s most prestigious nameplate employer.
Promoting himself as a member of the elite IQ club Mensa, Lee has written more than 50 books, holds a doctorate, and regularly lectures on television for anxious youngsters in the battle to pass its national entrance test, the Samsung SAT, and a handful of other pivotal exams called goshi.
“This is cramming,” he said of his $160, four-day intensive course. “My strategy is to teach them to pass in a short period of time.”
Call it a dream job for many youngsters in South Korea, a country nicknamed the “Republic of Samsung.” In the US, we know the electronics mega-empire for its smart phones and televisions.
But in Seoul, you can unknowingly live an entire day on Samsung creations — right down to your apartment building and even an online soap opera.
From a young age, these students spent their lives cramming through the night, seeking entry into an elite university and, by the time they graduate, a cushy job with a sprawling and politically connected conglomerate. Every six months, some 100,000 Koreans swarm campus test centers for a shot at Samsung glory.
About 7,000 pass and 4,000 get jobs after this rigorous sitting that includes math, science, reasoning, and until recently, a bewildering section on obscure Chinese characters. That’s about one in 20 applicants.
At Apple or Google, you’d get a shot with a glistening CV and a spirited interview. But in Confucian South Korea, exams are a far graver prerequisite, determining just about everything important in life.
University admissions, corporate and government jobs, and even entrance to the right preschool can require a strong testing score. Fail the test, and you potentially fail at life in the eyes of your family — a common reason for suicide in this nation where soaring numbers of young people are taking their own lives.
The competition is so fierce that Korea’s Gen Y has a history of getting into tizzies over changes to recruitment policies. In January 2014, Samsung was met with angry pushback when it announced a plan to dash part of the open testing method, asking universities to recommend a set number of high-performing students who could sit.
Some students feared that because they didn’t attend the right schools, all that hard work for the exam — which guaranteed the opening stages of recruitment were blind to their CV and accomplishments — would be dashed.
Following a national uproar, Samsung quickly dropped its plans.
Why the feistiness among South Korean youth? It all boils down to the prestige of being what Koreans call a “Samsung Man,” giving bragging rights to young adults and their watchful helicopter parents, prospective employees tell GlobalPost. (Of course, women can become Samsung employees too, but the label, still used in Korea, goes back decades before feminism.)
“A job at Samsung means you’re acknowledged and accepted by others,” bluntly explains Lee Chang-ju, a university student cramming in Lee’s class. “University graduates think it’s the best way up.”
It also offers an element of stability in a country that remembers the trauma of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, which destroyed the savings of lifetime stoic workers and permanently scarred a generation.
In the West, corporate workers are often treated as disposable, with the terms of employment linked to the company’s immediate performance. But in South Korea, large corporations find it harder to cut the string for employees who are supposed to be treated as family, even when times are hard and when profits plunge.
Some call it a Confucian arrangement.
Spouses and children, for instance, can get a helping hand following the untimely death of an employee, or should the family struggle with their finances and health.
The typical South Korean business-employee relationship comes with other perks, too: you’re also expected to engage in regular, hardcore boozing, and take weekend trips that require imbibing heavy quantities of soju, Korea’s vodka-like liquor.
So in the end, the exams — and all the suffering they put you through — could be worth it. That is, if you enjoy soju.
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