To prepare for college in the US, some South Korean students receive an international education close to home 

To many South Koreans, a degree from a prestigious American university is seen as a ticket to success. And for some students, there’s an alternate educational system and industry focused on getting  them into the school of their dreams.   

The World

Sandy Park graduated from high school last month, but she didn’t receive a typical South Korean education.  

Her school runs on the US academic calendar, and all classes are taught in English. It follows the International Baccalaureate curriculum, and while graduates earn a diploma that’s accepted in dozens of countries, it is not recognized in South Korea.

Park can’t think of a single student in her class of about 50 people who will attend a college in South Korea this fall.  

“Most students who come to international schools plan on going to schools abroad, mostly in the United States,” the 19-year old said.

To many South Koreans, a degree from a prestigious American university is seen as a ticket to success. And for some students, there’s an alternate educational system and industry focused on getting them into the school of their dreams.   

Sandy Park is a graduate of an international school in South Korea, an institute that prepares students for college overseas. Jason Strother/The World

There are hundreds of private institutes known as “international schools” in South Korea that prepare students for  higher education overseas — especially in the United States. 

Over a million international students are enrolled in American colleges and universities. According to the Institute for International Education, around 62,000 are South Korean nationals, which account for the third-largest foreign student body behind India and China, countries with vastly larger populations.

For some students and their families who hope that an American university degree will translate into better job prospects back home in South Korea, international schools, as well as other adjacent educational services provide a pipeline to enrollment in the US.

For Park, attending one of these schools wasn’t just about academics; it allowed her to explore other extracurricular interests. She played soccer and volleyball, joined a K-pop dance club and took photos for the yearbook.   

She said that if she had gone to a mainstream Korean high school, she would have spent most evenings inside a cram school, called hagwon, studying for the university entrance exam — a highly competitive test that’s widely seen as a one-shot chance to enroll at one of Korea’s top universities.

Park said that’s a rite of passage she’s glad she missed out on.   

“I think the academic pressure is really high on Korean high school students,” she said. “It seems unbearable for me.”  

Park already had a taste for life in the US.  

In junior high, Park’s family sent her to a boarding school in Maryland, but she returned to South Korea during the COVID-19 pandemic and enrolled in the international school.

It was all but certain she’d go back to the US for college.  

For guidance, Park and her parents turned to a consultancy that specializes in helping students navigate the overseas university application process. These agencies, known as yuhagwon in Korean, advise on how best to write essays, find attractive internships and curate portfolios — anything that could make an applicant stand out to an admissions office.

Sandy Park will attend New York University this fall. Jason Strother/The World

There’s an “international education boom” happening in South Korea, said Lee Sarang, Park’s adviser at Ivy Connection in Seoul. And some families are willing to pay for whatever extra assistance they can get that will lead toward a degree from a name-brand university abroad, she explained.

“I think most of our clients do value their children’s education and they believe that these children should be given the best-possible chance of getting into the school of their dreams,” Lee said.

But some critics point out that admission into international schools can cost tens of thousands of dollars a year, and some consultancies charge clients even more — making this parallel education system out of range for most families.

Michael Hurt, who teaches cultural studies at the Korea National University of the Arts in Seoul, said that because this industry is profit driven, some consultancies go to questionable extremes to get results for their clients, which he claims include fabricating resumes and writing admissions essays.  

“There are no ethical boundaries,” said Hurt, who’s worked in South Korea’s education system for over 20 years. “The cheating gets students in, and that’s how you make your money.” 

Hurt said that this all makes the international education sector even more competitive, and in order for the truly qualified and motivated students who aspire to study in the US get a chance to do so, they and their families need to spend even more to get ahead.  

Park said that she wrote her own admissions essays, and she thinks the advice she received from the consultant helped her gain early decision to her top-pick US college.

This fall, she’ll begin her freshman year at New York University.

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