It is 10:30 p.m. and students at the elite Daewon prep school here are cramming in a study hall that ends a 15-hour school day. A window is propped open so the evening chill can keep them awake. One teenager studies standing upright at his desk to keep from dozing.
Kim Hyun-kyung, who has accumulated nearly perfect scores on her SATs, is multitasking to prepare for physics, chemistry and history exams.
“I can’t let myself waste even a second,” said Ms. Kim, who dreams of attending Harvard, Yale or another brand-name American college. And she has a good shot. This spring, as in previous years, all but a few of the 133 graduates from Daewon Foreign Language High School who applied to selective American universities won admission.
It is a success rate that American parents may well envy, especially now, as many students are swallowing rejection from favorite universities at the close of an insanely selective college application season.
“Going to U.S. universities has become like a huge fad in Korean society, and the Ivy League names — Harvard, Yale, Princeton — have really struck a nerve,” said Victoria Kim, who attended Daewon and graduated from Harvard last June.
Daewon has one major Korean rival, the Minjok Leadership Academy, three hours’ drive east of Seoul, which also has a spectacular record of admission to Ivy League colleges.
How do they do it? Their formula is relatively simple. They take South Korea’s top-scoring middle school students, put those who aspire to an American university in English-language classes, taught by Korean and highly paid American and other foreign teachers, emphasize composition and other skills crucial to success on the SATs and college admissions essays, and — especially this — urge them on to unceasing study.
Both schools seem to be rethinking their grueling regimen, at least a bit. Minjok, a boarding school, has turned off dormitory surveillance cameras previously used to ensure that students did not doze in late-night study sessions. Daewon is ending its school day earlier for freshmen. Its founder, Lee Won-hee, worried in an interview that while Daewon was turning out high-scoring students, it might be falling short in educating them as responsible citizens.
“American schools may do a better job at that,” Dr. Lee said.
Still, the schools are highly rigorous. Both supplement South Korea’s required, lecture-based national curriculum with Western-style discussion classes. Their academic year is more than a month longer than at American high schools. Daewon, which costs about $5,000 per year to attend, requires two foreign languages besides English. Minjok, where tuition, board and other expenses top $15,000, offers Advanced Placement courses and research projects.
And, oh yes. Both schools suppress teenage romance as a waste of time.
“What are you doing holding hands?” a Daewon administrator scolded an adolescent couple recently, according to his aides. “You should be studying!”
Students do not seem to complain. Park Yeshong, one of Kim Hyun-kyung’s classmates, said attractions tended to fade during hundreds of hours of close-quarters study. “We know each other too well to fall in love,” she said. Many American educators would kill to have such disciplined pupils.
Both schools reserve admission for highly motivated students; the application process resembles that at many American colleges, where students are judged on their grade-point averages, as well as their performance on special tests and in interviews.
“Even my worst students are great,” said Joseph Foster, a Williams College graduate who teaches writing at Daewon. “They’re professionals; if I teach them, they’ll learn it. I get e-mails at 2 a.m. I’ll respond and go to bed. When I get up, I’ll find a follow-up question mailed at 5 a.m.”
South Korea is not the only country sending more students to the United States, but it seems to be a special case. Some 103,000 Korean students study at American schools of all levels, more than from any other country, according to American government statistics. In higher education, only India and China, with populations more than 20 times that of South Korea’s, send more students.
“Preparing to get to the best American universities has become something of a national obsession in Korea,” said Alexander Vershbow, the American ambassador to South Korea.
Korean applications to Harvard alone have tripled, to 213 this spring, up from 66 in 2003, said William R. Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions. Harvard has 37 Korean undergraduates, more than from any foreign country except Canada and Britain. Harvard, Yale and Princeton have a total of 103 Korean undergraduates; 34 graduated from Daewon or Minjok.
This year, Daewon and Minjok graduates are heading to universities like Stanford, Chicago, Duke and seven of the eight Ivy League universities — but not to Harvard. Instead, Harvard accepted four Korean students from three other prep schools.
“That was certainly not any statement” about the Daewon and Minjok schools, Mr. Fitzsimmons said. “We’re alert to getting kids from schools where we haven’t had them before, but we’d never reject an applicant simply because he or she came from a school with a history of sending students to Harvard.”
South Korea’s academic year starts in March, so the 2008 class of Daewon’s Global Leadership Program, which prepares students for study at foreign universities, graduated in February.
One graduate was Kim Soo-yeon, 19, who was accepted by Princeton this month. Daewon parents tend to be wealthy doctors, lawyers or university professors. Ms. Kim’s father is a top official in the Korean Olympic Committee.
Ms. Kim developed fierce study habits early, watching her mother scold her older sister for receiving any score less than 100 on tests. Even a 98 or a 99 brought a tongue-lashing.
“Most Korean mothers want their children to get 100 on all the tests in all the subjects,” Ms. Kim’s mother said.
Ms. Kim’s highest aspiration was to attend a top Korean university, until she read a book by a Korean student at Harvard about American universities. Immediately she put up a sign in her bedroom: “I’m going to an Ivy League!”
Even while at Daewon, Ms. Kim, like thousands of Korean students, took weekend classes in English, physics and other subjects at private academies, raising her SAT scores by hundreds of points. “I just love to do well on the tests,” she said.
As bright as she is, she was just one great student among many, said Eric Cho, Daewon’s college counselor. Sitting at his computer terminal at the school, perched on a craggy eastern hilltop overlooking the Seoul skyline, Mr. Cho scrolled through the class of 2008’s academic records.
Their average combined SAT score was 2203 out of 2400. By comparison, the average combined score at Phillips Exeter, the New Hampshire boarding school, is 2085. Sixty-seven Daewon graduates had perfect 800 math scores.
Kim Hyun-kyung, 17, scored perfect 800s on the SAT verbal and math tests, and 790 in writing. She is scheduled to take nine Advanced Placement tests next month, in calculus, physics, chemistry, European history and five other subjects. One challenge: she has taken none of these courses. Instead, she is teaching herself in between classes at Daewon, buying and devouring textbooks.
So she is busy. She rises at 6 a.m. and heads for her school bus at 6:50. Arriving at Daewon, she grabs a broom to help classmates clean her classroom. Between 8 and noon, she hears Korean instructors teach supply and demand in economics, Korean soils in geography and classical poets in Korean literature.
At lunch she joins other raucous students, all, like her, wearing blue blazers, in a chow line serving beans and rice, fried dumpling and pickled turnip, which she eats with girlfriends. Boys, who sit elsewhere, wolf their food and race to a dirt lot for a 10-minute pickup soccer game before afternoon classes.
Kim Hyun-kyung joins other girls at a hallway sink to brush her teeth before reporting to French literature, French culture and English grammar classes, taught by Korean instructors. At 3:20, her English language classes begin. This day, they include English literature, taught by Mani Tadayon, a polyglot graduate of the University of California at Berkeley who was born in Iran, and government and politics, taught by Hugh Quigley, a former Wall Street lawyer.
Evening study hall begins at 7:45. She piles up textbooks on an adjoining desk, where they glare at her like a to-do list. Classmates sling backpacks over seats, prop a window open and start cramming. Three hours later, the floor is littered with empty juice cartons and water bottles.
One girl has nodded out, head on desk. At 10:50 a tone sounds, and Ms. Kim heads for a bus that will wend its way through Seoul’s towering high-rise canyons to her home, south of the Han River.
“I feel proud that I’ve endured another day,” she said.
The schedule at the Minjok academy, on a rural campus of tile-roofed buildings in forested hills, appears even more daunting. Students rise at 6 for martial arts, and thereafter, wearing full-sleeved, gray-and-black robes, plunge into a day of relentless study that ends just before midnight, when they may sleep.
But most keep cramming until 2 a.m., when dorm lights are switched off, said Gang Min-ho, a senior. Even then some students turn on lanterns and keep going, Mr. Gang said. “Basically we lead very tired lives,” he said.
Students sometimes report for classes so exhausted that Alexander Ganse, a German who teaches European history, said he asked, “Did you go to bed at all last night?”
“But we’re not only nerds!” interrupted Choi Jung-yun, who grew up in San Diego. Minjok students play sports, take part in many clubs and even have a rock band, she said. Ambassador Vershbow, who plays the drums, confirmed that with photographs that showed him jamming with Minjok’s rockers during a visit to the school last year.
There are other hints of slackening. A banner once hung on a Minjok building. “This school is a paradise for those who want to study and a hell for those who do not,” it read. But it was taken down after faculty members deemed it too harsh, said Son Eun-ju, director of counseling.