What South Korean high school students carry in their backpacks may surprise you

Beyond books.
Beyond books.
Image: Reuters/Kim Hong-ji
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Rummage through a South Korean student’s knapsack and you’ll see the usual textbooks, pens, and post-it notes. But dig a little deeper and you’ll also find everything from seat cushions to toothbrushes, silverware to curling irons.

For public schools, classes typically begin at 8am and let out around 5pm, said Joo Yeongju, a third-year student at Eunpyeong public high school in Seoul. In addition to that, most students participate in “evening self-study” sessions, where they’re monitored by teachers, until 10 or 11pm making the total hours at school each day 14-15.

To accommodate such demanding days, students bring cushions to soften their seats (in Korea, high school teachers rotate classrooms, which means students don’t need to get up after every class). They also bring the following:

  • cellphone chargers
  • basic toiletries
  • brushes
  • hair curlers
  • makeup
  • silverware for packed dinners
  • indoor slippers
  • neck pillows
  • blankets

“In the summer, those sitting by the air conditioners use the blankets,” said Joo. And in the winter, girls who wear skirts as part of the uniform, use them to shield their legs, she added.

While Joo’s school is trying to lengthen evening study sessions to 11pm, some schools are trying to curtail the amount of time students stay at school and relieve them of academic pressures. There are schools in South Korea’s Busan that are now prohibited from enforcing (in Korean) mandatory evening studying, which officials say should bring down these evening periods by 80-85% in the region.

With the average South Korean high school student spending 1,020 hours in school a year (pdf) according to a 2012 OECD study (134 hours more than the OECD average), it’s easy to understand how school becomes more than a second home. And while countries like France and Mexico require more hours than Korea, students in Korea tend to do more studying once school is over.

In a culture where attending the best universities is a hefty measure of success, high school is where there’s the most pressure.

“[Excessive studying] is a very true aspect of the nature of learning in South Korea,” said Rahul Choudaha, a senior director of strategic development at World Education Services, an NGO that evaluates credentials for those wishing to study or work in the US. “And that is the function of a couple variables: one, the desire to be among the best in terms of job and institutions, which they will be enrolling into.” The second part is that Koreans believe in the importance of education for socioeconomic and person growth creating a bubble that pressures students to spend an inordinate amount of time studying from an early age.

But for Joo, despite Korea’s bad reputation for extreme studying and late night hours, those sessions can also be fun: “It’s a time of memories. Our school is in the mountains so at night you can see the stars. Sometimes we make ramen cup noodles. It’s really about how you look at this situation.”