Midterms in South Korea: A severe culture shock

Authored by:
Madeleine D.

Madeleine D.

An atmosphere of intense anxiety

Midterms in America don’t seem like such a big deal but in South Korea they’re everything. They determine almost your entire grade and for the classes where they don’t determine the entire grade, the stress everyone else is going through around you creates an atmosphere of a lot of unwanted anxiety. In a majority of my classes here in Korea, my midterm and final grade together are about 80% of my entire grade. Not all classes are weighted this unevenly but a majority of what I have encountered and what my friends have told me about their classes their grades are measured this way. I have seen all of my classmates and friends have (sometimes multiple) breakdowns about the midterms. Every school chat I was in had students stressing about the format of the exam. The most asked questions were about how much we needed to know (if we needed to rewatch/study all of our previous lectures) and if the school was as serious about our camera placement and even where our eyes were allowed to look as they said they were going to be (I was told by my Korean teacher that we would fail if we looked away from the camera). The exam itself is stressful but what was more intimidating was the unknown testing culture we entered. We all heard about how harsh and rigid Asian culture was with grades and tests but, we were never properly prepared for it. 

An unexpected factor in midterms/finals stress

I’ve noticed that grades aren’t the only factor that causes anxiety but societal pressure has caused an equal amount of pressure. I realized that I have unconsciously absorbed a lot of Korea’s beliefs on school ranking, future career, and how grades and school attributes to my future success. In Korea, one of the first things people ask besides the introductory questions is where you go to school. As a study abroad student this is almost always asked. There is an intense emphasis on where a student goes to school. I think this is because the school someone goes to almost ensures their future in South Korea. Graduating from a high-ranking school is almost like an automatic pass when Korean companies look at resumes. This extra step up on other candidates creates a lot of pressure to maintain and feel worthy of that title. With that being said, I felt immense pressure to do well on my midterm exam. As a study abroad student from America it was easier to get into the high-ranking schools. Most people in my program knew how smart the students here were and we knew we may not be on their level even though we go here so with midterms we all knew that we wouldn’t be able to survive real school and midterms if we were enrolled here. This caused a lot of imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome is loosely defined as doubting one’s ability and the feeling of not belonging/being a fraud. Even though everyone in my classes was smart we mostly felt incapable of handling midterms because of the pressure internally and externally. After being in Korea for only a few months I already began to believe that my grades determined my success in my career. I internalized that if I wasn’t smart enough for Korean/Asian standards I wouldn’t be able to be smart enough to work anywhere. I even internalized that where I went to school justified my value as a person. After midterms, all this stress and pressure faded away slowly but only after I talked to my family and friends. The only advice I can give to those who are coming to Korea is to have fun and really make time to study. If you study bit by bit throughout the semester the pressure might not be as bad but I think inevitably you will experience the test anxiety culture (it’s pretty much unavoidable). 

I wish luck to those going through midterms and the upcoming finals!

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