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Admissions to the top American universities get more competitive each year and that competition has gone global. NPR's Anthony Kuhn recently visited one elite prep school in South Korea. Its success at getting its students into Ivy League universities has become the envy of many American prep schools. As Anthony Kuhn reports, the formula is simple: select the country's brightest and most ambitious students and then work them extremely hard.
(Soundbite of students)
ANTHONY KUHN: Roughly 1200 students at the private Daewon School begin their day with a nationally required curriculum of Korean, math and English. Then, three afternoons a week, about a quarter of them continue their studies in the Global Leadership Program. The program emphasizes the research, writing and analytical skills they'll need at top U.S. colleges. Composition teacher Joseph Foster reminds his students to keep their writing focused.
Mr. JOSEPH FOSTER (Composition Teacher, Daewon Foreign Language High School): Last thing, clutter and unnecessary fluff.
KUHN: Before, Koreans hoping to get into U.S. colleges would usually start out at an American prep school. Now, some go directly from a handful of elite Korean schools, including Daewon. Most of them are the children of affluent, globe-trotting Korean professionals. Song You-jin, for example, is planning to apply early decision to Yale to study political science.
Ms. SONG YOU-JIN: I was always set on going to university in the United States because my dad graduated Wharton and he was a professor at Columbia, so I thought the schools are really great there. Then, when I was in middle school, we came back to Korea and I became interested in English debate. And Daewon has the best debate team in Korea. So I was really interested in that part.
(Soundbite of students)
KUHN: Students line up for a dinner of fish, eggs, fried rice and plum tea. Global Leadership Program students finish study hall at 7:30 p.m. It used to end at 11 p.m. Senior Hwang Jae-kyun takes Spanish and Chinese in addition to English and Korean. He says he's finally adapted to the grueling schedule.
Mr. HWANG JAE-KYUN: Well, honestly speaking, during my first and second years, you know, I was suffering from sleep deprivation almost every day, because there was just a lot of homework and, you know, I had to stay up until like maybe 3 a.m. in the morning. And then I'd try to stay up during classes, you know, the next day, but, you know, sometimes I'd just like fall asleep during class, too. But that doesn't happen that often.
KUHN: Hwang's efforts have helped him get 1570 out of 1600 on his SATs, and perfect scores on all five of his advanced placement tests. Composition teacher Foster says the students' brilliance and motivation keep him and his colleagues on their toes.
Mr. FOSTER: The students scrutinize us carefully and because of their high expectations, there's high demands and expectations on us, right? If we're wasting any time or if we're giving them something that they don't consider useful to them, then they're going to judge us harshly.
KUHN: Daewon's college counselor, Eric Cho, runs down the list of admissions for this year's graduating class - two at Harvard, seven at Cornell, five at Stanford, and so on. [POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Those are actually the number of students that will be attending those schools. Twelve students were admitted to Cornell and seven to Stanford.]
But Cho says that grinding competition for elite jobs and even marriages produces a Korean fixation on famous-named schools. He says that getting families to settle for excellent non-Ivy League institutions is a big challenge.
Mr. ERIC CHO (College Counselor, Daewon Foreign Language High School): We have a very high number of students who go to good schools that are not so famous, for instance, Harvey Mudd College. We have dozens of students at Swarthmore College, Amherst, Williams, a student going to Pomona College. Lots of great schools that are not household names in Korea.
KUHN: According to the New York-based Institute of International Education, the number of South Korean students at U.S. colleges and universities jumped by 11 percent last year to nearly 70,000. Only India and China send more, and they have far larger populations. And of course, American schools would probably not be snapping up Daewon's graduates if they thought they were just bland bookworms and cookie-cutter hyper-achievers. Again, teacher Joseph Foster.
Mr. FOSTER: This is one of the narratives about students like our students, that they're just mechanical study machines, and I can't tell you how wrong that is. Working here, I find - okay, these kids study a lot, they work hard, they're super disciplined. But any chance they have to be creative, they jump at it.
(Soundbite of drums)
KUHN: After classes, members of the extracurricular Samulnori Club pound away their stress with a traditional Korean percussion jam. Students here are happy to say they still eke out time for hobbies and community service. And Eric Cho points out that while making out in the hallways would not be appropriate, there's no ban on students dating each other.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.
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