Korean students study too much – or at least the Korean government thinks so, according to a 2011 Time magazine article where officials patrol for students studying at “cram schools” after 10 pm.
Cram schools offer tutoring so students can ace entrance exams and make it into prestigious, hyper-competitive schools. According to a popular joke, entrepreneur Shawn Byun tells me, only 0.01 percent of the population can go to Seoul National University.
“Korea has been accoladed for its extraordinary student performance, but in order to excel they actually have to go to cram schools, study more than anyone else,” says Byun. “The mindset of Korean people is basically, ‘If I don’t go to a good school, I’m not going to have a bright future.’”
Byun secured at spot at Seoul National University himself, but as a foreign student from Indonesia: he’s half-Indonesian and half-Korean. So he’s seen the stressful education system with the eyes of an outsider. During his first year, he worried that he wouldn’t be able to compete with students who were already familiar with the Korean way of teaching math and languages.
So Byun built MEEPLE, an app that connects middle and high school students to university students for mentoring. Young students can find an adviser and chat about their issues, academic or otherwise: which university to go to, what major to take, or how to make new friends.
Now a senior, Byun is also working as the cofounder of another startup called Gobann – an exercise in time management that’s a bit different from the juggling his peers are doing.
“It’s either now or never,” says Byun, who spent two years in the military. “Usually in Korea, military is a stage for Korean men to actually think about their life, and I guess I just used it well.”