BUSAN, South Korea (Reuters) - In a cram school in the South Korean port city of Busan, 70 college students packed into a classroom, chanting "We can do it!" as they studied for an exam they hope will guarantee them a job for life with Samsung Group.
The promise of Samsung, whose sprawling business empire spans consumer electronics to ships, offers not only a good salary and benefits but also holds the key to a good marriage in this Asian country where Confucian traditions run deep.
The twice-a-year recruitment rounds by the "chaebol", conglomerates such as Samsung and Hyundai, have spawned a cottage industry worth millions of dollars as young Koreans do what they have done from the age of 5 - cram to get ahead.
"I came here at 10 this morning and will be preparing for the interview until 8 p.m.," said 25-year-old Shin Seong-hwan, whose father is a Samsung employee near Busan.
Shin has already passed the company's aptitude test and now faces grueling interviews that end late in November.
In its current recruitment round, Samsung will hire 5,500 young people from more than 100,000 applicants, adding to the pressure cooker environment.
"Jobs at conglomerates can save face for you and your parents," said Hur Jai-joon, a senior researcher at the Korea Labor Institute, a government-funded research body.
It is an impossible dream for most to achieve as the top 30 conglomerates employ just 6.8 percent of the total workforce, the Federation of Korean Industries says.
Samsung has not always used such rigorous tests. Thirty years ago, according to former employees, a fortune teller who specialized in reading faces sat in on the interviews.
Now, spots at the top conglomerate are so coveted that students spend heavily on cram schools, workbooks and online lectures. The phrase "Samsung Gosi" describes the arduous process, borrowing from the term "gosi" that refers to public service exams that South Koreans study for years to pass.
"If you don't come here, you won't have the right information," said Im Chan-soo, head of LCS Communication, which runs private classes for Samsung job interviews in Busan.
'SOCIAL AND FINANCIAL COSTS'
Aptitude test workbooks cost around $20 each and figure prominently in every bookstore in South Korea. Private tutoring costs can run into thousands of dollars.
"I had doubts about going to cram school. It wasn't cheap but they are professional and I am learning a lot," said Han Nam-gyu, a 27-year-old engineering graduate who paid 280,000 won ($260) to LCS Communication.
Critics of the system say it adds yet another layer of misery for graduates, who have crammed from pre-school all the way through high school to try to get into a top university.
In South Korea, 65 percent of those in the 25 to 34 age group went to university, the highest rate among the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's 34 member states.
That is a huge shift in a generation. Just 13 percent of people in the 55 to 64 age group went to university.
Samsung appears to recognize that the super-competitive process may not be healthy for the country's young people, warning recently of rising "social and financial costs" of the recruitment system. Still, it did not identify a solution.
For many students like Han the engineer, "Plan B" is to come back again next year for another shot at Samsung.
"My mother cried after I passed the second stage. She was really happy," said Han, who applied to Samsung C&T Corp, the group firm that handles engineering, construction, trading and investment.
"I want to get into Samsung so my mother will be able to boast about her son." ($1=1,060.75 Korean won)