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In many countries, entry to university is based on a harsh, gruelling, often very competitive set of exams taken at the end of one's final year of school. A cram school is a special school, generally privately run, whose entire, unashamed purpose is to enable pupils to pass these exams. To this end, the focus is almost entirely on answering questions from past exam papers and fine-tuning answering strategies. Cram school is generally attended in addition to regular school, but some offer full-time education.
The role of these schools is a matter of controversy, with teachers typically leading the side opposing them on the basis that the existence of cram schools undermines the work and dedication of regular teachers. Their opponents tend to argue that if the teachers were doing a good job, there would be no need for cram schools.
A combination of the hardest, most evil set of college entrance exams and a massive focus on rote memorisation means that cram schools are a fact of life for most Japanese teenagers, and so characters in anime are often seen at these institutions. They seem to be largely absent from TV in other countries, perhaps to avoid teachers hating TV even more.
In Japan at least, these are NOT for the kids who need help. If anything, the kids who need to catch up are less likely to attend them due to being hopeless cases. In anime and manga, the Smart Kid probably enjoys attending this school, unlike everyone else.
In America, one will most likely attend a cram school class before a professional licensing exam such as the bar exam (for lawyers) and the boards (for doctors).
Strangely, even though All East Asian Mothers Are Education Mamas, there are no cram schools in the usual sense in Mainland China. As high school funding in China is directly proportional to college admission rates and the prestige of the colleges the students get into, high schools have the incentive to be the cram school too-- your average Chinese high school student has a 14-hour school day, using much of the time for teacher-supervised self-study. Private schools only exist to provide prep for the Chinese equivalent of ronins only.
- Hideki and Shinbo in Chobits attend one. Shinbo even marries their cram school teacher, Takako Shimizu.
- The one Hideki and Shinbo are in is a variant on the usual one. It's for those who graduated High School but flunked their university entrance exams.
- So does Ami in Sailor Moon. Most of the action in Ami's introduction episode happened there, actually.
- And Light in Death Note, despite being WAY too smart to need it. One can't help but wonder if that's how he managed to get a perfect score...
- Ryoki in Hot Gimmick attends one, but only to make his parents feel at ease - he's so smart he manages to ace every class without even revising.
- Manta in Shaman King is a cram school student. In fact, he first meets Yoh while rushing from cram school to the train station to catch a train home.
- In Oniisama e..., the titular older brother figure to whom Nanako is writing is her former cram school tutor, Takehiko Henmi.
- Jou in Digimon Adventure, and especially Digimon Adventure 02. Iori has to drop by his cram school when he needs help for the Digidestined.
- Misao in Magical Project S attends prep school after her normal classes even though she's in fourth grade.
- The very first episode of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha depicted Nanoha and her friends Alyssa and Suzuka attending cram school after their normal classes even though they're in third grade. They spend part of their time there discussing who should take care of the ferret they found.
- Briefly mentioned in the anime of Azumanga Daioh, while Chiyo and Sakaki are stopped in the park to let Mr. Tadakichi take a drink, they see some grade school children jumping rope until a chime on a nearby clock goes off. One child says she's going to be late for it.
- Wataru attends one of these in Brave Story. It's the one social link he has with Mitsuru.
- Keiichi attended one of these when he lived in the city. He became so stressed he started to shoot random people with BB guns.
- Miaka and Yui are attending Cram School at the start of Fushigi Yuugi, preparing for the entrance exams for the prestigious Jonan High School.
- In Suzumiya Haruhi, Kyon and Sasaki met in cram school during their last year of middle school.
- The for/against argument appears in Kodomo no Jikan
- In Katteni Kaizo, Kaizo apparently went to one for people with weird talents and specialites, before he got kicked of a climbing frame, came in the next day, and blew the place up, thus unleashing everyone in it upon the world.
- Cram schools does not even limited to the above example. In Hidamari Sketch it has been clear there's a whole type of cram school for art-stream high school students that wanted to continue doing art in college, called research institutes. In fact, Arisawa's rendezvous with Yuno was related to this; Arisawa skipped Institute class that night because of the pressure and stayed at school to paint, and picked up Yuno's cell phone.
- The movie How I Got Into College is largely about an SAT prep course, and the main character's recurring nightmares about the "Two men, A and B," who appear in all the SAT math questions.
- This is essentially the backdrop to The History Boys - while they're still in their usual school, the group is taking extra classes specifically tailored to get them into Oxford.
- Referenced as a Running Gag by MST3K any time they saw a Japanese film.
- In the Invasion of the Neptune Men episode, they even refer to some children hanging out in the woods as "Cram Camp".
- The main character of 14-sai no Haha and her boyfriend attend one of these.