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. Many teachers oppose them on the basis that they undermine the work and dedication of regular teachers. Their opponents argue that if teachers were doing as good a job as they should, there would be no need for cram schools. Cram schools can also be dangerous to students' health, as the students risk overwork and classes are often very early in the morning or late at night to fit them around the regular school schedule.
The prevalence of cram schools varies in different countries around the world, but the they're most prevalent in East Asia, where the Education Mama is a common phenomenon and university entrance exams are so important that they can basically make or break a teenager's future. As such, it's a common Anime trope — a particular twist is for the Smart Kid going to cram school despite not needing it at all or still being in grade school, just because he or she enjoys it.
- In Chobits, Hideki and Shinbo attend a special cram school for high school graduates who flunked their university entrance exams. Shinbo goes on to marry their cram school teacher, Takako Shimizu.
- In Sailor Moon, Teen Genius Ami goes to a cram school where most of her introductory episode takes place.
- In Death Note, Light goes to a cram school despite clearly not needing it. He just doesn't want to leave anything to chance. He winds up getting a perfect score on the university entrance exam.
- In Hot Gimmick, Ryoki goes to a cram school despite not needing one — he can ace every class without even studying. He just does it to make his parents feel at ease.
- In Shaman King, Manta is a cram school student and first meets Yoh while rushing from cram school to his train home.
- Oniisama e... takes place at a full-time cram school; the eponymous older brother figure is protagonist Nanako's former cram school tutor, Takehiko Henmi.
- Jou in Digimon Adventure, Digimon Adventure 02, and Digimon Adventure tri. attends a cram school as a sort of Running Gag, because he's always stuck at cram school when he's needed elsewhere — he's not in Odaiba when Vamdemon's fog cuts it off from the rest of Tokyo, Taichi can't contact him for help to fight Diablomon in Our War Game, and Iori has to lie to get him out of a test so he can rescue the team when they're trapped underwater. It's usually Played for Laughs, but in tri, he shows some genuine anguish on having to miss so much action and socializing.
- In Magical Project S, Misao attends prep school after her normal classes even though she's in fourth grade.
- The first episode of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha depicts 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, when Chiyo and Sakaki see a group of grade school children jumping rope and one of them announces that she's going to be late for cram school.
- In Brave Story, Wataru attends a cram school which is his single social link with Mitsuru.
- In Higurashi: When They Cry, Keiichi attended one when he lived in the city. He became so stressed that he started to shoot random people with BB guns, which led to his family moving to Hinamizawa after he accidentally shot a child in the eye.
- The beginning of Fushigi Yuugi shows Miaka and Yui attending a cram school preparing for the entrance exams for the prestigious Jonan High School.
- In Haruhi Suzumiya, Kyon and Sasaki met in cram school during their last year of middle school. Later in the novels, Kyon mentions that he probably would have to go to cram school if Haruhi hadn't started tutoring him.
- In Katte Ni Kaizo, Kaizo apparently went to a cram school for people with weird talents and specialties. He winds up blowing the place up, unleashing its students on the world at large.
- Hidamari Sketch shows that there are special cram schools (dubbed "research institutes") for art-stream high school students who want to continue doing art in college. Arisawa's rendezvous with Yuno even takes place after she skips an Institute class and stays at school to paint, only to encounter Yuno's cell phone.
- The three main characters of Gourmet Girl Graffiti meet in a similar art-stream cram school, except they're middle schoolers trying to get into a high school arts program.
- In Blue Exorcist, much of the main cast goes to a "cram school" for exorcists entirely separate from their regular high school. It has to call itself a "cram school" to keep up the Masquerade.
- How I Got Into College is about an SAT prep course, and the main character's recurring nightmare is about "two men, A and B", the Alice and Bob of 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.
- Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens provides the Ur-Example with a cram school doubling as a Boarding School of Horrors. It's so intense, the Head Boy turns feeble-minded from too much cramming, and Paul Dombey is implied to have gone to an early grave thanks to academic overwork (although it could also just have been natural causes).
- The Mighty Atom by Marie Corelli provides an early variant; Lionel is homeschooled by a series of tutors by order of his Fantasy-Forbidding Father, who allows no speculation on religious or spiritual subjects, as he's supposed to haw Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions. It ends badly.
- Tantei Team KZ Jiken Note features the Shumei Seminar cram school, which is the only school the entire team goes to together. The school divides the classes by the students' academic performance (common in Japanese cram schools), and many characters are in the top class, although not necessarily for the right reasons; Aya, for instance, is only there because she's really good at Japanese language, but she sucks at math.
- The Harry Potter books often refer to the OWL and NEWT exams that Hogwarts students must take in their fifth and seventh years, respectively. In Order of the Phoenix, we see that although there aren't any formal cram schools, the students are basically making their own, with Ernie MacMillan bragging that he's studying eight hours a day and Hannah Abbott having a breakdown and being sent to the hospital wing right before the exams. Harry has his own episode when he falls of his chair screaming during the exam, and the proctor assumes he's just stressed out about the exam (he's actually getting his head probed by Voldemort).
- Our Miss Brooks: In "The Yodar Kritch Award", a time-pressed Miss Brooks tries this approach with Bones Snodgrass. It fails miserably.
- Mystery Science Theater 3000 would reference cram schools as a Running Gag when 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.
- In Hong Kong, cram schools are known as "tutorial schools". An interesting aspect of these schools is that some of their teachers are promoted like celebrities: they employ stylists, fashion designers, and photographers to make them look fashionable, and they then put their likenesses on giant billboard and newspaper advertisements with cool titles such as "King of Tutors", "Godfather of Science", and "Queen of English".
- In South Korea, cram schools are known as hagwon, and many specialize in fields outside of standard exam prep like sports and arts. South Korea is known for having one of the absolute most competitive university entrance exams in the world, and the cram schools are accordingly brutal. The government has had to impose a strict 10pm closing time, and the police patrol at night to look for schools flouting the curfew.
- China strangely doesn't exactly have cram schools despite having a mentality very conducive to them. On the Mainland, high school funding is directly proportional to college admission rates and the prestige of the colleges the students get into, so there's incredible incentive to the high school to double as the cram school. The average Chinese high school student's day is fourteen hours long, much of it in mandatory study halls. Private cram schools have only recently emerged as the government has tried to mandate shorter school hours, so the private schools are just filling in the gaps.
- In the United States, universities' admission criteria encompass not just the entrance exams (the SAT or ACT, depending on region), but also things like extracurricular activities and sports; the American Education Mama doesn't choose cram school as much as just sign her kid up for every possible after-school activity. But there are still private cram schools for "SAT prep" and "ACT prep", and these companies also offer versions for professional licensing exams such as the bar exam (for lawyers) or medical board exams (for doctors).