When I thought about writing this article the first thought that crossed my mind was ‘how do I possibly answer everything in a short blog post?’. I’m still not sure how I’m going to manage that, but this particular question seems to be one of the most common questions I receive. So here I am, attempting to explain all of my experiences in a relatively short post. This is my answer to the question ‘what is it like studying in korea?’.
As usual, my words aren’t definite. Most of what I say in this post won’t be facts, but rather my personal experiences. I can’t say how your experience will be, but I can definitely guess. I have studied at a university here for two years, and I have met a lot of people in that time. This post is an aggregation of all of my experience along with what I have heard.
And secondly, as usual, feel free to ask me any questions you may have, or to share your own experiences.
Table of Contents
I study at Korea University (Korean name) in Anam-Dong, Seoul. Korea University is one of the top universities in Korea and is one of the infamous SKY schools. SKY stands for Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University. These three universities along with KAIST and POSTECH are known by everyone as the top universities in Korea.
If you’ve looked into studying in Korea at all I am sure you are already sick about hearing about these universities. I don’t want to discuss SKY for long as I think their reputation is stupid and unfair. However, I wouldn’t be writing an article about studying in Korea if I didn’t at least mention them in passing.
This first part of my post is rather scathing and shows my frustration with my experiences at a university in Korea. The article is far more positive after this, but this is a very important point that I want to discuss.
Lastly, I wanted to get the negatives out of the way first. As such, I will begin this article with them. I talk about how bad the education is at times, and the possible racism, however please don’t let it discourage you from considering studying in Korea. There are lots of positives too, and it is up to you to decide if Korea is for you or not.
Studying in Korea
SKY – Are SKY Universities the best? I can’t say for certain as I haven’t studied at other Korean Universities, but I can make a few observations. If you plan to work in Korea after graduation attend a top 10 university (SKY, Ehwa, SKKU, KAIST, etc). If you don’t attend one of these universities your chances at jobs will be far lower and you will have a much harder time here.
However, if you are here for an exchange, or you will move back overseas after studying, then you have more options. I’m sure there’s no limit to the number of people who will disagree with me, but I think it’s better to pick a university that suits you. Pick one that offers what you want. If you are here for an exchange this is especially important, as the university you do an exchange to isn’t really too important in the end.
What is the education like?
Mediocre at best. Korea has incredibly high rankings for education up to high school, however, their university rankings begin to drop off a lot. At Korea university I often find myself wondering how such bad teaching can be allowed. I have had teachers who often give homework copied straight from another university (I don’t know if they are allowed to do this, but it seems very cheap at the very least).
Also, I have had professors who can’t speak English well at all teaching English classes (if you sign up to teach one of the English classes it is my belief that you should be adequate, if not fluent in the language). I have had professors who publicly humiliate people.
Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of fantastic professors at my university, and in Korea. Further, I understand every university has good and bad professors, but for a university that prides itself on being in the top 100? The education can be terrible at times.
You may not notice it, but if you attend a top university you will notice elitism. Sometimes obvious, sometimes not, but you will notice it. I have had professors say ‘If you don’t study well you should have gone to (Insert lower ranked university here) instead!’ Or ‘you are the best students in Korea’. Elitism does exist, and it gets to some people. Some people will refuse to date someone who didn’t study at a SKY university (especially if they studied at one themselves).
Racism – Will you experience racism? Probably. But it’s rarely obvious, and it won’t prevent you from having a great time here. I have never had any direct racism at my university (as it is a relatively global university), however, I have experienced it on the subway, in restaurants, and in public areas. Sadly it also depends on your race.
I am Caucasian which means that generally I am viewed more favorably in Korea, so my experiences may differ greatly. I have heard of some bad experiences from my friends from Southeast Asia, and some Koreans look down on people from that area. Darker skinned people are often treated fine, but there will often be lots of staring.
You will most likely have many experiences that aren’t really racism, but more just prejudice. I’ve been assumed to be American more times than I can count. Sometimes people will randomly say ‘I love America’ to me. Once an old guy passed me on the escalator and said ‘good job!’ (With a smile) when I walked past with my girlfriend. And more than anything, sometimes people (especially children!) will stare. People will also always assume you speak English. I don’t count these as harmful experiences, often they are even funny. But you should always be aware.
Overall, the experiences are vastly positive.
What about racism in university? It’s there, but it’s not direct. Me and nearly every other international student I have talked to have been excluded at some point. Club meetings where you won’t be included (they may not even let you know there is a club meeting!), drinking events where you slowly get pushed out of the group only to end up forming two groups (foreigners and Koreans) and being outright turned down from joining the club. I don’t think the intention is to exclude, but it seems to naturally happen, even if you can speak fluent (or decent) Korean.
Overall, racism wasn’t a big problem here for me, and often it worked in my favour. But everyone will experience it in some way. South Korea is the most homogenous nation on earth, second only to the more secluded Korea, and this is bound to have some effects. To conclude, if you are worried about racism then you can stop worrying. Racism exists everywhere, and while it is more common in Korea than many places, it is hardly ever harmful.
Campus and Student Life
Campus life at Korean universities in exceptional. Many universities have beautiful campuses that are large and interesting. Even if the university you are interested in has a small campus, Seoul has so much to offer. The transportation is so great that interesting areas are always close by. Dormitories are offered by most universities and they can range greatly in quality and location.
However, usually, foreigners are prioritized into the nicer/more modern dormitories. Korea University has basketball courts, swimming pools, ice-skating rinks, tennis courts… Really everything you could ever want. Korea is one of the bigger universities though and is better equipped than others.
Every university I have visited however has a beautiful campus. Ewha, Yonsei, and Korea all have an old European theme (with architecture) and are beautiful. Konkuk University has an amazing lake right in the middle of the campus, and Sungshin Women’s University is surrounded by a multitude of types of entertainment.
I wish I could be broader and speak more about other universities, however, I can only speak about the places I have been. One thing I can say for sure though is that Korean Universities usually have amazing campuses that are interesting, large, and beautiful. But even if your university doesn’t have a large or beautiful campus, Seoul is fantastic and is an amazing city for students. You will be able to find lots of entertainment wherever you choose to study.
Costs: This is something that I am often asked, and I have a more in-depth article here. Tuition in Korea is about 2,000,000-6,000,00KRW a semester. The cost is highly dependent on the university and subject, but it is cheaper than most western countries.
I recently wrote a post on the living costs as a student in Seoul. Check it out here!
Textbooks are incredibly cheap, just don’t purchase them ‘legally’. In Korea there are basically no copyright laws for textbooks, meaning that your local print shop will happily print the textbook you need for 10,000KRW. You can easily afford all the textbooks for the semester for around 50,000-100,000 KRW. Do not buy books from bookstores if you want to save money, just get them printed.
Dormitories usually range from 800,000-2,500,000KRW a semester. However, often cheaper housing can be found off campus. Goshiwons (essentially a dorm that is off campus) are around 300,000 a month, and studios can be found as cheap as 300,000 a month with a 2,000,000 deposit (which is returned when you leave). However, often there will be minimum stay lengths, so if you are only in Korea for a short time usually a dorm or goshiwon is the best option.
Food is dependent on what you like to eat. A cheap meal out is about 5,000, while a more expensive meal out may be up to 15,000. Eating at home is a viable option too.
Life as a student in Seoul is amazing and it is definitely one of the highlights of studying in this city!
Student Life. Did you know Soju is the most drunk alcohol in the world? Well, now you do! Korean’s drink like crazy, and if you come here to participate and embrace the culture, so will you. You can buy Soju for under $2 per bottle! It may not be the nicest, but everyone who has come to Korea definitely remembers their experiences with Soju!
Activities like karaoke are abundant and can be found everywhere, pc bangs (pc cafes) and arcades too. Nightlife areas are scattered all across Seoul and there is always at least one popular place close by. Hongdae, Itaewon, and Gangnam are all popular for their nightlife, and usually, you will be located close to at least one of them!
If you want to experience the cultural and historical side of Korea then you are in luck. Palaces, temples, and historical sites are abundant in Seoul. Shopping is also great in this city! Don’t worry about having a lack of activities.
Classes at Korean universities are quite hard to keep track of at times. Let me begin at course selection. Selecting courses is competitive! Very, very competitive. There will be a set time where every grade fights for their courses, and speed is of the essence, you must be fast! The classes fill up within a matter of seconds (or milliseconds).
After that, you will have to do one of three things: Wait for someone to drop the class and quickly get in. Give up on that class, or talk to the professor and try to get in.
There will be a period a few weeks later where you can add and drop certain classes, and after this, you can’t change your classes again.
Every class has different rules (even if they are the same course, just with different professors). If you have beginner English 1 with X professor and beginner English 1 with Y professor, the classes won’t be equal. Professor Y may have extremely hard exams and professor X might not even have exams! Make sure to read the (usually incomplete) syllabus and professor reviews so that you know what to expect.
Some classes are relative grading and some will have absolute grading. This means that some classes will be far easier than others. Often you won’t know which type of grading the class has until you ask the professor.
Class attendance is far stricter than western universities. In some classes you will lose points for every class you miss, for some you will fail when you miss two lectures, and some you can miss 20% of classes. I have never had a class where attendance doesn’t matter. If you come to Korea, you should attend most of your classes, don’t expect to be able to miss them.
Some professors will upload course materials and some won’t. However frustrating this may be for you, you will have to put up with it.
Some professors will have fantastic English, and some may be quite poor. It is essential to read the professor reviews before picking classes if you care about all of these points I have made. There is no other way to know exactly what you are in for.
All of the professors and classes are quite different, frustratingly so. However, if you are careful then this won’t be a problem for you. Just be wary and learn about what you are signing up for before you do.
Vacations and timetables: Korean universities have two very long vacations! One is usually from mid-June to the start of September, and the other from mid-December to February. This means that in total you will have about 5 months of vacation in the year! It’s fantastic. This gives you a lot of time to explore Korea and get the most from your time.
Daily schedules can be vastly different, but the earliest classes usually commence at 9 am with the latest being around 7-9pm. There isn’t really much more than I can say about schedules without being very specific.
Conclusion: Studying in Korea has its upsides and downsides. If you want the best academic education then don’t come to Korea. Even if you go to Seoul National University, you will be getting a worse education than you would at many ‘lesser’ western universities. However, if you want to get a decent education and have an amazing time then Korea is great.
I think that the academic aspect is a major part of university, but it isn’t everything. It is important to also have an enjoyable university experience, and coming to Korea will make that certain.