With Korea’s rising popularity off the back of the Hallyu Wave, more and more prospective students are considering moving to the peninsula to pursue higher education. However, it seems that despite so many people wanting to move to South Korea, there are still relatively few honest opinions on university life in the country.
I published an article titled Studying in South Korea a few years back. In the article, I was quite critical of many aspects of university life because I was experiencing the difficulties first-hand at the time. While I still agree with many of the thoughts I shared then, I also feel like I’ve grown, so some of my opinions have changed.
I graduated in the autumn of 2021 after attending Korea University for five years (yes, I did an extra year – more on that particular frustration soon!). Now that a couple of years have passed, I feel like I have put some distance between myself, Korea and my university life. For this reason, I thought this would be the perfect time to look back on university life in South Korea and hopefully provide a more objective review.
Of course, this article is very personal, and everything within is based on my experiences or those close to me. Just because I feel a certain way does not mean you will, and we’re very likely to have differing thoughts in some areas. Furthermore, I can’t compare studying in Korea to other countries because I’ve never experienced higher education elsewhere. As such, some of my thoughts, experiences, and complaints likely don’t apply purely to studying in South Korea.
That said, I want to do my best to sum up my overall thoughts about university life in South Korea. When I first moved to to the country, I found it very hard to find balanced reviews discussing studying there as it seemed like most of the content out there was made either by exchange students or students early into their studies. While there’s nothing wrong with this kind of content, many people are still within their ‘honeymoon’ period with Korea and Korean university life at this stage.
Why Did I Move to South Korea?
I’m originally from New Zealand, and in my last year of high school, I decided I wanted to have a vast change in my life. I had no idea where I wanted to go or even what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to leave my home country. While researching the viability of different options, I came across South Korea. Like many people, I was quickly enthralled.
Although I tell most people I became interested in Korea because I had Korean friends, I actually chose Korea because I watched a documentary on Samsung and thought it was fascinating. How did that lead me to want to study in Korea? Your guess is as good as mine. Yet somehow, perhaps recklessly, I had quickly decided to pursue studying in South Korea.
I spent hours pouring over websites, forums, and videos, and within a few months, I applied to various universities. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to a few universities, and I chose to attend Korea University because of the rich history and culture of the institution. With events such as Ipselenti (a yearly celebration which is essentially a party) and Ko-yeonjeon (Korea and Yonsei Universities’ yearly sports competition), I felt like Korea University had a good balance of academic strength and long-standing culture.
Subject-wise, I chose to major in International Studies. I wanted to study Interdisciplinary Studies, but, at the time, the program was in its infancy at KU, and it wasn’t very easy for foreign students to get accepted. As such, I settled for International Studies because it gave me many free slots to study other subjects, which took my fancy.
After being admitted to Korea University, I made the jump in August 2016. I had never visited the country (or even Asia) before, and I was uprooting my life to visit a country I had fallen in love with from the internet. It was a daunting move as I was only 18 and heading into the unknown alone, but it also excited me greatly.
Kyung Hee University campus
Even though it was the better part of a decade ago, I can still remember my first days in Korea and at Korea University like they were yesterday (okay, maybe not yesterday, but certainly not that long ago!). Everything was new and thrilling!
However, it was also on my first day that I became aware of one of the biggest issues of Korea University (and perhaps many Korean Universities). Horrible administration with poor communication. I had been told I MUST arrive in Korea on the 21st of August to take part in a mandatory English placement test. It was explicitly stated that missing the test would result in my admission being revoked. Of course, I travelled the day before the test to ensure I would get my place at Korea University.
What I quickly learnt, though, was that there were later tests for people who missed the initial test. There was a further test on the 27th and another just after the semester started. I even had friends who skipped the exam because they were told it was optional.
It was a minor issue because it gave me a couple of weeks to get acquainted with the country before beginning my studies. But at the same time, although I didn’t know it at the moment, it epitomises what I believe to be the biggest downside of university life in South Korea.
Of course, there were many positives too! My first impressions of the university campus were fantastic. While it’s highly dependent on the university, many Korean universities have grand campuses. Korea University, Yonsei University, Ewha Women’s University, and so many more are breathtaking spectacles to take in.
While it might seem surface-level and of minor importance, you’ll spend years at university. Having a beautiful campus can help your mindset and mental health – especially in spring and autumn when the nature around the campus is stunning.
I was also amazed at the size of the university. Again, this depends on the university in question, but campuses in Korea are gigantic. This may not be unusual if you’re from the U.S. or a country that generally houses large universities. However, I was almost overwhelmed coming from New Zealand, where universities are generally quite consolidated. It’s the size of a large town!
There is also a level of care and attention that goes into the campuses the likes of which I haven’t seen elsewhere. The gardens are well-maintained, and the plants are pruned to blend into the buildings almost perfectly. On top of this, there is a curious fascination with older European architecture at Korean universities and this is something you will notice not just at Korea University but at many major institutions in Seoul. Overall, the campus was stunning and well laid out – if I had to point to a flaw, it would merely be that the campus is too large!
Moving into the Dormitories
Since the dormitory will be your home for your first few months at the university, it plays a great part in your overall university life in Korea. On the bright side, the dorms at most universities in the country are well-equipped, clean, and modern. Now, it is worth noting that I’m talking about the international dorms – there are often separate dorms for Korean students, which are far less pleasant.
Depending on your budget, you can find everything from single-room dorms (which are quite competitive) to rooms with four bunks. The shared rooms are quite reasonable, and you will likely only pay a couple of hundred dollars monthly for accommodation, making it cheaper than a Goshiwon. Of course, the quality of your experience will depend on your roommates, but the rooms and buildings are nice.
There are some caveats here: Korean dormitories usually have strict policies. For example, in our dormitory, we weren’t allowed food or drinks in the rooms (although we often took them up anyway), and there were room inspections occasionally. Typically, these inspections were looking for alcohol or other banned items. On top of this, males and females were split into different floors, and there was even a separate elevator for both.
This may be changing now, as the last time I visited the dorms was in 2020. However, they were generally quite strict at the time I stayed. While these policies didn’t particularly bother me, what got to me was the ban on visitors. At one stage, my cousin came to Korea, and we wanted to drop off his suitcase temporarily between the time he arrived and his hotel check-in. Unfortunately, the guard at the front desk wouldn’t let him drop off his bag, and when I tried to do it myself, I was told he couldn’t store it in my room… Even if only for a few hours.
The bright side was that there was no curfew, unlike in other dorms around Korea. Even my Korean friends at Korea University who were in the other dormitories had strict curfews, which, if missed, would result in them being barred from entering their rooms. To me, these policies feel almost draconic, and I feel like university students in Korea and still treated as high schoolers in many ways. You learn to get used to everything, and again, I don’t think it’s a big deal. However, I quickly looked forward to getting my own place because random room checks and frustrating visitor policies were far from ideal.
University Life in Korea
With that brief introduction to the dormitories and my first impressions out of the way, how would I judge university life in South Korea overall? Well, that’s a tricky question! I figure the easiest way to do this is to make a list of the aspects I like and those I didn’t so much; that way, you can judge which elements are important and which you can live with.
Before diving into this list, I also want to mention that while university life in Korea was challenging, I do not regret moving to the country and studying at Korea University. Despite all of the flaws and difficulties, I had a fantastic time studying there, and I also feel like I grew a lot. With this list, I am not trying to turn anyone against studying in Korea – by all means, if you want to experience university in Seoul or another Korean city, you should! However, I also feel like it’s important to share the realities of university life in Korea because many people focus purely on the positives, which can be very misleading.
Stunning University Campuses
I already mentioned it in my first impressions, but one of the biggest pros to studying in South Korea is the university campuses. Not only are they often extremely large and often quite beautiful, but they are oh-so-convenient. Okay, the size often isn’t convenient, but you can do all the basic tasks you might need to do either within the campus or close to it.
As an international student, there were many things to set up when I landed in South Korea. Opening a bank account, getting a phone contract, and finding a place to live were all tasks that needed to be quickly sorted. The good news? All of these could be completed either within or close to the campus.
This is extremely useful because it means you can basically live inside the campus if needed. Of course, I highly recommend exploring everything you can, but it’s also nice to know you can do anything you need on campus.
Seoul Is an Amazing Student City
Perhaps the biggest advantage of studying in South Korea is the life you can have outside of school. Since the vast majority of universities are located in Seoul, most students will be staying in the capital. The good news? Seoul has a limitless number of activities for every kind of person.
If you love nature and saving some money, there are plentiful hiking tracks and parks around the city. If, on the other hand, you’d prefer to live it up in bars and clubs, Seoul has you more than covered. If you’re like me and want to explore and find quirky cafes and stores, you can spend days upon days navigating the smaller alleyways of the capital.
Seoul is one of the largest cities in the world, and the number of activities and entertainment on offer goes to show this. I’m confident that no matter what your interests are, you can find them in Seoul, and this goes a long way to making university life in Korea pleasant and exciting. There’s a reason Seoul is one of the best student cities in the world!
Limitless Clubs and Activities
Korean universities have a ton of clubs and activities to join. While this will again depend on the university in question, I know every university has at least some clubs. If you’re attending a larger university, there will likely be whole magazines advertising the many different clubs.
As you’re in Korea, it’s natural that most of the clubs will do activities in Korean. However, from my experience, many of these clubs are open to international students joining – make sure to show some effort in communicating in Korean!
These clubs are a great way to meet like-minded individuals, and many regularly meet on weekends and weeknights. While these events are optional, it allows you to make new friends to meet and hang out with outside of the campus.
You’ll get tons of time to explore Korea’s amazing beaches such as Sokcho.
One massive advantage of studying in South Korea is the length of the vacations. In total, you will get around five months of vacation every year, with these months split into two equal-length vacations in summer and winter. On top of these two massive breaks, you’ll get time off over Chuseok in September/October.
Compared to most countries, having almost half of the year as vacations is almost unbelievable. What makes the system even better is that the vacations are split into two big chunks, giving international students ample time to return home if possible.
If you can’t return home or would prefer not to, the long vacations give you plentiful time to pursue your hobbies or interests. Whether you want to travel around Korea or stay home and play games, the semester to break balance in Korea is undoubtedly a boon.
The Workload is Reasonable
Okay, this one may be slightly controversial, and some people will disagree with me. However, after completing my degree and talking with students in many other majors, I think the workload in Korean universities is very reasonable – provided you don’t get caught up in the exam manic.
This again comes down to the individual professors in question because some will certainly try to overload you with work. On average, though, I never felt overwhelmed after my first year; even those feelings were mainly self-created.
Korea is a country that emphasises studying massively. During the week or two before midterms and finals, the streets will go quiet, and students will lock themselves inside studying. Surrounded by such an atmosphere, it’s easy to get caught up and feel the pressure yourself.
Once I figured out how ineffective it was to study straight for hours on end, I quickly found I could effectively study in 30-minute increments and largely avoid the stress that others were facing. That said, there were some exceptions, such as machine learning and advanced statistics…
Before I go off-topic, I want to conclude my point here. University life in Korea is hectic if you get swept up in it. Don’t do what I initially did and study for 10 hours a day because everyone else is. Instead, finding what works best for you and studying based on your preferences is infinitely more productive and effective. If you can find this balance, I genuinely believe the workload at universities in Korea isn’t as crazy as people make it out to be.
Strict Attendance Policies
One thing that amazed me about universities in South Korea was how strict attendance policies were (and continue to be). Korea University claims to have a ‘flexible’ schedule for prospective students, but they don’t mention that professors can choose to follow this policy or they can create their own.
This can create an issue because some professors are incredibly strict. Miss more than two classes? That’s an instant F regardless of your reasoning (yes, I’ve had multiple friends who failed classes for this reason – even when they had medical proof for the classes they missed).
Of course, some professors on the other end of the spectrum are free with their attendance policies and will allow you to attend classes flexibly. I see the point in encouraging attendance, but there’s no denying that some of the attendance policies are too strict. A university is a place for self-motivated learning, yet university attendance in Korea was stricter than at my high school in New Zealand!
Disorganised University Administration
University administration is a mess. Okay, I know this one doesn’t just apply to Korean universities. Still, I feel like it’s important to keep this in mind because it’s a very big pain point for many international students studying in Korea.
So, what do I mean by the administration being a mess? Well, it seems like there is no communication between university departments, and many of the staff have conflicting views or simply no idea what is happening. While every friend I’ve talked to has had equally bad experiences with the administration, let me give one example.
I was on track to graduate from university at the end of 2020 as I was just about to complete my 8th semester. At the end of my 7th semester, I realised I had missed a required class, so I went to sign up for the class… Yet it no longer existed. I contacted my department’s office and asked what the situation was.
They said they would get back to me and let me know when a replacement class was available. They never got back to me, so I followed up many times, and they said not to worry about it – the class no longer existed, so it was no longer required.
Fast forward to my expected graduation date, and I was told I couldn’t graduate because I hadn’t completed a required class. Sure enough, they had replaced the previously required class with a new one, but it had taken them a year to do so. I was told I would have to complete that class to graduate.
That seemed fine until I realised the class was an autumn-only course, meaning I had to complete two extra semesters for a single credit class that I intended to take, but it had been removed from the course registration for a year.
Throughout the process, I had many mixed messages from different staff, and other departments got involved. My major office would refer me to the Office of International Affairs, which would then refer me to the language department before they would eventually refer me back.
This is only one example of many I could give, but I feel it exemplifies how bad the administration is at the university. At one stage, the university staff tried to convince me I was technically an illegal immigrant in Korea even though I had confirmed with the immigration office that my visa was still valid through my extra year. All in all, every experience with the university administration was stressful and infuriating.
Everything Is a Competition
One of the most stress-inducing factors that can significantly impact your university life in Korea is competitiveness. While you might expect this level of competition to exist within classes and courses, it expands to other factors, such as course registration.
Let’s be frank; course registration at Korean universities is messy, and everyone hates it. All classes are filled on a first-come, first-served basis, and while this might seem fair on the surface, it’s a horrible system that badly needs to be overhauled. At 10 am, when course registration goes live, everyone will fight for classes. The website will crash, and classes will be full within a second.
This means you’ll be lucky if you can get even one class you were aiming for. The worst part of this is that it also applies to major-required classes, as there’s no guarantee you will get them. Obviously, this can become a problem if you miss your required classes, even more so if they are a prerequisite for other, more advanced required classes.
Miss your major required class? Tough luck. While you can email the professor and hope they are kind enough to allow you to attend, this is rare as many classes will have a waiting list with tens of students.
As you progress through the years, you will get course priority, and the third and fourth years will get to choose classes before the first and second years. However, this does little to allay the stress you will feel in your first few years as a student in Korea.
This competition expands into the classroom too. Unlike many schools, Korean universities very often use relative grading, meaning it doesn’t matter how well you do on a test, only how well you do compared to your classmates. If you’re in a class with many high-achieving students, this can become a problem and lead to lower grades than you might deserve.
What Is the University Life Like in South Korea?
Ipselenti festival at Korea University.
University life in South Korea is far from perfect. But then again, is it anywhere? As I mentioned, I don’t regret studying in Korea. It led me to where I am today, and I am more than happy to be in the situation I am currently in.
In saying that, living and studying in Korea was exceptionally difficult at times. As I progressed through my extra year of studies, I was more infuriated than ever with the university policies and rules. I know I’m not alone in these feelings because I have so many friends who shared my thoughts (and often vocalised them even more!).
If you want to study in Korea, I highly recommend reading this article that details what you can expect. It’s a wonderful place to study, and I don’t want to dissuade anyone from pursuing their dreams. Just keep in mind that university life in Korea is far from perfect, and there will be frustrations to deal with along the way.