International Student Life in Korea

Category : International Students
Nov 28, 2014

Academics

Like most countries, the standard of academics in Korea varies largely from school to school. Many schools pre-determine a percentage of letter grades to award or they grade on a curve. As a result, students have to compete with each other to receive top marks. This can create a stressful atmosphere, especially around exam time.

 

However, academic competition is generally a bit lower in university than it is in high school. Korean students start studying intensively for their university entrance exams from an early age, as their high school exam marks determine which school they may enter into. The hard part is getting into a decent university, but once students have accomplished that, it’s smooth sailing from there. Graduating from a high-ranked school is essential to landing a job at a reputable company. In this way, university is generally more relaxed than high school in Korea.

 

The teaching styles at Korean universities depend largely on the professors. Some traditional professors do not encourage classroom discussions. This style stems from Korea’s Confucian culture, which emphasizes the hierarchy of the “ruler” over and the “ruled” in order to maintain social balance. In the classroom, professors may not appreciate questions or comments that could be deemed as a challenge to their teachings. Professors who teach in this manner prefer students to approach them privately with questions or comments.

 

Group work is also a large component of Korean university academics, mostly in undergraduate programs. Assignments like team presentations or group essays are commonplace. Again, this echoes Korea’s Confucian-based culture, where the importance of the collective whole is stressed over individual expression. While the group is assigned an overall mark, some professors might also give members the chance to anonymously submit evaluations of their teammates, in case the work was unfairly divided.

 

Overall, the quality of education in Korea is good. It’s not easy to become a professor in Korea, so successful candidates must have graduated from a highly-ranked university overseas, or studied at one of Korea’s top schools (like Seoul National University, Korea University or Yonsei University). In addition, most have had real-world experiences in their field of expertise, giving them a valuable level of insight into the subject they’re teaching. This means that students are learning from some of the most distinguished figures in their fields, a rare opportunity in many other countries.

 

Student-Teacher Interaction

One of the unique aspects about Korean university culture is how easy it is to form a close bond with your professors. Even though many of them have travelled the world and have graduated from some of the best internationally-ranked schools (such as Oxford, MIT or Harvard), most Korean professors are surprisingly down to earth.

 

In fact, it’s not uncommon for professors to invite their classes out for dinner and drinks. While for some cultures, an act like this might appear unprofessional, in Korea it’s 100% accepted; no inappropriate connotations are insinuated. Like so many other aspects of Korean life, bonds between the students and their professor are strengthened through a fun night out with dinner and drinks. After washing dinner down with a few rounds, the professor will usually go home and leave the students to socialize together. If you attend, keep in mind that it can be rude to turn down a drink from someone older than you. Accept a drink if your professor offers one to you. And remember, if you’re the youngest, it’ll be your job to make sure everyone’s glass is full!

 

In the classroom, student-teacher interaction will be less casual. It’s important to always address the professor as ‘Professor’, Gyosunim /교수님 or ‘Teacher’, Son-saeng-nim /선생님. Like anywhere else, some professors encourage discussion and invite frank remarks from students during class. Others follow a lecture-style teaching approach and expect students to sit quietly and absorb the presented information.

 

Social Life

Most universities in Korea have a “buddy system” for foreign students, which will allow you to make a Korean friend right off the bat. Don’t feel like you’re being a burden by asking them to help you with questions you have about Korea. Many have even studied abroad, so they will be able to relate to what you are going through.

 

Language Exchanges

While many Korean students may appear to be shy at first, once you establish a connection you’ll find that they are very welcoming, and will be eager to help you adjust to your new life in Korea. If you are a native English speaker, you will have no problems communicating basic things with most Korean students. Many Korean students are eager to participate in “language exchanges”, where for 30 minutes you’ll help them with their English, and in return, for 30 minutes they’ll help you with your Korean. This is a great way to learn and make friends.

 

Student Clubs

It’s one of the biggest university clichés out there, but joining a club is a fantastic way to meet new friends and get involved with campus life. Clubs usually recruit during the first few weeks of school, but they’ll accept new members at any time. Student clubs are pretty relaxed, with meetings often followed by dinner at a Korean BBQ restaurant to bond over grilled meat and soju /소주, Korean liquor. Most universities offer clubs in every field from volunteering, to arts, to outdoor recreation, and many more. If you’re interested in learning about Korean culture, a great way to expand your knowledge is to actually find out first hand. Most schools have Taekwondo, traditional music, and travel clubs. As well, if you are religious, many schools have Catholic, Protestant, and Buddhist student groups so you can stay connected to your faith (or learn about a new one) while abroad.

 

MTs (“Membership Training)

A fun and unique part of Korean campus life are MTs. “MT” stands for “membership training” which is a Konglish expression. Trips are organized by students of the same major, year, campus club, or sports team. Usually, these trips are held somewhere in the countryside in a pension (a large vacation house), or boarding house. The point of MTs is to strengthen relationships between peers, done through drinking and playing icebreaking games together. A big dinner will be cooked, and many, many shots of soju will be taken to wash it down. Keep in mind that although MTs are meant to build relationships, alcohol and games are big part. If you’re not a big drinker, then MTs may not be for you.

 

Varsity Sports

Varsity sports aren’t a key part of campus life in Korea. While most universities do have sports teams that compete against other schools, they are not as popular as joining a campus sports club, especially for international students.

 

If you really want to join a varsity sport, ask a Korean friend when try-outs are as soon as you arrive; or, even better, contact the school’s international office before arrival. If it’s something you’re enthusiastic about pursuing, most teams will be accommodating. After all, you don’t need Korean language skills to kick a ball!

 

Living

As a foreign student, you will have several living options to choose from upon arriving in Korea, however, it’s always best to make arrangements beforehand. A good tip is to plan to arrive one to two weeks in advance, stay in a hostel or hotel, and physically explore your living options.

 

For example, you could find a nice looking apartment online, but once you actually arrive you might realize that it’s too far from your school or it’s not quite how the picture looked. Homestays are a good option, but sign up for a few weeks at first rather than the whole semester. After meeting your homestay family you might find out that you don’t connect well enough to stay for the long-term stay.

 

Here are some living options you will have during your stay abroad:

 

What?

Average Monthly Rent

Pros

Cons

Dorms (gisuk-sa /기숙사):

On-campus housing for domestic and international students. Some schools have separate dorm buildings for international students.

300,000KRW to 600,000KRW

Utilities included.

Possibly the most social option; located on campus (no commute); fitness center often included in the same building; very safe; WiFi likely included.

May have a restrictive curfew; rooms are almost always shared; cannot go into the rooms of the opposite sex; no alcohol allowed; potentially no kitchen facilities.

Goshiwon /고시원: Large apartment-like building with many long, narrow rooms squeezed side-by-side.

250,000KRW to 500,000KRW Utilities included.

Can choose a room with private shower & toilet; most rooms include cable TV; free rice & kimchi.

Really small; thin walls (can be loud); beds can be too short those taller than 180cm.

Hasukjib /하숙집:

A boarding house where laundry, bathroom, and kitchen facilities are shared, while all rooms are private.

350,000KRW to 550,000KRW. Utilities included.

Breakfast + dinner included in monthly rent; nice balance between homestay and goshiwon.

Often only one bathroom for the whole floor; cramped facilities; small rooms.

Private flat:

This is probably the most expensive option. Apartments and “officetels” (bachelor suites) can be found all over Korea.

One room 500,000KRW to 800,000KRW (plus key money*)

 

One room in a shared apartment = 250,000KRW to 350,000KRW

Completely private and independent; can come & go as you please.

Expensive; may get a bit lonely if you don’t have a roommate; language barrier might create misunderstandings between you and your landlord.

Homestay:

An arrangement where you live with a family or couple’s house in your own private room. You might get a private bathroom and/or meals included, and the monthly rent will reflect this. In some cases, you’re encouraged to participate in family activities.

300,000KRW to 600,000KRW (depending on room size, amenities, and whether or not food is provided).

Deeper cultural experience; opportunity for Korean language immersion; great way to establish contacts in Korea.

Lack of privacy or independence. Might have to do chores or babysit.

 

Want to learn more? Visit WorknPlay’s article on Homestay Accommodations in Korea.

 

Note

  1. “Key money” is a large deposit you’ll have to make before renting an apartment in Korea. This charge ranges from 2 million to 20 million KRW.
  2. Read more about Types of Housing Contracts in Korea and Types of Housing in Korea.
Tags : International. Exchange. Language.

Gabrielle interned as a Content Creator for Work'n'Play during her exchange trip to Chung-Ang University in 2012-2013. She graduated from Vancouver Island University in May 2014 with her BA in Global Studies. She is now a Master's student at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa, Canada. The things she misses most about her year in Korea are: going for makgeolli + jeon with friends, exploring Seoul's new and old hidden treasures and getting to practice Korean every day. You can connect with her on Twitter at @MsGabrielle or email her at gabrielle.bishop@hotmail.com.

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