The Korean University System

Category : International Students / Education/Teaching
Nov 28, 2014

The Korean University System


In a global workforce that is becoming increasingly competitive, many students are making the decision to pack their bags, leave home and study abroad, in order to gain new skills and experiences to beef up their credentials. While Korea may be one of the world’s lesser known study abroad destinations, this country’s education system has a lot to offer for foreign students, from surprisingly affordable study options to the chance to live in one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cites. This article will explore the structure of Korea’s universities. If you want to find out more about social life and academics in Korean universities, visit WorknPlay’s article on International Student Life in Korea.


Korea’s Higher Educational Structure

In Korea, there are three main types of post-secondary institutions, including:


  1. Two-year colleges: these focus primarily on trades and other technical skills. The purpose of these colleges is to prepare students for employment immediately after graduation.
  2. Four-year Universities: these provide students with a Bachelor’s Degree in their chosen major. These schools prepare students for a professional career in a specific field, and also act as a prerequisite for graduate schools.
  3. Graduate Schools: these schools offer two-year Master’s Degree or specialized doctorate programs. They prepare students for a professional career, or for further academic studies at the doctorate level.

In order to gain acceptance into a post-secondary institution, Korean students begin preparing at least four years in advance during high school for their university-entrance exams. These exams are similar to the SATs in the USA. A student’s score on these exams will determine which college or university they will attend, and since attending a prestigious school is considered essential to being hired at a good company, the entrance exams are incredibly competitive.


Post-Secondary Schedule

Korean universities operate on a semester basis, with two four-month semesters (March to June; September to December) and two two-month breaks in between, making up one academic year. Traditionally, the Korean school year begins in March, but most exchange programs allow for students to choose between starting in March or September. Most schools have an online application portion and a mail-in portion, where applicants submit the required hard-copy documents.



Top Quality Degree Programs and Scholarships:

Financial aid is widely available for programs in the sciences and engineering, such as the Global IT Policy & Technology Scholarship from the Ministry of Information and Technology. It provides tuition, airfare, health insurance, and a monthly stipend of 1.5 million KRW for selected Master’s and Doctorate students in their fields. For those who may not otherwise have the opportunity to gain a degree in their home country due to financial barriers or other setbacks, studying in Korea may be a good option.


Another notable scholarship offered by the government is called the Global Korea Scholarship (GKS). This scholarship is aimed towards students from developing countries. In addition to receiving free tuition, undergraduate and graduate students are given the following benefits:

  • Monthly stipend: 800,000KRW-900,000KRW
  • Language training fee: 400,000KRW
  • Settlement & Repatriation allowances: 20,000KRW and 10,000KRW respectively

Graduate students are also given between 210,000KRW to 240,000KRW each semester as a research allowance.


Types of Foreign Students in Korea:

The admission process for Korean universities varies largely upon whether a student wants to apply as an international student or an exchange student:

  1. Exchange students are from overseas partner universities (or “sister schools”), who already have established agreements with one or more universities in Korea. Exchange students choose from a restricted list of courses that transfer back to their home university, either as required or elective credits. They stay for either one or two semesters, (between 4-10 months) then return to their home university to complete their degree. Tuition is paid to their home university.
  2. International students do not have a home university. Instead, they go abroad independently and normally complete their degree overseas. Unlike exchange students, who stay for one to two semesters, international students study abroad for the entire length of the program or degree. They apply and pay tuition directly to the Korean university.


à Note:

  1. In the case of exchange students, it’s necessary to first contact their home university’s international office to see which Korean universities have exchange agreements with their school.
  2. From there, most students have to first apply to their home university to go on an exchange. Usually this is based on merit, character, and maybe even GPA. However, the main reason for this step is to make sure the number of outgoing and incoming exchange students are balanced between the two partner schools, as it would be unfair for one school to be sending more students than it receives. From there, successfully accepted exchange students apply directly to the Korean university.


Who Could Benefit from Studying in Korea?


  • Social Science Majors

Students from globally-focused majors, such as: Anthropology, International Studies, World History, or Area Studies, could certainly benefit from completing a portion of their degree in Korea. As the Korean government continues to invest more in internationalizing its universities (by providing scholarships and helping subsidize university-level Korean culture programs, among other initiatives), more and more foreign students are choosing to study in Korea. This means that not only will foreign students have an opportunity to interact with local Korean students, but they will also have the chance to network and become friends with people from all around the world.


  • Cultural Studies Majors

The Korean government (as well as several foundations) also offers financial aid to those interested in pursuing their studies in Korean language and culture. For example, the Korean Language Training Fellowship from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade covers tuition, travel insurance, and immigration support (300,000\), in addition to providing a monthly stipend of 900,000-1.1 million won for 70-80 to current or future Korean language students wishing to study the language for 6-12 months.


  • Engineering, Electronics Technology, and Computer Science Majors:

Korea is home to Samsung, LG, and Hyundai, some of the world’s stop technology firms. A university education in Korea could offer foreign students the invaluable opportunity to network and job search among these top electronic and manufacturing conglomerates.

Applying to a Korean University

  1. For exchange students, application deadlines for Korea’s spring semester (March to June) are usually in mid-December, while for the fall semester (September to December), deadlines are usually in mid-June.
  2. For international students, application deadlines are normally earlier, taking place sometime in April for fall semester admission.

Specific dates and application requirements for each individual school are usually listed under their respective International Office’s websites.

Korean Proficiency

Korean proficiency is not required for most exchange programs. While being able to speak Korean will definitely make for a smoother cultural adjustment, as well as giving students a greater variety of courses to choose from, most Korean universities already offer a basic selection of English courses for exchange students. In the case of POSTECH, (one of Korea’s top technical universities) all courses are offered in English.

However, for international students, Korean proficiency is almost always required. Many schools require students to submit their TOPIK (Test in Proficiency in Korean) score as part of the application process. Out of TOPIK’s six levels, most universities prefer a minimum level of four, indicating the student can communicate with an intermediate level of Korean. In addition to this, some schools also require applicants to take a university-administered Korean proficiency test.

Some top universities have a Graduate Schools of International Studies (GSIS) and MBA programs. These programs do not require Korean language proficiency, as most of the coursework is conducted in English.


Documents Needed


Exchange students can expect to submit the following documents:

  • An official academic transcript;
  • One or more passport-size photos
  • One or more passport copies;
  • A study plan detailing what classes are intended to be taken during the exchange;
  • A nomination letter from the home university, ;
  • A declaration and certification of finances (ex: bank statements showing a balance of at least 10,000USD, scholarship documentation, and/or parental letters of support); and
  • If requested, a signed agreement to live in on-campus housing.


For international students, the documents required for applying to a Korean university are similar to those required domestically.


Most schools may request the following:

  • A high school diploma;
  • A photocopy of the Alien Registration Card;
  • One or more passport photocopies;
  • Korean proficiency test results (usually must be higher than a score of 4/6);
  • Reference(s) from former teachers or professors; and
  • Certificate(s) from attended Korean language programs and institute.


From there, if the application is successful, students can go on to apply for a D-2 (Student) visa.


Tuition Costs


As seen in the table below (using US dollars), annual international student tuition for a Bachelor’s program in Korea is relatively low, compared to many other developed countries.
















However, it’s important to note that in many European countries (like Germany) taxes and overall cost of living are high compared to Korea, where international students can generally live affordably. As well, textbooks and other school supplies are usually quite cheap.


Related reading on WorknPlay:

  1. Top Korean Universities
  2. University Korean Language Programs
  3. Graduate School of International Studies (GSIS) Programs in Korea
  4. MBA Programs in Korea



Tags : University. College. International Student.

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