Secondary education in South Korea

In South Korea, only elementary and junior high schools (grades 1–9) are compulsory, but more than 98% of Korean students prefer to complete secondary education (12 grades) in order to be able to go to university.

Education LevelTitle in KoreanGradesAge
Preschool education유치원 교육-0-6 (1-7)
Elementary school초등학교1-66-12 (7-13)
Junior high school중학교7-912-15 (13-16)
High school고등학교10-1215 -18 (16-19)

Students are taught according to the curriculum adopted at the state level, which gets updated every 10 years. The latest version was adopted in 2015. During the first two years at the elementary school students learn Korean, mathematics, ethics, physical education and a number of special subjects that contribute to the social development of students (Disciplined Life, Sensible Life, Enjoyable Life, We Are First Graders). Starting from the 3rd year of study, English, social studies, exact sciences, music, art and other general subjects are added, which are preserved throughout the training.

High school in Korea is represented by the following institutions:

  • General academic schools. They implement general academic education in order to prepare for university entrance;
  • Special-purpose schools. They offer in-depth study of any field (foreign languages, exact sciences, etc.) corresponding to the future direction at the university;
  • Autonomous schools. These are independent of the Ministry of Education of South Korea and characterized by a high degree of elitism;
  • Specialized / Meister schools. They represent the initial stage of professional technical education.

Secondary education in Korea is accompanied by heavy workloads: students attend additional private classes and engage in independent work, spending a total of 16 hours a day studying. This helps students achieve good results, but often negatively affects their psychological and physical health. Such trends occurred due to the fact that since childhood, students strive to enter the country's top universities in the hope of securing a bright future with prestigious jobs and high earnings.

Secondary education is done by both public and private educational institutions. In South Korea, both receive funding from the state, although the amount given to private schools is less than the amount given to public schools.

For foreign students, there are international schools that implement programs taught in English based on the American and British standards, including International Baccalaureate. The average cost of studying at an international school is 13,294 USD/year. Foreign students have the right to attend ordinary Korean schools, however, the fact that they teach exclusively in Korean must be taken into consideration.

Education in South Korea is 9th in the QS ranking of the best education systems in the world, surpassing many developed countries, such as Japan, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden and New Zealand[1]. In practice, this entails high-quality education, the development of which is facilitated in many respects by the introduction of advanced technologies, the low cost of training, and the strong chances of employment in promising sectors. Here, the rich eastern culture of Korea with its traditional hierarchy of society coexists with the multicultural environment, and the progressive development of the country in the field of economics and education.

Advantages of studying in South Korea

  • Programs in English are available in almost every university, although foreign students have the opportunity to study in Korean. Each university has language courses that are designed for people with a different level of proficiency, as a result the future student can choose between programs depending on their preferences and the degree of fluency. After completing a language course at the University chances of getting accepted are significantly higher.
  • Systematic support from the state. Foreign students are attracted by numerous scholarships, dormitories, opportunities to work while studying, and a very real prospect of staying in the country after graduation. In many ways, all this is possible thanks to the educational policy of the Government of South Korea, which seeks to enhance the reputation of Korean education by making it accessible to an international audience.
  • Multinational composition. In 2019, more than 160 thousand foreign students study here, of which about 100 thousand are studying undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs[2]. Most of them are nationals of Asian countries — China, Vietnam, Mongolia, Japan, but Korea’s popularity is also growing among representatives of North America (USA, Canada), Europe (France, Russia).
  • The cost of training. Studying in Korea is relatively inexpensive. Of course, the cost depends on the status and the form of funding of the university — in private universities, tuition can be almost 2 times more expensive, but even so, the cost of the course is always lower than in America or the UK. In addition, it is important that according to the South Korean law, foreign students pay as much as the Koreans themselves.
Disadvantages of studying in South Korea

  • Hierarchy of universities. Hierarchy has been historically embedded in the culture of Korean society, which, of course, is reflected in higher education. So, graduates of provincial universities have fewer career prospects than graduates of the top three universities in South Korea — SKY. Often this causes the latter to be accused of elitism.
  • The art of memorization. Another disadvantage of Korean education is the predominance of lecture classes. Teachers almost never interact with students, just give the material, with the expectation that the students will independently tackle a large number of tasks. The foundation of this training is not the development of critical thinking, but simple memorization of the material. According to international students, creativity, communication, and group work are often lacking in the curriculum of Korean universities.

Cost and Structure of Education in South Korea

Type of EducationAgeDurationMin costAvg. The costExams
Summer Camp7-181-12 weeks222 USD/week665 USD/week-
Language courses16+1-24 weeks111 USD/week160 USD/wk-
Secondary education12-186 yearsFree (public school)13,294 USD/year (international school)-
College18+2-3 years2,954 USD/year6,647 USD/yearIELTS 5.5/TOPIK Level 3
Bachelor’s18+4-6 years5,170 USD/year10,709 USD/yearIELTS 5.5/TOPIK Level 3
Master’s21 +2 years4,136 USD/year13,294 USD/yearIELTS 6.0/TOPIK Level 3
Doctoral21+3-4 years3,840 USD/year14,401 USD/yearIELTS 6.0/TOPIK Level 3
Additional costs

ExpensesAverage cost
Application to a university78 USD
Language exam30 USD or 222 USD
Flight347 USD
Accommodation (student residence)148 USD/month
Accommodation (rental housing)1,846 USD/month
Accommodation (boarding house)369 USD/month
Learning materials517 USD
Internet24 USD/month
Transport44 USD/month
Food260 USD/month
Medical insurance16 USD/month

The options for admission to universities in South Korea

Options for admission to South Korean universities

Admission requirements of South Korean Universities

Applications are accepted directly by each individual university, applicants can send documents by mail and/or upload them online. The academic year in Korea begins in March, although many universities enroll students twice a year — in March and September. Application deadlines are in September-November and May-June. Exact dates should be checked on university sites. Education is divided into two semesters with a break in between them: summer break (July-August) and winter break (December-February).

Knowledge of Korean might be an advantage for an applicant or affect scholarship, however, it is not a prerequisite for admission. About 30% of programs in South Korea are taught in English. When submitting documents, international students must confirm the level of language proficiency in which the training will be conducted by providing the results of the corresponding exam: English — TOEFL or IELTS, Korean — TOPIK (Test of Proficiency in Korean).

TOPIK exam can be taken in more than 82 countries. The exam is held 6 times a year (January, March, April, July, October, November). Specific dates are published on the exam site at the beginning of the year. The exam costs 30 USD to take. Korean language levels are divided into elementary (1-2) and advanced (3-6). Upon admission, level 3 or higher is required. In order to graduate from a university, a student will need to demonstrate at least level 4.

For programs taught in English, the requirement for the level of proficiency at all stages of instruction is at least TOEFL 80 / IELTS 6.0, and less often IELTS 5.5 (for undergraduate studies).

The final list of documents (for all programs) may include:

  • Notarized copy of a certificate of previously completed education and transcripts with grades;
  • Copy and original language certificate;
  • A motivation letter summarizing a study plan / research proposal;
  • Letters of recommendation from professors, teachers and/or employers (1-2 pcs.);
  • Copy of passport;
  • Copies of passports of both parents;
  • A document confirming kinship;
  • Portfolio (for creative specialties);
  • Miscellaneous materials — individual achievements, publications, thesis (optional).

All documents will require translations into the language of study (English or Korean). In the absence of valid passports of the student and/or his parents, it is necessary to provide copies and originals of other documents indicating nationality. Depending on the university and the field of study, additional entrance examinations and interviews are possible. If desired, the student can take the standardized Korean exam Suneung (수능) — an analog of the American SAT. The results can increase the chances of admission, especially in top universities in Korea — SKY.

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College — Vocational education in South Korea

The negative perception and stigmatization of technical and other applied education unfairly undermine the reputation of vocational schools in South Korea, although they are a good option for those who do not want to follow the traditional university route.

Vocational education is conducted by several types of educational institutions. First of all, it is worth mentioning junior colleges (also specialized colleges, polytechnic colleges), offering two-year (75-80 credits) and three-year (120 or more credits) courses awarding associate's degree (준 문학사 — Junmunhaksa) upon graduation. The main areas of study include various crafts, as well as an extensive block of specialties related to preschool education, economics, business administration, technology, engineering, agriculture, fishing, navigation, and nursing. The curriculum usually includes up to 30% of general subjects in addition to core subjects. Great emphasis is placed on internships.

The requirements for college admission are the same as for university admissions, but the competition is much smaller. After graduating from a junior college, graduates can start working in their specialty or transfer earned credits and go straight to the 3rd year of bachelor’s as part of partnership agreements between colleges and universities (similar to what students of community colleges in the USA do).

An associate's degree can also be obtained at industrial universities (polytechnics), but the cost of studying there will be higher in accordance with the status of the university.

Bachelor’s in South Korea — Undergraduate

Bachelor’s (학사 - Haksa) in Korea develops key skills and trains important theoretical knowledge, which is necessary to work or continue education. Bachelor’s degrees are issued by four-year colleges and universities, including general research universities, specialized industrial universities and universities of education, and remote cyber universities.

Standard academic programs last for 4 years (130-140 credits), at the same time professional programs (architecture, law, medicine, pharmaceutical business) take 5-6 years. During the first two years, students have core and elective subjects of a general profile, then focus on special disciplines, which are also divided into compulsory and optional.

In order to successfully complete the program, it is necessary to write a thesis, finish a project, or pass a comprehensive examination. In addition, requirements are set for the final GPA, which should be at least 2.00 (C). Universities in South Korea issue both standard degrees of Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science and many specialized ones: Bachelor of Economics, Bachelor of Information Science, Bachelor of Statistics and others.

The main requirement for foreign applicants is the equivalent of 12 years of study in a Korean school. Completed secondary education of 11 years may be also considered equivalent if that is its standard duration in a student’s home country.

Grading system in Korean universities

Letter gradeGrade pointPercentage
A +4.595-100%
B +3.585-90%
C +2.575-80%
D +1.565- 70%

Grading varies from university to university. Some universities use a three-tier rating structure, for example, A + (4.3), A0 (4.0), A- (3.7), and so on.

Master’s in South Korea

Master’s (석사 — Seoksa) in Korea is awarded by graduate schools, which combine master's and doctoral programs. Moreover, on the basis of a university, there may exist one general grad school of an academic orientation or several professional schools with a practical inclination.

The duration of study for a master’s degree in Korea is 2 years. The curriculum involves the study of a specific set of courses, with an aggregate credit score of 24 credits (approximately 48 ECTS), and a master's research. To obtain a master's degree (MA, MS and others), a student must have a final GPA of 3.0 (B) or higher, pass a comprehensive exam and a foreign language exam, and also defend a thesis. Thus, the master's program in South Korea sets a fairly high standard, providing its graduates with a wide range of competencies.

Master’s applicants must complete a bachelor's degree in a relevant field with an average score of 3.0 (B) or higher.

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Doctoral studies in South Korea — Graduate school

Doctoral studies (박사 - Baksa) is the last stage of higher education in Korea. It is conducted by graduate schools, most of which are part of universities, although they may exist as separate educational institutions.

In Korean universities, there are two ways to obtain a doctoral degree:

  • Stand-alone program. Assumes at least three years of study, including 2 years of course work (30-36 credits). A mandatory requirement for admission is a master's degree in an adjacent field.
  • The integrated program. Admission is based on a bachelor's degree. At a certain stage of training, students are awarded an intermediate master's degree. Duration is at least 4 years, during which it is necessary to collect 60 credits with training courses.

For successful completion of the program, the student must secure a final GPA of 3.0 (B) or higher, pass a comprehensive exam and two foreign languages, and then write and defend a doctoral dissertation. The most common qualification in South Korea is Doctor of Philosophy (PhD), but there is also Doctor of Science, Doctor of Business Administration and others.

Upon admission to doctoral studies, the GPA at the previous stage of education (at least 3.0), published papers, research proposal, resume, and also the knowledge of foreign languages ​​(depending on the program, this can be Japanese, English, Korean, French, etc.), all are taken into account.

Academic career in South Korea

An academic career in South Korea, like the entire education system as a whole, is built on the model of the United States of America. Therefore, here you can find the same positions. For example, full-time positions:

  • (Full) professor (정교수 / 교수);
  • Associate professor (부교수);
  • Assistant professor (조교수);
  • Full-time instructor (전임 강사).

There are also temporary positions:

  • Part-time instructor (시간 강사);
  • Research professor (연구 교수);
  • Clinical professor (임상 교수);
  • Adjunct professor (겸임 교수);
  • Teaching assistant professor (강의 전문 조교수);
  • Visiting professor (객원 교수 / 초빙 교수);
  • Chaired professor (석좌 교수);
  • Emeritus professor (명예 교수).

A doctorate can be an advantage in building a further academic career at the same university where it was obtained.

The average salary of a professor is 3 million KRW/month.[3]

Scholarships and grants

The most famous government grant is the Global Korea Scholarship (GKS). It fully covers the expenses of students for travel, accommodation, training, medical insurance, training materials, and other needs. The program also includes one-year language courses before starting the main program. Each year, scholarships are given to 170 students of undergraduate level (bachelor's, associate's) and 700 students of graduate level (master's, doctoral).

The main selection criteria are age (up to 25 and 40, respectively) and GPA at the previous stage of education (more than 75% for admission to associate's and more than 80% for other programs). Applications for GKS are accepted by Korean embassies in participating countries and universities accredited by the National Institute for International Education.

There is also a scholarship program for self-financed undergraduate students. Full-time students who have studied at a Korean college or university for at least two semesters and demonstrate good knowledge of Korean at the minimum of level 4, according to the results of TOPIK[4], can apply. Annually the Korean government selects 200 students who receive the scholarship for 12 months.

Many universities provide foreign applicants who have a high academic performance with a discount of 30-100% of the total tuition cost[5].

Student visa to South Korea

Student visas to Korea can be of two types:

  • Overseas Study (D-2). Long-term visa for bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral studies, as well as participation in research projects at colleges, universities and professional schools.
  • General training (D-4). Short-term visa for taking language courses on the basis of a university or other training in organizations that do not fall under the first category.

To obtain a D-2 visa, the following documents must be prepared:

  • International passport valid throughout the entire course of study;
  • A completed visa application form;
  • Registration fee payment receipt (50 USD for single entry and 80 USD for multiple entries;
  • Letter of acceptance from the university;
  • Copy of education certificate (translated into the language of instruction and notarized);
  • Proof of financial ability.

The latter may take the form of a bank statement (at least 8,289 USD) or a document confirming the availability of a grant/scholarship or external financial support. The above list of documents is not always final. In some cases, additional documents are required.

D-2 visa is initially issued for a period of up to two years, then it is extended. Engineering students can apply for category D-2-7, which allows foreign students to stay in South Korea after graduation in order to find work.

Within 90 days after arrival, the student must visit the regional migration service in order to receive an Alien Registration Card, the cost of which is 7 USD. In addition, you will need to purchase an insurance (16 USD/month) that provides access to all medical facilities in South Korea.

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Work while studying in South Korea

During studies at the universities of South Korea, a foreign student with a D-2 visa can get a part-time job (no more than 20 hours a week) for a semester and full-time during the break. To do this, you must study at the university for at least 6 months (one semester) and obtain the appropriate permission. The student will also be required to provide the employer with a valid student visa and a letter of recommendation from the school.

Immigration opportunities

After graduating from a university and obtaining a degree, a student has a lot of opportunities to stay in South Korea, while changing his visa status[6]. The most common are the following options:

  • E-1-E-7. Type E statuses are available to graduates of Korean universities who have already found work that matches one of the following categories: Professor (E-1), Foreign Language Instructor ​​(E-2), Researcher (E-3), Technician (E-4), Professional (E-5), Artist / Athlete (E-6), Foreign National of Special Ability (E-7)[6]. The maximum stay duration varies from 3 to 5 years.
  • D-10. Job seeker status is suitable for those who are still looking for work or planning to create a startup. Validity of the visa is 6 months, but it can be extended for up to 2 years.
  • F-2-7. Resident status (permanent residence) is issued to graduates with a master's degree and above who are employed in a Korean company. To obtain a residence permit, you need to score at least 80 points out of 120 based on criteria such as age (25), level of education (35), level of Korean language proficiency (20), income (10), payment of taxes (5), volunteer activity (5), etc.

Employment opportunities

A high level of education in the country is only one of the signs of the exceptional transformation of Korea, which has experienced a rapid economic recovery over the past 70 years. Today, the Korean economy occupies 12th place in the world and 4th place in Asia[7]. The unemployment rate is only 4%[8]. As for foreign citizens, the South Korean government provides significant support to students and graduates of Korean universities, without imposing insurmountable visa restrictions on them. All this creates more than favorable conditions for employment in the country.

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking about Korea is, of course, high technology, which is reflected in the largest industries: automobile manufacturing, chemical industry, electronics, shipbuilding, metallurgy, mobile telecommunications. Many know Korean companies like Samsung, Hyundai, LG Electronics, KPMG, ExxonMobil and others. The most sought after specialists are those with technical and IT skills. However, in the context of globalization, one cannot fail to note another promising area — teaching of foreign languages, mainly English.

In general, with a Korean diploma, getting a job in Korea is much easier than without it, but the competition for jobs here is extremely high. Most likely it will not do without learning the Korean language. At the same time, the degree obtained in South Korea is not inferior to the American or the European one, and therefore opens up broad prospects for employment not only in Korea but also in many countries of the world.

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