When I first started looking into furthering my Korean language skills beyond understanding drama and variety speak, there was a Singaporean girl whose name is Alice I think, who wrote detailed and informative blog posts about her exchange experience in Seoul. She’s since closed her blog, sadly. But even then, there wasn’t much written about studying Korean full-time in South Korea, specifically at Yonsei University Korean Language Institute, where I am completing my Korean studies. I thought this information might be useful to those who—especially Singaporeans—are afraid to make the big move because of uncertainty.
Picking a School
With so many universities offering Korean language programmes, how do you pick one? I’ll focus only on Yonsei (where I study), Sogang and Ewha, because I do not have close friends from the other schools and I wouldn’t be able to make fair judgments and comments about them.
The debate right now is mostly between Yonsei and Sogang. The former started the first Korean language programme in Seoul for international students 50 years ago, while the latter’s relatively new. The standard is 4 hours per day / 200 hours per semester. The three schools are known for different things:
- Yonsei is a well-established school and there is a very heavy emphasis on grammar and correctness. Most students who are looking to enter any Korean university would benefit from its focus on academic language. Chinese and Japanese make up most of the students here. The school makes a point to separate students who already have background in Asian languages (Chinese and Japanese) from students who have no background in them. Those with background in Chinese and/or Japanese will go to Course A (6 semesters) and those without will go to Course B (8 semesters). The passing grade is 60 marks for each section: oral, listening, reading and writing. As Yonsei is rather concerned about letting students promote to the next level without a strong foundation, quite a handful of students per level will have to repeat. Yonsei’s the most expensive (school fees and textbooks) among the schools, but it also has the most students.
- Sogang, on the other hand, is known for its heavy focus on daily life speech and speaking skills. If you are looking to be fluent in the language in terms of speaking, or if you don’t need it for academic purposes, this school seems to be a good choice. Compared to Yonsei, where there’s little practice for speaking, Sogang dedicates 2 hours a day for speaking practice. The passing grade in Sogang is 70 marks and there are 7 levels in total. (Update January 2017: Sogang is now the most expensive among the three schools.)
- Ewha seems to have an entirely different focus, with writing skills being one of them. My friends who’ve graduated from Ewha agree that Yonsei’s curriculum is a lot heavier and tougher. There are grammar structures that you’d learn in Yonsei, that you wouldn’t learn in Ewha. But to be fair, some of the grammar structures learnt in Yonsei aren’t used very often in daily life. Also, Yonsei’s curriculum seems to be (half) a semester ahead of Ewha’s, i.e. what you learn in the second half of level 2 (Yonsei) might appear only in level 3 (Ewha). Teachers spend a few days teaching a unit, while in Yonsei, you learn a new unit each day. Passing grade is 60 marks per section, but your average score has to be 70 and above. Few ELC students have to repeat the same level twice. A large number of students seem to be from Hong Kong and Taiwan. I suspect students who do not have background in Chinese and/or Japanese come to Ewha too, because they don’t want to have to spend 2 extra semesters in Yonsei.
In my own opinion, I would still pick Yonsei, if I had to choose again. I think the point is to make more Korean friends (not easy though) to supplement what is lacking in the classes. But that’s just my personal preference.
Applying for the School
Application to these schools is pretty straightforward and you shouldn’t have any problems, except sometimes they take quite some time to get back to you. Be patient, and email them again a week or two later if you still haven’t received a reply.
There are three options for Singaporeans:
- Apply for a student visa before coming over.
- Come over with a 90-day tourist visa, which is more than enough if you’re just doing a semester (10 weeks).
- Or if you came with a tourist visa and later decide to continue with the course, you can then apply for a student visa while in Seoul, provided you fulfill the prerequisites.
Finding a Place to Stay
One-room, goshiwon, hasukjib, share house, or your school’s hostel, if they have one. Most students opt for goshiwons because it’s the cheapest option if you want a room to yourself and there’s no security deposit and 1-year contract, unlike one-rooms. Traditionally, goshiwons do not have private bathrooms, but this has changed over the years. Previously, if they have private bathrooms, they’re called goshitels instead. But no one really refer to them as that these days. I refer to them as 비싼 (expensive) goshiwons. It is recommended that you do some research online and come over to check a few places out before you pay for anything. As a photographer myself, I know how photographs can be deceiving. Shanna from Hangukdrama has a really great post on how to choose an accommodation, so I’ll not dwell (unintentional pun!) on it.
Needless to say, the amount you’ll spend here depends on how much of a big spender (or miser) you are.
A rough breakdown:
- Accommodation can go anywhere from SGD $500 to $900, if you pick an accommodation close to school, which is recommended because all your friends would be living in around the same area and you actually save on transport fees. You can opt for the school hostels, but you will have to move out after 6 months. If you live in a one-room, you’ll have to fork out a large sum of money for security deposit (usually KRW 5,000,000), excluding monthly bills (maintenance fee, gas, electricity and internet).
- Food should make up the second largest portion of your monthly expenses. If you eat out often, it will work out to be about $500~$700. However, if you can cook and your accommodation offers rice and ramyeon, you could go as low as $250, which includes eating out with friends a couple of times per week.
Large chain stores have mandatory closed days, so be sure to do your grocery shopping ahead of time. Also, you’ll have to learn to live with paying for plastic bags or bringing your eco-bag out. Some stores don’t charge for plastic bags, and when that happens, don’t reject the free plastic bag because that’s going to be what you’re going to use to collect your rubbish at home. The most interesting thing you’ll have to learn is probably how to sort out your food waste and rubbish. Tofugu has an interesting article on sorting out rubbish in Japan, and it’s about as complicated in Korea. You’ll either gradually get used to it or miss the comforts of throwing everything down the rubbish chute that we take for granted in Singapore.
Marsha from Hangeulove has a great Q&A post on studying at Yonsei University KLI.
December 2016: I have been receiving questions from readers and thought it would be a good idea write an e-book to answer the some of the frequently asked questions and share the lessons I have learnt from my 16 months in Korea. In the e-book, I also share tips on matters such as how to shave off at least two-thirds of the cost of your textbooks, crucial tips on how to study for the exams, additional information about visa extension and work visa, as well as other important information (e.g. SIM card and accommodation) that will make your life in Korea easier, cheaper and more exciting. The 25-page e-book is ready for purchase at SGD $10. Drop me a message to buy a PDF copy of the e-book!
February 2017: I have updated the e-book and it is now 40 pages long with more information and questions answered.