Studying in South Korea: The University System Explained

An increasing number of international students are choosing to study in South Korea for university. Here’s everything you need to help your students apply.

With one of the world’s highest-educated workforces and a top OECD ranking for scholastic achievement, South Korea is a country that has been globally recognised for its education system.

However, it’s only in recent years that the country has become popular with international students.

In 2014, less than 85,000 international students were studying at university in South Korea, a number which has been steadily increasing to meet a target of 200,000 by 2023.

At BridgeU, we’ve seen this change first hand. In our recent report we found that amongst BridgeU students graduating in 2021, South Korea experienced an increase in popularity of 52% year-on-year.

But as a relatively new international destination, many students might not know where to start when it comes to applying to university in South Korea.

So, in this blog post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the South Korean education system, the benefits of studying there, and how you can help your students apply.

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What are the benefits of studying in South Korea?

World-renowned universities

South Korea is one of the top ranking study destinations in Asia, with 29 universities in this year’s QS World University Rankings. In particular, degrees from the prestigious “SKY” universities are well respected all over the world. These universities are all based in Korea’s capital, Seoul:

  • Seoul National University
  • Korea University
  • Yonsei University

But rankings aren't everything. South Korea has a number of different types of university, offering a variety of courses in both Korean and English. We'll go into more detail on these below.

Welcoming to international students

As we mentioned above, the South Korean government is actively trying to increase the number of international students in the country. Because of this, international students are given increased financial and employment support throughout their degree.

What’s more, many South Korean universities offer a large number of English-taught programmes where proficiency in the Korean language is not required.

Affordability

Tuition fees for international students in South Korea are quite affordable. As part of the government initiative, tuition fees are the same for international students as for domestic students, and there are a lot of scholarship options available. We’ll go into more detail on fees and scholarships a little later in this blog post.

As well as tuition fees, living costs in South Korea are also relatively low, with accommodation, food and transportation being much cheaper than in other countries. 

A culture of innovation

South Korea is Asia’s fourth largest economy (after China, Japan and India), and is home to some of the world’s biggest technology companies - Samsung, KPMG, and Hyundai, to name a few. The country’s expertise in IT and robotics makes it a great destination for any students interested in this sector.

 

The different types of South Korean university

South Korea has a wide range of national and private, academic and vocational institutions:

Research universities

The most prestigious types of institution, research universities in South Korea are divided into:

  • Public universities, which are funded by central government
  • Local universities, which are funded by local government
  • Private universities, which are funded by private non-profit educational foundations

Industrial Universities

Industrial universities offer more vocational qualifications than research universities, but also award bachelor’s degrees. Tuition fees are invariably lower than research universities. Again, industrial universities are a combination of public and private institutions.

Junior Colleges

Junior colleges offer technical qualifications and many degree programmes at South Korean junior colleges last two to three years. The types of courses offered by junior colleges include early childhood education, nursing, home economics, agriculture, engineering and business administration.

Universities of Education

These are universities designed to provide teacher training, offering mainly four year degree qualifications.

Cyber Universities

These universities predominantly offer degrees online, and have been increasing in popularity since they were founded in 2004. Cyber universities offer a combination of bachelors’ degrees and associate degrees.

How to apply to university in South Korea

When applying to university in South Korea, students apply to each institution directly. This means that each university will have slightly different application criteria.

Application deadlines

The South Korean academic year starts in March, but many universities admit new students twice a year, in March and September. Application deadlines vary, but are usually around 4-6 months before the start of the semester.

Documents required

As we mentioned above, each university will have its own requirements. Broadly speaking, students applying in South Korea will need the following:

  • University-specific application form (this can usually be done online)
  • Academic transcripts
  • Letter of recommendation
  • Proof of finances (showing they are able to support themselves financially throughout their studies)

Once they have been accepted to a South Korean university, international students will also need a D-2 visa. They can get this from a South Korean embassy or consulate in their home country.

Language requirements

If students are planning to take an English-taught course, they will have to provide proof of their English-language proficiency when applying.

If they are applying for a course taught in Korean (or a mixture of English and Korean), they must also take a Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK).

Standardised tests

Depending on the country your students are applying from, they may be asked to take standardised tests such as the SAT or ACT. While some universities will only ask for grades and scores, others will also ask students to take interviews and extra aptitude tests.

Once again, students should check the requirements of their chosen institution(s) carefully before applying.

Funding a South Korean education

Tuition fees

As we mentioned, international students pay the same fees as domestic students in South Korea. A course at a public university costs around $9,000 per year, up to around $12,000 for an internationally ranked or private university. This is still much cheaper than countries like the USA, which can cost up to $50,000 per year!

Scholarship options

There are a lot of financial aid options for international students wanting to study in South Korea.

South Korean scholarships comprise a mix of government funding, and scholarships provided by the universities themselves. We can’t share them all in this post, but here are some notable scholarships offered by some of the most well-known universities in South Korea.

The Undergraduate Korean Government Scholarship

This is a scholarship offered by the Korean government for international students who are interested in studying in South Korea. The scholarship covers tuition fees and living expenses, including flight tickets to South Korea. The scholarship is applicable for students studying at any university affiliated with the program. The application dates for this scholarship are October-November.

Seoul National University

Seoul National University offers the Overseas Korean Scholarship, covering tuition fees and
living expenses, medical insurance, and the cost of one economy flight round trip to South Korea. Students must submit their applications between February and March and must apply through the Korean embassy in their country in the first instance (Korean embassies review the first round of applications).

Yonsei University

Yonsei University is another institution based in Seoul and offers a number of merit and need-based scholarships for international students. The university offers scholarships as a whole, and its subsidiaries - Underwood International College and Global Leaders College - also give their own scholarships.

Korea University

Korea University has a range of scholarships in a range of disciplines. Students have two windows to apply for financial aid, August-October and February-April.

KAIST University

A leading science and technology university, The KAIST scholarship includes full tuition fee

and contributions towards living expenses of 350 KRW per month. It also includes national health insurance coverage. Again, there are two application windows, one running from September to October, and November to January.

Kyung Hee University

This university is very well known for its medical school. It offers a number of scholarships that cover 30%, 50% & 70% of tuition fees.

Hanyang University

Hanyang University has three scholarships for international students, each covering about

70% of the cost of tuition fees. Students can apply online through the university’s website, and there are two application windows - one in September and one in April.

Inha University

Inha University is well known for its Engineering undergraduate degree program and offers fully funded scholarships for undergraduate students.

With so many options available to international students, it’s no surprise that South Korea has been steadily increasing in popularity.

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