[Featured] Studying Abroad in Korea - Simple Breakdown of Options

Hi Soompiers, and Happy New Year 2014! 

I hope you had a wonderful holiday season! Time simply flies past, doesn’t it? It feels like yesterday when Christmas decorations hit the store shelves, but now we are already trying to stick to our New Year’s resolutions and become better versions of ourselves. And talking of resolutions…

To start the year off on a fresh note, I decided to share with you some useful information on coming to Korea, mainly to study. I am sure there are many of you who have been wondering how to visit Korea or how to live here for a longer period of time. Trust me, I have been there, and I would now like to share my experiences with you and give you tips that you might find helpful when planning your stay.

Just to give you a short introduction of myself and my past, I stayed in Korea as a high school exchange student from February 2010 until January 2011, visited Korea for two weeks in March 2012, and finally moved here in February 2013. Since March 2013, I have been studying at Yonsei University as a full-time undergraduate student. I grew up in Finland and Estonia, and I have never attended an international school or even lived in large cities. I basically lived on an island for 90% of my life. The reason why I am pointing this out is that you do not necessarily have to be a top high school graduate or have an impressive background to fulfill your dreams. If you really put your heart and mind into it, you can do it. Trust me.

Please be informed that everything covered in this article is based on my personal experiences and information that I have accumulated over the years. This article does not reflect the opinion of Soompi in general, and everything is absolutely noncommercial. 

Staying in Korea as a high school student

studying in korea exchange
High schoolers on a field trip to Korea’s semi-tropical paradise, Jeju Island

While high school exchange is common in many countries, there are just a few organizations in Korea that have an exchange program for young international students. Every year, thousands of Korean students head to mostly English-speaking countries for a year or two to improve their English, but these programs are mainly commercial and do not have programs for foreign students coming to Korea. However, there are a couple of internationally recognized organizations operating in Korea that truly practice student exchange, as in they have both outbound Korean students and inbound foreign students.

Youth for Understanding (YFU)


YFU runs one of the most respected and longest-running international student exchange programs in the world. There are numerous YFUs in all parts of the globe, and I recommend you to check out their website to find the YFU in your country. When coming to Korea through YFU, you usually have the option of staying here for a whole academic year or just for the summer. You will stay at a local host family and attend a regular high school around your area. YFU programs cost around $12,000 a year, which often covers everything except visa fees, vaccinations, insurance, and your pocket money throughout the year. Both merit-based and need-based scholarships are available, as the program is quite costly. You will have to send in an application at least half a year before the program begins (school year in Korea starts in March and ends in December), but I recommend you to start the process as soon as possible as the spots are limited. YFU will go through your profile and academic records, and they will contact you for an interview afterwards. I would say that instead of your grades, motivation is the key to getting accepted, so do not hold back your enthusiasm! 

Exchange Program

I spent my year in Korea as a YFU exchange student, and naturally I want to share with you everything that I find satisfying or disappointing about the organization’s performance. YFU Finland is run by a wonderful team of people, most of whom have been exchange students in the past themselves. Throughout the application process, they were very helpful, answered all of my questions, and sent me monthly letters to share any updates or news. They also organized a two-day orientation a month before our departure, during which we revised YFU rules and other necessary information, received tips from previous exchange students, and met the other students going to the same country. I received my host family information a month before leaving for Korea, and in most cases you will get your family quite close to your departure. Overall, I am very happy with the way YFU Finland took care of the process.

Host family

When we arrived in Korea, a YFU Korea staff member and the host families were waiting for us. So far, no exchange students have been placed in families that live in the rural areas of Korea. Most students stay in the Seoul area, with some placed in other large cities, such as Daegu and Pohang. YFU Korea host families tend to represent the healthy middle-class, and most of the host siblings are exchange students themselves. I lived in two families during my year, one of them a bit more traditional Korean and another a bit more modern. One tip I would give is that try to build a relationship with your host family and speak as much Korean as you possibly can. Looking back at my year, most of my Korean was learnt through interacting with my family members, and some of my best memories were made with them as well. However, if you do not feel comfortable with your designated family for some reason, turn to YFU if the problem cannot be solved. 

studying in korea school
Setting up the computer for the teacher (it’s cold inside in the winter, hence the thick jackets)

School Life

YFU Korea has requested certain schools to accept exchange students, and the range of these schools is quite large. They vary all the way from mixed schools to all-girls high schools, and from top high schools to middle-range ones. I personally attended an all-girls high school with a strict dress code; school uniform, no make-up, no colored hair, no long nails, no jewelry. However, every school is different, and my friend did not have to worry about anything except for the uniform. As for the lessons, school days start around 8am and end around 4pm with a lunch break in between. You are not required to study anything in advanced Korean, but participation in physical education or art classes is often necessary. Most exchange students spend their lessons studying Korean, but if the teacher is lenient, you might be able to read a book or even sleep. Again, depends on your school, but be ready to wake up early and stay until the late afternoon. It is also very rare to skip school or be absent, even if you are sick, and use of cellphones might be limited.

School is the best place to make friends and have fun, as most Korean high school students spend their whole day at school, making it almost like their second home. People will have blankets and tumblers, snacks and mirrors, basically all sorts of items with them to survive through the day. Every class will have their own class room, and teachers will come in to teach the classes instead of students moving around the school. As high school is very crucial for Korean students, most of them aspiring to get accepted to top universities, students often stay at school until late night. As for my school, my classmates were at school from 7:45am to 10pm, doing self-study from 4pm onwards. This limited our possibilities to hang out after school or even during the weekends, when they had to attend private lessons. However, some schools are not focused on studying as much, and the students will leave school after the mandatory classes end, making it easier to build relationships outside of school. I would recommend you to spend your time at school mingling with your classmates and enjoying your time with them. Korean students are very energetic and fun, and an exchange student will most likely be the center of attention throughout the year, making it easy to get to know people.

studying in korea 4minute
4minute leaving SBS “Inkigayo”

Spare Time

As an exchange student, you are only required to attend school and spend time with your family, so you will have a nice amount of free time. While your family might set you some rules for you, such as curfew, you are encouraged to experience as much as possible. The capital area is filled with private academies that teach dance or Korean, and attending these lessons is a great way of spending your evenings or weekends. Actually, my friend used to learn popping from a friend of BEAST‘s Junhyung! Most likely you will get close with your exchange student friends as well as your classmates, so do not feel worried about being left alone. For those who are interested in attending concerts, many large-scale K-pop concerts offer special tickets to foreigners staying in Korea, and there are always weekly music shows. Overall, being a high school exchange student gives you the privilege to live with a Korean family and immerse yourself in the culture, making it easier to learn the language and become friends with locals. While it can be difficult at times, I highly recommend you to experience it if possible.

Rotary Youth Exchange

Rotary is an international organization that aims to link business and global leaders to provide humanitarian services and build goodwill all around the world. One of their most visible services is youth exchange, which is operated by local Rotary clubs. Students aged 15-19 can apply, and compared to YFU’s exchange program, this one is significantly less costly. The club will take care of everything except airfare, insurance, visa, and pocket money, and the length of stay can vary depending on what can be organized and what the club offers. Based on what I have heard, it is quite likely that you will have multiple host families during your stay, and most students have stayed in cities outside the capital area. In order to apply and find out the details, contact your closest Rotary club!

studying in korea ddeok making
Summer@UIC students making traditional rice cakes

Summer@UIC (Yonsei University)

Summer@UIC is a recently launched summer program for high school students, organized by Yonsei University, one of the most prestigious universities in Korea. The students will stay at the new Yonsei International Campus in Songdo, just an hour away from the Sinchon campus in Seoul, and take classes on Korean language, culture, and history. While weekdays consist mostly of intensive lessons and activities, Saturdays will be spent experiencing what Seoul and the surrounding areas have to offer. This program is a great chance for all high school students hoping to stay in Korea for the summer and get a taste of college life on the side. 

The program costs around $4,500, which covers the application fee, tuition fee, dormitory fee, and field trip fee. I was a part of the management team last year, and we had a great group of international students that left Korea with improved language skills and loads of wonderful memories. As the website gives you a proper overview of the program, I recommend you check it out for more information. The application period will begin in March, and soon the site will be updated with the latest schedule.

Staying in Korea as a university student

studying in korea uni
The picturesque Yonsei University main campus in Sinchon

Underwood International College, Yonsei University (UIC)

UIC is a selective liberal arts college within Yonsei University, Korea’s top private educational institution. With all classes conducted in English, UIC strives to rival the leading intimate liberal arts colleges in the US. The professors are graduates of prestigious universities with admirable academic achievements, and the students come from very diverse backgrounds, making UIC the ideal college for all aspiring global leaders.

For anyone hoping to earn their undergraduate degree in Korea, UIC is the best option, especially if you want to take your classes in English. While there are a few programs in other universities that offer classes in English, they often lack the competitiveness and unique international atmosphere of UIC. Tuition fees are costly for a Korean university, but very affordable compared to those of top US colleges. As the student body is fairly small and consists of students from all around the world, there will always be someone you know in every classroom, and opinions from diverse points-of-view make the lectures instructive and interesting.

Despite being just a sophomore, I know I made the right decision coming here. If you want to work in an international environment after you graduate, the extensive Yonsei University network has you covered, and the interdisciplinary approach to education ensures you will graduate with the ideal intellectual foundation. UIC is definitely a competitive college, and even though I sometimes just want to call off the game, hard work pays off in the end.

Language Institutes

While language institutes do not give you a degree, they are a great way of staying in Korea and learning the language. All major universities have their own Korean language programs for foreigners, and I will introduce three of the most popular ones. Based on the reviews I have read and what I have heard, Yonsei University focuses mostly on writing, Sogang University puts emphasis on speaking, and the classes in Ewha Womans University are quite well-balanced. Tuition fees vary based on the length and intensity of the course, so I recommend you to visit the websites and compare the programs to find one that fits your needs. 

studying in korea ewha
The beautiful and lively campus at Ewha Womans University

Summer Schools and Exchange

If you are currently enrolled in a college or university in your home country, but would like to study in Korea, the best options are summer schools and exchange programs. Korean universities tend to have extensive ties with universities around the world, and there are thousands of foreign exchange students coming to Korea every semester. An exchange year is a wonderful way to experience a new culture and earn your credits at the same time. Another option is a summer school program, which is a chance for you to spend your summer in Korea and challenge yourself intellectually. Again, fees vary, so check out websites for more information.

Undergraduate and Master’s Degrees

Studying in a regular Korean university is possible only if you take the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK) and pass Level 4 or 5, confirming your proficiency in advanced Korean. Many foreign students spend a year or two learning Korean at a language institute, and apply for a university after their language skills are up to par. There are just a few degrees that do not require fluent Korean skills, and while most universities have a high percentage of classes in English, those might not be enough to earn you a degree. Fields such as International Studies and Politics are most likely to conduct their classes in English, so if you are interested, I recommend you do some further research.

Master’s Degrees are quite often offered in both languages, in some cases exclusively in English, making it easier for foreign students to apply. Websites will contain all basic information, so check out the list below!

Links to some of Korea’s leading universities that offer programs for international students

Seoul National University

Yonsei University

Korea University

Hanyang University

Ewha Womans University

Sogang University

Sungkyunkwan University


I hope this has answered some of your questions regarding high school and university life in Korea. As there is very little information available on high school exchange compared to university exchange, I deliberately focused on the first one. However, if there is something I did not cover but you would like to know, please leave a comment and I will try to help you out. Also, feel free to share your own experiences in the comment section below!

an0ya is a Soompi writer that loves her some smooth Korean hip hop, a new episode of “Man from the Stars,” and a nice platter of sushi. A big one.

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