Life Abroad
10 min

Pros and Cons of Living and Studying in South Korea

In 2018, I won the KGSP scholarship and was enrolled in a master's program at the Sogang University in Seoul where I study international relations in the East Asian region.

Recently, I've joined the mentor community at StudyFree. Here, I'm sharing my view of what it's like to live and study in South Korea. 

What's Good About Studying in South Korea

High level of education. Most universities here are private ones. There are lots of them, and each of them is competing to be at the top. Professors put a lot of effort into meeting high education standards, and university authorities supervise their work closely. For example, before students can see their final grade at the end of a semester, they have to submit an anonymous opinion about the professor. The administration will then use this feedback to improve the learning process. This is how it works at our university too.

Vivid student life. Universities in South Korea, especially major ones, care about their students’ social life. They can choose from a vast variety of sports and arts clubs, hobby groups, cultural events, parties, and festivals where they make friends, have fun together, and just enjoy student life in all its beauty.

Modern and comfortable facilities. Major universities have big campuses that accommodate everything from cafeterias, libraries, and residence halls to football pitches, cafés, and parks. The buildings and rooms are regularly renovated, so you'll never see cracked paint on the walls or old desks with dried gums stuck to the wood all over the surface. All classrooms are equipped with up-to-date computers, interactive boards, and video projectors. Evidently, the universities ensure all the conditions for you to feel comfortable there and be able to easily focus on the learning process. 

What's Good About Living in South Korea

Good infrastructure. South Korea is very comfortable to live in. It has an efficient public transport system where buses and trains always arrive on time and every bus stop, even in the most remote areas, features a digital board that displays a traffic schedule. Besides, there are a lot of well-maintained parks with bike lanes, promenades, gardens, and other recreational areas.

Safety. Koreans, for the most part, are very law-abiding. The crime level is low. I wouldn't be afraid to travel without company or walk alone late at night here. When in a café, you can leave your phone or purse on a table and go to the restroom without having second thoughts about whether your belongings could be stolen. When you buy something online, the delivery guy leaves your order next to your door, and you don't have to worry: the parcel will be totally safe there. 

Advanced medicine and beauty industry. A doctor is one of the most prestigious and high-paid jobs in South Korea. The government invests heavily in healthcare. The hospitals feature only state-of-the-art facilities. Also, the country is a highly popular destination for medical tourists. People from all over the world come here not only to fix their health problems but also to undergo plastic surgeries or other beauty procedures.

Wide choice of leisure activities. South Korea boasts a rich restaurant and bar culture. There is a myriad of non-mainstream places with original interiors and dishes where you can take lots of cool pictures for your Instagram. You can’t go a mile without running into an atmospheric coffee shop offering unusual drinks and desserts.

In South Korea, people normally don't stay in one place for the whole night. First, you go to a restaurant for dinner (1st round), then to a coffee house or a bar (2nd round). The 3rd round can include karaoke, dancing in a nightclub, or playing slots. There is no limit to this list.

Speaking about daytime activities, Seoul is packed with hundreds of museums, shopping malls, amusement parks, aquariums, observation decks, and many other places worth visiting. So apparently, getting bored in South Korea is quite a challenge. 

What's Not So Good About Studying in South Korea  

Tough competition. Parents in South Korea indoctrinate their children with an idea that studying nonstop is their only chance to succeed in life. From an early age, children are used to beavering away at their studies day and night and pursuing the highest scores. No wonder it's extremely hard to compete with them. 

Another problem is that many universities use an assessment system based on comparing students' results. For instance, only 10% of students can get an A and 20% — B, while the rest of the bunch gets C and D. So eventually, even if you have performed pretty well in the exam test, but your group mates have done better than you, you end up with a poor score. 

Strict hierarchy. In Western universities, it is common for a student to be on friendly terms with a professor. In South Korea though, a student will never have an informal talk with a professor. In Confucius’ philosophy, a teacher should be one of the most respected people for the younger generation, alongside older family members. That is why you can only talk to your professors in a highly respectful manner. It wouldn't hurt to even make a deep bow or say something flattering, but only if the context is appropriate.

That's the reason why you often have to put up with a professor’s being whimsical or even rude. Those giving back talk and rebelling can get into much trouble. 

What's Not So Good About Living in South Korea

Sky-high housing prices. When it comes to buying or renting an apartment, Seoul ranks among the most expensive cities in the world. Most students live in residence halls. If you feel like moving to an apartment, not only will you have to pay 400-700$ every month for a tiny studio, but also to give the landlord 5,000-10,000$ as a deposit. The exact amount depends on the location, square footage, and condition of the apartment. Besides, in South Korea, rented apartments are usually unfurnished, so you’ll have to add a bed and a wardrobe to your shopping list.

Korean skills are needed. Living in South Korea without speaking Korean is only okay if you have a local friend, partner, or spouse who is always there for you and can help you handle some daily errands. Otherwise, speaking Korean is a must for you. Even if you live in Seoul, there are very few people who speak English well enough, especially among senior people. Korean will be your only option in most of the stores, restaurants, post offices, hospitals, police stations, and even migration agencies.

Low tolerance towards foreigners. Even if you speak perfect Korean and have been living in the country for many years, you will never belong here. As a newcomer, you will be treated by many Koreans with curiosity in the best-case scenario or, if you are less lucky, with disdain. Some bars and nightclubs even have xenophobic signs “Foreigners are not allowed to enter” on them, allegedly because of some inappropriate incidents that took place there once and involved foreign citizens. As if locals have never behaved this way…

The mentality gap makes it hard for a foreigner to build a solid friendship with a local unless we are talking about a westernized Korean who has extensive experience of living abroad. That's the kind of friends I've made here.

Exotic cuisine. Although Korean cuisine is delicious, you'd better go easy on it if you have a weak stomach. Almost the entire menu consists of meat dishes in different variations. The most popular dish is barbecue pork. The fatter and juicer, the better. Many appetizers include spicy red sauce that makes your mouth burn.

Rice and kimchi are integral elements of almost any meal in South Korea. Unfortunately, fruits and vegetables in Korean supermarkets are very expensive. For example, you would have to pay 10$ for 1 kg of apples or 500 g of cherries, while 1 kg of grapes would cost you from 15 to 20$. Those who love plant foods and vegetable salads will have a hard time here. The good news is that there are plenty of Western food restaurants in Seoul, although they are much more pricey too.

The poor state of the environment. Wearing masks has been a part of the daily routine in South Korea long before the coronavirus pandemic. The reason is the high concentration of dust particles in the air that stay in the lungs and affect both how people feel every day and their health in the long run. The problem gets most acute during fall and spring when dust cyclones come to South Korea from Chinese industrial cities.

By Elena Metelina