Master’s Degree
10 min

I do a Master’s in South Korea for free

In 2018, I won a KGSP state scholarship and applied to the Master’s program at Sogang University in Seoul. I study international relations in the East Asia region and, as a StudyFree mentor, share my experience with students.

Let me tell you why I chose South Korea, how I managed to win a full scholarship, and what you should focus on when preparing for admission.

Why I chose South Korea

I was born and raised in Salekhard, the only city in the world situated right on the Arctic Circle. After graduating from school, I moved to Saint Petersburg and entered the international relations faculty of the Saint Petersburg State University. 

In the second year, all the students had to choose a regional module – Europe, Asia, or America, and the second foreign language. I wanted to study something new, so I chose the Asia module. We were given Chinese or Japanese languages to choose from: most chose Chinese, but I decided to take Japanese because I was an anime fan at school.

Once a fellow student recommended me to watch a Korean historical dorama “Empress Ki”. I wasn’t expecting much, but once I started to watch, I could not take my eyes off it for three days, and binge watched 50 episodes. I was so enchanted by Korean pop culture that I registered for language courses with the Saint Petersburg Korean cultural center.

During my university years I managed to participate twice in exchange programs: I spent a semester in the Yonsei University in Seoul (ranking in the top three of most respected universities of South Korea), and then another one in the Tokyo University in Japan. It was the most marvelous year of my life- plenty of acquaintances, insights, and adventures. 

I decided that I simply have to do a Master’s in one of these countries. As soon as I got back, I started gathering documents to apply for state funded scholarships, KGSP (South Korea) and MEXT (Japan). I was awarded the Korean scholarship even earlier than the submission term for the Japanese one began, so I did not even bother to file a second application. The Korean one was my priority anyway.

What is KGSP

Korean Government Scholarship Program (KGSP) is a Korean state scholarship program, allowing foreign citizens to receive education in South Korea at the state budget expense. 

Under KGSP, you may do bachelor’s, Master’s, or PhD studies, or perform research as an exchange professor or a postdoc.

The scholarship covers air travel, accommodation, language courses, tuition fee, medical insurance, and other expenses. You may find detailed information on quotas, selection procedure, requirements, and documents at StudyinKorea website.

How I won the scholarship

In January-February of each year StudyinKorea website publishes a guideline with detailed instructions on admission, a list of necessary documents, and information on universities and faculties. Preparation did not take long: in late January I returned from Tokyo to Russia, and gathered all the documents during February In order to make it in time for the March deadline. 

By that time I spoke a little Korean, but had no TOPIK certificate (a language certificate similar to IELTS). I had IELTS, though: I passed it a year before participating in the exchange study program, and got 7.0. 

Some say that in order to get admitted and to receive the KGSP scholarship, you need to know Korean and have a language certificate. That’s a myth. Speaking English is enough, especially if you enter an English taught program, like I did. But still, regardless of the instruction language, all students who receive the scholarship have to visit a one-year language course and pass TOPIK with at least 3 level (B1) before entering the Master’s program.

In order to be admitted I needed my bachelor’s diploma and a transcript with grades (if you are not issued a diploma yet, you may just send a transcript and a certificate stating your scheduled graduation date), two recommendation letters from professors, copies of your and your parents’ passports, and a good motivation letter. 

Language certificates (Korean and/or English) are optional, but you better enclose at least one. Publications and certificates of achievement are optional, too: I, for example, had none. I am sure that the most important thing is a strong motivation letter, and not good grades and certificates.

After I passed the first selection stage, I had a 15 minute interview with the dean of my prospective faculty. I was asked to tell about myself, and why I have chosen GSIS and Sogang. I fretted a bit, but all went well.

Doing a Master's degree

The scholarship provides for three years of studying: a year at the language courses, and two years doing the Master’s. Before starting the research, I had been studying Korean in a small town of Cheonan.

Presently I’m studying in the Sogang University, at the Graduate School of International Studies faculty, specializing in East Asian Studies. I study history, culture, economical and political situation in the East Asian countries (China, Japan, South and North Koreas). 

Our campus is situated in the center of Seoul, in a student district, near Hongik, Yonsei, and Ewha Womans University campuses. The area thrives with student bars, restaurants, cafes and shops. Almost all students in spring and autumn wear bright bomber jackets bearing logos of their university on the back, so you can easily spot one of “your own”. 

Studying at master's level differs greatly from bachelor's: there are way less classes and more free time. A typical week has no more than four three-hour classes. Some students organize their schedules so as to have classes only two or three days a week. In two years, you need to get at least 45 credits (one subject is worth three credits), resulting in an average of four subjects per semester.

Studying in English is quite easy: we prepare papers on historical, political, social and economic topics, and oral presentations accompanied by a slide deck. If you feel uncomfortable giving public speeches – tough luck, you will have to get used to it. 

The key points are: never skip your classes, take pains to memorize all that is told at lectures, and deliver your papers on schedule. I like it when a professor engages in free discussion of an issue: students may give their opinions, and sometimes, really heated disputes may arise. Such education format is not suited well for those who prefer sitting it out at the rear desks: points are awarded for active participation. 

Working in South Korea

When planning to study in South Korea, may think along the lines of “Well let me get admitted to where it’s easy to study, and then I will find something”, not bothering to get a grasp on the job market specifics. If you intend to stay in Korea after graduating, you better study to be an engineer, a programmer, or a specialist in business, design, or marketing – these areas are currently popular and in high demand. 

It’s rather hard to find a company that would offer to provide working visas for foreigners. Rather the opposite: most employers declare to hire only citizens or at least those having a resident status (spouse visa, visa for those with Korean descent, etc.)

The country is overfilled with educated industrious young Koreans who were reared up in extremely competitive situations, so it will be hard to vie with them for jobs. Foreigners are usually engaged on positions where “foreignness” is a perk: major global companies, international sales and marketing, working with foreign clients, translations. 

It is of utmost importance to acquire proficiency in Korean – not for passing the TOPIK and getting a certificate, but for easy and comfortable day-do-day communication. Then, many doors would be open for you: it is very common for students to find jobs through networking with the locals. 

Some use studying as a legal way to move to Korea, and then either get married, or work in modelling business, or teach English to school pupils. These are the most simple and obvious ways of staying here.

Right now, I don’t plan on staying in Korea. It would be nice to work here for a couple of years to get experience, and then to go either home or somewhere else. I am in active search now, and submit a lot of resumes, but if I don’t manage to take hold here, I won't feel bad leaving.

What you should keep in mind when applying

Place emphasis on your motivation letter. I know some people who failed to enter a university despite having perfect marks and excellent command of both English and Korean –just because their letter was weak, and motivation incomprehensible. 

“I want to come to Korea to go to a BTS concert and meet the idols” is not a motivation. Neither is “I am desperate to live in Korea because it's my dream”. 

First of all, you should read about the history, aims and mission of the organization that backs the scholarship. In case of KGSP, the aim is to enhance the image of Korea abroad, and establish mutually beneficial cultural and economic connections. You have to explain what would they gain by admitting you, how you will promote these goals. You can spice this with a pinch of subtle flattery: it appeals to the Koreans’ pride to be praised for work ethics, democratic political system, and their cutting-edge economic and technological progress. 

Describe your education and job plans in minute detail. Which subjects you want to study, what would be the topic of your prospective thesis, where you wish to work after graduation. Even if you have not decided on it yet, and everything may change, and change again, think of something: having specific plans always conveys confidence and effectiveness.

Don’t forget to describe your international experience. Any background is worth mentioning: exchange studies, voluntary services abroad, foreign travels even (providing you can describe them in the right way). Often students who come to a foreign country for the first time, start to miss their own four walls, home cooking, family, and friends; they experience a culture shock, and eventually they give up their studies and leave for home. This is a major waste of time and money, so KGSP aims at accepting versatile students, who will be able to adapt readily to new circumstances. Candidates with international experience clearly have an advantage here.

Get ready for the interview. Prepare answers to all probable questions. The goal is to answer honestly, but creatively, so as to stand out against the hundreds of candidates.

Learn how to work with information sources. If you plan to study abroad, the crucial skills are to work with large amounts of data, to pick out necessary information and disregard the rest, to browse foreign web sites, read blogs, and only after that – to pose precise questions. If a candidate dreams about getting a scholarship, but can not bother even to google easily available information, they may find it hard to get enrolled, not to mention actual studying.

Author: Elena Metelina


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