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Well-known for its high-achieving students, South Korea’s education system is quite demanding. Students spend much of their time, often between 12 to 16 hours per day, at school or at a special after-school academy called a hagwon. The school system is very test-focused and goal-oriented, urging students to concentrate on their results.
The high level of academic competitiveness in South Korea begins in middle school and becomes especially intense in high school. While this atmosphere has contributed directly to the country’s impressive economic growth in just a few decades, and some of the best schools and higher education institutions in Asia, it has also sadly led to a high rate of suicide. In addition to being considered one of the most educated countries in the world, South Korea also totes the reputation for the highest rate of suicide among teenagers, with academic distress being cited as the number one factor.
For international students, this pressure may not be felt as acutely, but parents should be aware that even some Korean-dominated international schools can promote this level of academic achievement pressure. In general, however, foreign students from primary school age to postgraduate will find a welcoming home in Korean schools. In addition to the strong focus on academics, there is also great emphasis placed on moral and social development among students, as well as an appreciation for Korean society and culture.
Read on to learn more about what international students can expect from education in South Korea.
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The Education System in South Korea
What is the education system like in South Korea? Education in the Land of the Morning Calm is very important and is perceived as an indication of status. Graduating at the top of the class is very prestigious. Parents encourage their children to excel in their studies so that they can guarantee themselves a secure future and respect in society. Getting a university degree here is a must, otherwise a person is regarded as a second-class citizen.
This high value of academic knowledge has resulted in Korea being one of the most educated countries in the world. This had propelled the country’s economy and led to the system’s international recognition. However, there are some drawbacks. For example, the Korean population is overeducated, with a lot of people being overqualified for the jobs they do. The desire to get the best grades also puts a lot of pressure on Korean students from a young age. Children are often exhausted from studies, which leads to poor mental and physical health. This competitiveness and constant comparison to others follows many into their professional lives.
Teachers are highly regarded in Korea and are often admired as authority figures. This is why studying to become a teacher is one of the most desirable courses in the country. However, because of this popularity, getting a teacher’s license can also be challenging. Those who do obtain a license to practice can expect to get a highly-paid job. Teachers work on rotation and change schools every four years.
What Is the School System Like?
In Korea, the school system is divided into primary, middle, and high schools. High schools are separated into academic and vocational training schools. The possibility of higher education depends on which type of high school you attend. Daycare and kindergarten are available for younger children, yet they are not compulsory.
To graduate high school in South Korea, students do not need to take an exam. However, those who wish to pursue further education (which is the majority of students in Korea) need to take the College Scholastic Aptitude Test (CSAT). This is an eight-hour-long test (08:00–17:00) taken all over the country on the second Tuesday of November. Students are tested on their knowledge of Korean, English, mathematics, Korean history, a second foreign language or Chinese characters, and two additional subjects. There are breaks in between each part of the test. Lunch is served around noon.
The CSAT is taken very seriously. On the day of the test, businesses open later so that there are no traffic jams and students are able to get to the test on time. Public transportation even runs more frequently than normal, and students that get stuck can get escorted by police. Even air traffic is cleared to guarantee complete silence and focus.
Grading System in South Korea
The grading system in Korea varies according to your schooling level.
Middle School Grading System
Grades % Letter Equivalents Meaning 90–100 A Outstanding 80–89 B Excellent 70–79 C Average 60–69 D Below Average <60 E Poor
As students are not held back in middle school, even a poor score counts as a passing grade.
High School and University Grading System
The grade systems in high schools and universities vary depending on the school. Usually it is either letter grading (more common in universities) or point systems that go up to 4.0, 4.3, or 4.5.
An important thing to remember about high school and university grading is that the grades are relative and not absolute. That means that a student’s grade depends on how well their classmates perform on the given task, too. Most teachers have a set amount of A’s, B’s, and C’s they need to assign their students. Even if the student’s work deserves a high grade, they might not be able to get it if most of their peers did better than them. This heightens the competitiveness in class, especially in high school.
This stiff competition eases up a little once the student is accepted at a university. Universities do not like to fail their students and frequently allow them to retake the necessary courses if they do not get the grade needed to pass. Their record will only show the best grade they got.
Also note that the College Scholastic Aptitude Test uses both absolute and relative grading systems. Absolute grading (a set grade) is used when assessing English and Korean history scores, while the rest of the marks are relative. From 2022 second foreign language or Chinese symbols will also be graded on the absolute system.
School Year and School Hours
The academic year in Korea lasts from March until February. The first term lasts five months, March to July, and is followed by a month of summer holidays. The second term starts in September and ends in February, with a one-and-a-half-month winter break starting at mid-December and ending late January.
The time a student spends at school depends on what school level they are in. Primary school pupils start at 08:00 and finish around 13:00. Middle and high schoolers stay in school a little longer, from 08:00 to around 16:30.
The first 30 minutes at school are for self-studying, during which the teacher checks attendance and takes care of administrative matters. Classes start at 08:30. Each lesson is 45 minutes long with 10-minute breaks in between. Lunch is served at 12:30 and lasts an hour. Most days for middle and high school students consist of seven classes.
Still, that does not mean that students head home right after the lessons are over. Many children go to after-school academies called hagwon.
These after-school academies are attended by most students. Here, middle and high schoolers focus on academics while primary school students can choose between academics, art, or sports subjects. Hagwons can also be made mandatory by the school the student is attending even though these schools are not free.
When it comes to academics, typically the emphasis at hagwon is on mathematics and Korean and English languages. Other subjects include physical and social sciences.
For middle and high schoolers, classes at hagwon start at 17:00. Dinner is served around 18:00, after which students go back to studying until 20:00 or 22:00, depending on the school. Legally, schools are not allowed to hold classes after 22:00. However, not all schools abide by these rules.
School Age System in South Korea
In South Korea, compulsory education lasts nine years and consists of primary and middle schools.
Education Korean Age* Western Age Daycare 1–4 0–3 Kindergarten 5–7 4–6 Primary School 8–13 7–12 Middle School 14–16 13–15 High School 17–19 16–18
*Note that age is calculated differently in Korea. People are considered one year old from the moment they are born, and everyone gets one year added to their age on Korean New Year. Throughout this guide we will use Western age with the Korean age noted in parentheses.
Education Facts in South Korea
- In Korea, each time the student starts a new schooling level they are again referred to as “first grade” students. That means that, for example, seventh-graders are called first grade middle school students.
- When it comes to teaching culture, individual assignments take up the majority of study time. It is rare for students to work in groups or have discussions.
- Uniforms are mandatory in all middle and high schools.
- Students stay in the same room throughout the day while teachers are the ones to go from classroom to classroom.
- Kids spend most of their days at school, so, unsurprisingly, classrooms are treated like homes. Students clean their space either before or after classes. There is also a strict no-shoe policy and most children wear slippers or inside shoes.
- Skipping school is extremely rare in Korea. Students that want to show their rebellious side, tend to just use their smartphones during class.
- Corporal punishment was officially banned in Korean schools in 2011. However, some teachers still practice it.
- Attending school every other Saturday was mandatory in some schools up until 2012. These days, schools are not allowed to hold classes on weekends. However, some schools still do.
Differences Between Public and Private Schools
Unlike in many other countries, in Korea, most students go to both public and private schools. The aforementioned hagwons are privately owned for-profit institutions that you need to pay to attend. The prices vary greatly depending on the quality of teaching and the schooling level. This can be anywhere from under 1 million KRW (850 USD) to 10 or 15 million KRW (8,550–12,850 USD) per month.
However, South Korea does have private schools that fit the western definition of it, too. They can be either co-educational or gender specific, and some have a boarding option available. Some of them might be more internationally-oriented with more English language classes and follow the standard western school year.
Private schools are usually quite prestigious and apart from the required documents, such as personal and school records, children need to pass an entrance exam, write a motivational letter, and go through an interview process.
Daycare and Kindergarten
When it comes to preschool, both public and private daycares and kindergartens are available in South Korea. The main differences between them are the curriculum and fees: public institutions need to follow the government-set standards and are cheaper, while private schools have more freedom in creating their curriculum and their fees tend to run higher.
Is Pre-school Mandatory?
No part of pre-school education, neither kindergarten nor daycare, is compulsory in South Korea.
What Age do Children Start Daycare and Kindergarten?
Children as young as one month old can be looked after at local nurseries. Daycare centers usually ask for the child to be at least 100 days old. Toddlers can attend daycare up until they are three years old (four in Korean age). Kindergartens are for kids aged 3–6 (4–7 in Korean age).
Unlike what is practiced in some countries, kindergarten is not split into junior and senior years.
What to Expect for Daycare in Korea?
Daycares in Korea are not an educational facility, but they provide care for toddlers. The staff play games with the kids, serve lunch and snacks, and attend to their general wellbeing. Some daycares have classes, such as English, math, music, and arts, which are all play-based activities. These classes usually cost extra. There are both full- and part-time daycare programs available. Most daycares are closed on holidays.
You will need to provide your child’s personal items, such as extra clothes and a toothbrush. If your child still needs diapers, you will have to buy them for the daycare as well.
Note that there are some differences in culture that you will need to accept if you choose for your child to attend Korean daycare. For example, instead of beds, children usually sleep on a mat on the floor.
Educational Approach in Kindergarten
The educational approaches in kindergartens might differ depending on whether you choose a public or private preschool, but not drastically. Public schools, for example, will focus primarily on childcare, socialization, and developmental skills. Private kindergartens will focus on the same things, but with stronger emphasis on development and preparing students to enter primary schools. Children in private school may also have the option to start learning languages, such as English.
Daycare and Kindergarten Fees
As neither daycare nor kindergarten is compulsory in Korea, attending them is not free. The price will depend on your school of choice, your child’s age, and whether you choose a full or part-time schooling program.
The costs of daycare are around 250,000–500,000 KRW (210–430 USD) per month. The younger your child is, the more you should be prepared to spend. In addition, you will have to pay a registration fee that ranges from 50,000 to 250,000 KRW (43–210 USD). Extra classes will cost you 20,000 KRW (17 USD) per each class every month. If your school provides pick-up and drop-off services, you will be charged for those separately as well.
While Korean families get their early education school costs covered by the government, foreigners do not get that luxury. The only way the government will grant subsidies for a child under five years of age (1–6 in Korean age) is if at least one of the parents is a Korean national. If that is the case, you can expect to get 220,000–440,000 KRW (190–380 USD) per month, depending on your child’s age and the type of care (full- or part-time) you need.
Talk to other international parents with young children in South Korea
Talk to other international parents with young children in South Korea
Primary and Secondary Schools
Whether your children are toddlers or teenagers, you are probably already wondering about the best primary and secondary schools in South Korea. Expats are able to send their children to public school, but they will need to have some knowledge of Korean as this is the language of instruction for all classes except the foreign language ones. The school cost to attend a public institution is free except for school lunches. Private education costs will vary depending on the school and your child’s age, but annual prices generally range between 15,000,000 to 42,000,000 KRW (12,600 to 35,300 USD).
Throughout each level of schooling, students will study the following subjects in varying degrees:
- Korean language arts;
- social studies;
- physical education;
- foreign language (most commonly English).
Students will also have a class termed “Practical Course,” which includes such topics as Wise Living and Pleasant Living. Students are also able to enroll in independent / special activity courses.
Primary School (Elementary School)
Primary school, called chodeung haggyo, is compulsory and lasts six years. Each year is called Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3, etc. Students are taught basic skills and subjects (listed above) throughout all six years. In a government-sponsored effort to improve the country’s foreign language proficiency, students start learning English in Grade 3.
Grades 1 and 2 are more focused on getting students adjusted to the schooling system. There is more emphasis placed on reading, writing, speaking, and listening. In Grades 3 to 6, students will also start to focus on morality and discipline. Students will usually remain in one classroom with one teacher covering the majority of the subjects. Special subjects such as physical education and foreign languages will be taught by different teachers.
Keep in mind that to attend a public school in Korea, students must receive several vaccines. These are mostly the same standard vaccines that citizens are recommended to get around the globe:
- Tetanus, Diphtheria, Pertussis (Tdap)
- Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR)
- Meningococcal Meningitis
- Pneumococcal Pneumonia
- Human Papillomavirus
- Herpes Zoster
- Haemophilius influenza type B
The school may ask you to show proof of some of these vaccines in the form of a medical certificate.
Secondary school in South Korea consists of middle school and high school. Middle school lasts for three years, starting again with Grade 1. Like primary school, students will typically stay in the same classroom, but be taught by different teachers for each subject.
This is the school level when students begin studying more rigorously for the university exams they will take at the end of high school. They can enroll in “cram schools (hagwon),” which serve as private tutoring sessions in preparation for the exams.
Middle schools in South Korea used to be competitively ranked and exams to enter the schools were made more difficult depending on the quality of the school. However, middle school education today has become more uniform and entrance exams were abolished. No matter where your child goes to middle school in Korea, they should receive the same education as they would anywhere else in the country.
For high school, students can choose between a general school or a specialized program that focuses primarily on one subject. To enter a specialized school, the student will be required to take an entrance exam. This schooling level is not considered compulsory in South Korea, but over 90% of 15-to 18-year-olds in South Korea attend. In some situations, students are able to dictate the hours in which they attend their high school classes in order to accommodate a job.
Top Rated Primary and Secondary Schools in South Korea
Many of Korea’s top rated schools are private or international institutions. However, some government schools are still considered very prestigious.
- Seoul High School
- Joongdong High School
- Dwight School (Seoul)
If you are worried about your child’s ability to adapt to the Korean school system, one of the country’s international schools may best suit their needs. International schools, also called “foreign schools” in Korea, can often help expat children adapt to a new country more easily. In an international school, students are immersed in an environment with fellow foreigners, which will give them a better sense of community and shared experiences. International schools are also experienced with the ups and downs kids face when living in a new place—especially a new country—and therefore will be a bit better equipped to handle an expat child’s needs.
However, just because your child attends an international school in Korea does not mean they will not meet any Korean. Many affluent Korean families send their children to international schools to also be immersed in a more global atmosphere, while also improving their foreign language skills (primarily English).
Expat parents may be surprised to find that some international schools are predominantly populated by a Korean student body. These schools will still follow an international curriculum and use a foreign language for instruction, but the overall mindset may lean more towards Korean culture. This means a heavy emphasis on entrance and exit exams, which can lead to a stressful environment. Many students at these institutions will still attend hagwons or receive extra tutoring outside of their normal school hours. If you do not want your student to be in this sort of high-intensity environment, you may want to look for schools with a more diverse student body.
What Types of International Schools are in South Korea?
Schools in Korea for international students largely follow either an American or British curriculum. These are found all throughout the peninsular country, but the greatest concentration will be found in (or around) Seoul. Older schools will typically be religious in name (such as a Christian or Catholic school) but may not be terribly religious in practice. Students will be asked to attend church services and religious holidays will be observed, but rarely are there religious study classes involved.
In addition to American, British, and religious schools, it is also possible to find international Japanese, German, French, and Chinese schools.
Recommended International Schools in South Korea
- Korean International School (Jeju Campus)
- Deutsche Schule Seoul International
- Lycee International Xavier
- Taejon Christian International School
- Chadwick International School
International School Requirements and Admission
Be prepared to be put on a waiting list when searching for the right international school for you. An appealing aspect of international schools is their small class size, but this also means limited space. When searching for a school, keep your options open. Be sure to look at a few different schools so that you can not only compare but have a better chance of acceptance.
If you need assistance during your school search, the expat experts at InterNations will help sift through all the options and find the best schools for your family. We can set up school interviews as well as advise on all the documents you must prepare for enrollment. The requirements for admission will differ from school to school, but in general you should provide the following documents:
- child’s passport and Alien Residence Card (ARC);
- at least one parent’s passport and ARC;
- child’s immunization records;
- transcript or report card from previous school.
International School Tuition Fees
Perhaps one of the greatest drawbacks to an international school in South Korea is the cost. Foreign schools in Korea are the most expensive education option. Prices vary depending on the school and your child’s age (as well as sometimes how many children you have enrolled in the school). On average, you can expect a starting price of around 24,000,000 KRW per year (20,100 USD).
If you are thinking of moving to South Korea for higher education, you will be happy to learn that the country has a reputation for having some of the best universities in Asia. This reputation has partially been earned because South Korea is considered, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), one of the most educated countries in the world. In their report, the OECD states that nearly 70% of 24-to 35-year-olds in the country of over 50 million people have completed some form of higher education. The university system within the country also consistently ranks high in the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment.
This excellence in higher education is the result of the country’s strong focus on improving their economic society following the 1950s. Before this time, Korea was looked at mostly as a country of rural farmers. In an effort to change their international image, the South Korean government started placing greater emphasis on its education system, reshaping the standards and curriculum from primary school all the way through university. While this has created a culture of tremendous stress and pressure on the student-level, it has also led to South Korea being one of the fastest, most successful growing economies in modern society.
Why Study in South Korea?
International students interested in science, technology, or engineering will find excellent programs at Korean universities. Korea’s educational system as a whole places great emphasis on research and innovation, so those interested in being at the forefront of technological advances or scientific discoveries will find happy homes here. Some Korean universities, such as KAIST (listed below), even place special emphasis on robotic technology and research that will ultimately improve societies around the globe.
In addition to an excellent grade point average (GPA) and academic record, studying at a South Korean university will also generally require the following from international students:
- ability to attain a visa (i.e. no criminal record);
- proficiency in English as many university courses are taught in this language;
- IELTS scores (if coming from a non-English speaking country);
- basic knowledge of Korean;
- valid passport;
- immunization records.
When to Apply
South Korean universities run on a two-semester academic calendar. The academic year typically starts in March, but some universities will allow students to enter in either semester. Prospective students interested in spring enrollment must submit their application in the fall of the previous year, and students wanting to start in fall must submit their application in the summer of the same year in which they hope to start attending classes.
Best Universities for International Students in South Korea
Expats should be aware that the competition to get into South Korean universities is stiff both for foreigners and Korean nationals alike. In a society that is described as having an almost “cult-like devotion to learning,” Korean nationals are highly educated and extremely well-prepared to enter the university system. Thus, foreigners who also hope to enroll in Korean universities should ensure they have an outstanding profile in order to compete.
However, while competition will be stiff, do not let that dissuade you. South Korea is extremely open to foreigners, especially in regard to international students. Many Korean universities even offer generous scholarships just for international students.
Top Universities in South Korea for International Students
- Seoul National University
- Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology (KAIST)
- Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH)
- Korea University
- Sungkyunkwan University
University Tuition Fees in South Korea
How much does it cost to study in South Korea for international students? That depends on the school and diploma level you hope to receive. Generally, annual tuition for an undergraduate degree will range between 2,000,000 to 5,900,000 KRW. For postgraduate, tuition will be between 2,500,000 to 7,000,000 KRW. Both KRW amounts convert to about 2,100 to 5,900 USD.
Ask other international parents already living in South Korea
Join one of our many local parent groups and get advice on which schools to choose.
If you are not fluent in Korean, you will want to look at attending one of South Korea’s many language schools once you have settled in the country. Knowing Korean will not only help your job prospects in the peninsular country, but it will also go a long way to helping you feel more at home. However, for expats intent on staying in Korea long-term, learning the language is crucial.
In addition to Korean, foreigners moving to South Korea will also require a decent grasp of English. Korean society and business culture is becoming increasingly more international. Therefore, English and Korean are two unifying languages throughout many aspects of Korean life. If you are neither fluent in English nor Korean, attempting to learn both in tandem will be difficult, but beneficial.
Language School Fees
Depending on the school you choose and the type of course, fees will start at around 1,800 KRW (150 USD) and go up from there. Course types range from once-a-week group classes to daily intensive courses. If you are interested in joining one of the sessions, or if you would prefer a private class for just yourself or your family, contact InterNations and we can help get you started. As experienced expats, we know that learning the local language is one of the best ways to start adapting to a new country. We will help you find the best course for you and your language expectations.
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