The Ultimate Study Guide for Seoul, Korea

Ella Wilton

Guest writer 

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Read Time: 6 minutes

Choosing Seoul as the destination for your year abroad can be a once in a lifetime experience.  Here is the ultimate guide to convince you that Seoul is your destination!

Highs: getting to visit Japan (less than a 1hr flight away!), our weekly SNU Buddy pub trips, the many trips I took with classmates, the day trips I did with some friends I had made at SNU Buddy, seeing the yearly lantern festival on the Cheonggyecheon river, getting to see all the beautiful temples and try traditional Chuseok (Thanksgiving/harvest festival) food. 

Overall experience:

Although it might sound cheesy, my year abroad in Korea was truly a once in a lifetime experience. It was better than I could have possibly imagined, and opened my eyes to the world in a way I didn’t expect. 

Korea is the most modern and technologically advanced country I’ve ever been to, and made my trip to Japan feel like I’d gone back to the 80s by comparison! It also explains why I found it relatively easy to adjust to Korea, where everything felt easier and better, but much harder to adjust back to UK life, where I felt more isolated and everything felt inconvenient.

The language:

I’m lucky that the language barrier wasn’t a big issue for me, since learning Korean is part of my degree, but it could be a little tricky if you don’t have any background in Korean. I would recommend learning the Korean alphabet at the very least – it’s much easier than you’d expect and you can learn it in a day! It is also worth trying to learn some basic phrases, although most places in the touristy areas in Seoul will have English-speaking staff. 

The best place to learn Korean at a beginner level is a website called Talk to Me in Korean. I would strongly recommend against using translation apps to learn as there are a lot of conventions related to respect that can’t be translated easily, and you could come across as very rude. Whilst the older generation can sometimes be judgemental, the younger generation are open minded and I found all Koreans, regardless of age, to be welcoming and encouraging. If you know some Korean that will give you major brownie points as it’s not all too common for older Koreans to come across Korean-speaking foreigners! 

Lows: The academic standard is extremely high since Korean students are very hardworking and SNU is the #1 university in the country. It can be a lot of pressure, but Korean students are the epitome of work-hard play-hard and you soon learn to get into that habit too! Christmas was also difficult as there's not any cultural significance to Christmas in Korea. We only got Christmas Day itself off school, and if you walked around the city it would almost feel like any other day of the year, so it can definitely make you feel homesick.

My placement:

It was very fortunate that my placement was hardly impacted at all by COVID. Korea did an incredible job at keeping the virus contained, and Seoul didn’t experience any lockdowns or social distancing measures other than clubs and museums being closed and masks being mandatory at all times in public. A few months after the outbreak began, the government finally allowed exchange students to buy heavily discounted masks at the pharmacy like the native population were, so we were very grateful for that service. My Korean university also provided us with care packs of masks and hand sanitisers and went above and beyond with hygiene, tracking, and prevention methods on campus. The same could not be said for my home university, but my university in Korea was happy to answer all our queries and help us out as needed.

How was the application process?

I was on the language exchange programme, so it was a different process to what other year abroad students might go through. It was a basic online application and I found it very easy to complete. However, other friends studying at the main university rather than the language school found it very stressful as all the modules are released at the same time and are usually extremely competitive to get into. Although they had to sign up for modules, they did not have to sign up for exams.

Societies:

The best society for exchange students by far is called SNU Buddy. Most Korean universities have something similar where Korean students are paired with exchange students, meeting a few times a week to do a range of activities. You obviously get to meet native students but can also make friends from all over the world – I made some of my best friends there! The whole experience absolutely surpassed my expectations. The first two semesters there (pre-COVID) felt like something out of a movie; I really couldn’t have wished for anything more.

Choosing modules:

For module selection, get on the website well in advance and if you really want a specific module, get a Korean friend to go to a PC-bang with you (like an internet cafe with crazy fast internet, usually used by gamers) to ensure you get your spot. It’s a cool experience to go to a PC-bang anyway! Get involved with whatever exchange student-focused groups there are to widen your friendship group. There you’ll find Koreans who are open minded and have good English skills, as well as exchange students from all over the world. When it comes to academics, you’ll need to work hard and there will be high expectations so time management is key, especially if you still want to be able to go out and see all the sights.

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