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Ranking, location and culture help prospective students pick their Korean university

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If you’ve set your sights on overseas study, deciding where to go can be a long and tough decision. But even once you’ve settled on your destination of choice, the next challenge is choosing a university.

There is a huge range of factors to consider when choosing a university, especially in Korea where location alone can dramatically change the kind of experience you have living here. Among several different factors, foreign students tend to base their pick on global ranking, location, and cultural significance.

Global university rankings

For many students, rankings are the best way to quickly assess a university’s quality. Organizations such as Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) and Times Higher Education (THE) use comprehensive criteria to evaluate thousands of higher education institutes around the world.

Universities in Korea have improved in many ways throughout the years. In the QS World University Rankings 2023, six domestic universities were placed in the top 100. In THE World University Rankings 2023, there were three.

Twenty-year-old Italian student Giorgio Cioffi majors in English linguistics at Korea University in Seoul, 74th in the QS ranking. Korea University’s high placement in both domestic and international rankings, he said, largely influenced his decision to attend there.

“I was already interested in applying, but its ranking reinforced this decision,” said Cioffi.

Cioffi prioritized a high-quality education since he was studying for his undergraduate degree. Korea University’s esteemed legacy and history were an added bonus to its appeal, he said.

Location

Among Korea’s 462 two-year and four-year domestic universities, 88 have a campus in Seoul, according to the Korean Council for University Education. The high concentration of universities has created a robust student-life atmosphere unique to the capital city.

Jacqueline Becerra, a 21-year-old English literature and linguistics student from Chicago, chose to exchange for one semester at Yonsei University primarily due to its location. A city-person, Becerra says she was attracted to the hustle and bustle of Seoul.

“I wanted to get the most out of my semester in Korea, and the capital had so much to offer,” she said.

Several other universities such as Ewha Woman’s University and Sogang University are within close proximity to the campus, creating a vibrant student-life atmosphere in the neighborhood. Becerra believed that the area would present more opportunities for her to meet new people and immerse herself in Korean culture.

She even mentioned how interesting it was to walk among a dense crowd of locals and really be a part of the city—something that could not happen elsewhere in the country. The efficiency and convenience of life in Seoul also played a large role in her decision.

However, unique experiences may not be a priority for all international students.

Becerra says that while exchange students like herself may chase after a “good time,” those aiming to earn degrees would likely focus on a university’s quality of education.

Others may not even enjoy city living in the first place.

Renwar Hanina, 21, who majors in engineering, decided to move from the Netherlands to Handong Global University in Pohang, North Gyeongsang for his undergraduate degree. The journey from Pohang to Seoul, about 270 kilometers (168 miles), takes about two to four hours depending on the mode of transit.

“Korea is not very big, so I can [travel] from anywhere,” said Hanina, adding that Pohang also seemed like a great opportunity to experience authentic Korean culture and the “unfiltered nature” of Korean provinces.

“I can meet a lot of great people and have fun regardless of where I am.”

Cultural significance

The global rise of Hallyu, or the Korean Wave, has played a prominent role in attracting more international students to Korea, the number of which reached about 150,000 last year. The importance of academic excellence in Korean society has often been portrayed in media with varying degrees of fictitiousness, prompting many students around the world to aspire to study at an elite Korean university.

JTBC’s “Sky Castle” followed the lives of several students and their mothers as they attempted to attend elite universities. The drama’s name was in reference to “SKY,” an acronym for Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University, the three most prestigious institutes in the country.

Even Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Academy Award-winning film “Parasite” featured a character that conned a family into thinking he was a Yonsei student.

Zaida Drummond, 20, a Jamaican national who majors in international studies at Yonsei, learned about her school through BTS song “N.O,” which is based on the societal pressures young people in Korea face.

“In Seoul to the SKY, would your parents be happy?,” the lyrics say, with “In Seoul” referring to the prestige of universities in the capital city.

Drummond was unaware of the terms “In Seoul and “SKY,” but after doing her own research, she was interested in attending one of the three universities.

“Because of the song,” she said, “I began building an image of excellence around [SKY universities].”

BY STUDENT REPORTER JOO DA-HAE [kjd.kcampus@joongang.co.kr]