Teaching College Prep in South Korea
A Higher Paid, Shorter Term Alternative to ESL
I was perusing my university’s employment website as a college senior, looking for a way to both make money and bide my time before starting graduate school in the fall, when I stumbled onto a listing that seemed too good to be true: a summer job in South Korea that paid at least $5,000 (with the possibility to earn much more with bonus time) and also included airfare and housing. I sent off my resume, and a few weeks later I was offered a position teaching SAT classes and helping students brainstorm, draft, and revise their college application essays. It wasn’t too good to be true. I immersed myself in Korean culture and came home with about $11,000—and you can too!
It’s no secret that a plethora of teaching opportunities exist in South Korea, and that employers lure English-speaking teachers with benefits like free airfare and housing. But most of these positions, which entail teaching English as a second language, require both ESL training and at least a year’s commitment. If you don’t have ESL training or want to go to Korea for a shorter amount of time, consider the little known (and oftentimes more lucrative) option of teaching college preparatory courses.
College Prep versus ESL
In Korea, there’s nothing more respected than a degree from an elite American university, particularly one that a successful Korean attended (like George Washington University, from which Samsung CEO Kun-Hee Lee holds an MBA). Korean parents will do whatever it takes to get their children the standardized test scores and college essays necessary to make them competitive applicants, including sending them to expensive hagwons—the name for private Korean schools that supplement standard education—to be taught by foreign teachers like you.
You don’t need any official training to teach college prep at a hagwon, only a degree from a university respected by Koreans: all Ivy League schools, Stanford, MIT, most large state universities, and more. Some hagwons may require significant coursework in the subject you’ll teach, or proof of high SAT or AP scores, but the hagwon for which I worked required neither. In fact, I hadn’t even taken the SAT myself, since I’m from the Midwest where the ACT is more common. (The flip side of lenient prerequisites is that hiring decisions tend to be somewhat elitist: the less prestigious your university, the more difficult securing a job will be.)
Another advantage of teaching college prep is that unlike most ESL positions, which require a year’s commitment, the demand for college prep services peaks during summer and sometimes winter vacations, so many hagwons offer employees the full benefits of airfare and housing while requiring only a few months’ commitment—an arrangement ideal for those who have only several free months, or those who are open to the idea of a longer stint but want to test the waters first. Most hagwons are eager to hire summer employees to teach after-school programming for the rest of the year, but be aware that because demand shrinks when the summer is over, so will your hours and pay.
Although teaching college prep can be rewarding and fun in addition to profitable, expect to work up to 50 or 60 hours a week (and more when you count prep time) with no vacation and only one day a week off. Your students will be hardworking, requesting additional homework and keeping you after class with questions. Although you’ll learn a great deal about Korea and its culture, you won’t be left with much time to see the country on your own. You might be able to arrange to explore before or after your teaching gig, but if sightseeing is your primary concern, this probably isn’t the right job for you.
Finding a Job
Interested? Hagwons actively recruit through university networks, so if you’re in college or graduate school, check your university’s employment website or meet with a career counselor. You can also contact specific hagwons (see below).
When you apply, be sure to highlight any cross-cultural experience, particularly in Asia. Hagwons don’t want employees who will be distracted by culture shock. Most employers will also ask for your photograph. Send a headshot if possible, and if you must send a candid, make sure you look professional. The hiring director at the hagwon for which I worked admitted that clean-cut applicants fare better.
Don’t take just any position you’re offered. Although most teachers have positive experiences, some hagwons habitually mistreat naïve foreign employees. Before committing, search for your potential employer on various online “hagwon blacklists,” like www.geocities.com/hagwonblacklist, which report problems with specific hagwons. (A few websites, like http://seamonkey.ed.asu.edu/~jonb/greenlist.html, report positive experiences.) Your best bet, however, is to ask your employer to put you in touch with current or former teachers, who can tell you what the job is really like.
What to Know Before You Go
Before you go, consider brushing up on Korean. Fluency isn’t necessary as your students and hagwon staff will speak English, but some proficiency is helpful since most Koreans you’ll encounter in stores and restaurants will not. Also try to get a few SAT prep and college essay books, because they’ll be much more expensive in Korea, they’ll provide useful exercises and advice, and they’ll refresh your memory, since you’ll be teaching things you likely haven’t studied since high school.
If you’ll be helping with college essays, be prepared to stand up against cheating. Korean culture emphasizes success at any cost (as demonstrated by Woo Suk Hwang, the esteemed stem cell scientist who recently admitted to fabricating results). Don’t be surprised if parents, and sometimes even your boss, expect you to allow embellishment of a student’s accomplishments, or even to write his application essay yourself. Refuse to do anything with which you feel uncomfortable, no matter how much conflict it creates. They know they’re in the wrong for asking you, and eventually they’ll concede.
If you’re flexible and prepared for anything, you’ll have a profitable and rewarding experience teaching college prep in South Korea. Haeng un (good luck)!