Introduction

Dear Graduate,

Congratulations on your diploma! We are writing to inform you that your first loan payment, of $666.66, is due Friday, May 13th. If you are unable to pay us, you could go into default – or you could consider giving us one of your kidneys, a firstborn child, or perhaps your immortal soul. Have fun pursuing your dreams!

Okay, so perhaps student loan providers aren’t that evil (yet…) But if you’re the typical 20-something these days, your student loan notices might as well be written by Lord Voldemort himself. To an extent our parents don’t recognize (or make fun of in the comments section in yet another Millennial-bashing think piece) we’re in financial trouble – with seemingly no end in sight.

Our generation is the first to see student loan debt surpass credit card debt, and for good reason – tuition rates are sky-high for what is now an essential degree in today’s economy. We aren’t suckers – college degrees are absolutely vital in our increasingly information-based economic landscape. Yet student loan debt stinks.

And while the economy is slowly recovering, those hefty loan payments still aren’t a cakewalk for most of us. Many Millennials, despite education and qualifications far above what their Boomer parents enjoyed at the same age, find themselves in unskilled jobs at Starbucks, hustling to make ends meet. Others are going from unpaid internship to unpaid internship, wondering when we’ll land that Big Break – if they don’t default on their loans first.

Even for those who manage to land a “real job” after graduation, financial solvency in the era of wage stagnation can be shaky at best – or a distant dream at worst. Even if you fit none of the above financial profiles and are enjoying relative stability, you may still have the student-loan albatross hanging around your neck, wondering if you will ever be able to shake it off and enjoy some disposable income every once in awhile.

It seems hopeless, doesn’t it?

But what if I told you there was a way out?

A “loan hack” that required a little ingenuity and elbow- grease, but was legit – no shady “get-rich-quick” scheme here? An investment of a year or two that could result in financial peace-of-mind – or even an entree to a career back at home (or abroad)?

What if I mentioned that thousands of your peers have already discovered a way to ride out the Great Recession, have built up international experience and expertise, and even have some extra money for world-class travel on the side?

Because that’s exactly what I’m telling you. Seriously. There is a way out. Financial solvency – heck, a financial surplus – is possible for today’s twenty-somethings.

know, because I did it (and started a fantastic teaching career!) by teaching English as a second language (ESL) for two years in Korea.

Yes, really.

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Believe me, as a 2008 Ivy League college graduate who had seemingly insurmountable debt at the end of it all, I was the last person on Earth who would have bought that sales pitch. I would have hit “delete” on the “Teach in Korea!” e-mail faster than you can say, “Nigerian diplomat needing to send over 3 million dollars with a just a small down payment from your checking account.” I would have considered the idea that I could pay off my debt teaching abroad about as pie-in-the-sky as a Real Housewife’s “career” plans – or at the very least, a much more difficult proposition than its proponents claim.

It sounds too good to be true. But it is true.

You can put your skepticism aside – because it happened to

  1. Or more precisely, teaching in Korea happened to me.

And thankfully for you, you don’t have to learn about this the hard way. You don’t have to find out about it serendipitously, like I did, or from an unobjective party with a vested interest in everything going “their way,” like a recruiter. You’ll get the landscape of the teaching market with no bias – just my experience.

In this e-book, I will share with you my story of teaching in Korea, making the leap from wage slavery to an exciting international job as accessible, worry-free, and engaging as possible. I will review the landscape of the Korean job market, address common skepticism and concerns about teaching in Korea, and help you prepare a winning resume and candidate profile to land a great English teaching job.

I will offer you guidance as you navigate the sometimes- arduous visa process, what to say (and what to ask) during the interview, and help you navigate a Korean bank. As a bonus, I will also feature interviews with fellow teachers in Chapter 5, because every experience is different – and they offer advice (and things to avoid!) that I might miss. The interview sections at the end of the book will also cover the simple day-to-day experience of teaching in Korea – something often talked about in online forums, but rarely spoken about objectively and frankly.

In short, I will help you have an awesome time abroad and make those late payment notices from Uncle Sam a thing of the past.

But first, let me tell you how I got there.

My Story

It was the spring of 2008 – a few months before the stock market crash that would make the Lehman Brothers’ offices near the Time Inc building become a tumbleweed-y ghost town. After a few years of cultivating job leads via unpaid summer internship, I was working as a “stringer”, or on-the-spot reporter, for Time Inc’s People magazine. The pay was peanuts, but it was an entry into the rarefied world of journalism – an opportunity tons of liberal arts grads would die for. I knew I wasn’t set for life, but it seemed like my course was charted.

Until the Great Recession happened. And a huge hiring freeze at Time Inc happened. Until all of the non-essential personnel – which would include a recent hire such as myself – found ourselves unceremoniously booted. I felt shame, despite this happening to tons of other Millennials in the same boat. But nevertheless, I tried to hustle.

till interested in journalism – for the time being – I carved out a niche freelancing as a stringer for Time and a few other organizations. But unlike Carrie Bradshaw, my Brooklyn apartment wasn’t rent-controlled, and I had bills to pay, not bottle parties. My loan payments weren’t getting any smaller. I was struggling to stay afloat. What’s more, a close family member of mine became very sick, weakening my ties even more to my “starter career.”

Like many other twentysomethings, I reluctantly packed up my bags to take care of my ill relative, pow-wow with family members, rethink, and regroup. While considering my options, a Penn acquaintance on Facebook, of all things, piqued my interest in something I’d never considered before – teaching abroad.

Photos of my friend traveling the world in Thailand, China, and Cambodia on his time off stoked my curiosity. Like many Gen Y-ers with impeccable college transcripts and references but few job call-backs, I couldn’t help but feel envious at the ease of his seemingly laissez-faire lifestyle. I messaged him, asking about the source of his seeming success.

“I teach in Korea,” he replied. “It’s good work, I’m saving a thousand dollars a month, paying off loans, and travelling. It helped me set up a base to apply for law school back in the States while living debt-free. Want the phone number of my recruiter?”

A few months later, I was on the plane to Seoul – and never looked back.

After two years teaching in Korea, I backpacked around Southeast Asia for six weeks – with plenty of money left over to pursue a Master’s in Education at Boston College. I am now teaching full-time in the US – and possess the foundations to take my career abroad anytime for even more lucrative job opportunities. Others I know returned to the US for graduate school, or built a financial and experiential base to enter careers they couldn’t have otherwise.

Guess what? You can, too.

I hadn’t initially anticipated loving teaching as a career (and by the way, you can totally teach in Korea without becoming a teacher!) but if my story illustrates anything (besides the awesome, loan-hacking potential of teaching abroad) I hope it’s that as Millennials, we have to be flexible. It sounds scary at first. But we can.

Every setback – and there are many in these economic times – can actually provide dynamic opportunities for the motivated.

Consider this guide your motivation.

Why teach ESL? Reasons to teach in the Land of the Morning Calm

Before simply “send” on an application to a job recruiter with nary a second thought, you’ve probably got some questions. Understandable – while the benefits of time in the ROK (that’s the Republic of Korea) are pretty sweet, packing your bags and moving halfway across the planet is a Pretty Big Deal. In this section, we’ll talk about what Korea has to offer before you commit yourself to the land of endless (delicious) kimchi.

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First, as my story above illustrates, teaching in Korea is something I’ve lived – and thrived upon. I want that for you, too, because:

Teach in Korea Reason 1: Because Korea pays – well.

Your gross pay won’t seem like much, but it’s not about the pay – it’s about what gets paid for you, and what that means for your savings.

In your new Korean life, a lot of things will be free. Korean employers will pay for your rent (and provide your apartment – no hunt necessary), provide you with health insurance, and in the case of hagwon teaching, even shell out for your airfare and visa fees, meaning everything you take home – save for a shockingly low electric, Internet, and phone bill – is yours and yours alone.

To put this amazing deal in perspective: teaching in Japan doesn’t offer that. Teaching in China doesn’t offer that. Teaching in Thailand doesn’t offer that. Only Korea offers that level of savings. If making a dent in your debt is your number one priority, you should go with Korea – without a question.

Without much effort on your part, you’ll be able to save at least $1000 USD a month – up to 1.5k, if you live in an area with a low cost of living and you’re smart about spending (we’ll get to that in Chapter 4.) The most intrepid, savvy savers can sock away at least 15,000-17,000 USD a year – and that’s with plenty left over for trips around the country, dinners out, and generally living a decent, middle-class lifestyle.

Compare tucking away at least a cool grand a month – with cash for shopping and nights out to spare – to barely staying above ground in an overpriced American apartment, living with a Craigslist roommate (or five) while working two jobs and having a next-door neighbor with a tendency to watch Homeland at 3 AM and sing the jazz theme song with his cats.

No. Contest.

And there are more cashflow opportunities than just your base pay. If you like to hustle (and you don’t even have to, because you’ll save so much money) you can make cheddar on the side as a private tutor, teaching extra classes at your school, or teaching summer camps. You’d want to keep your boss abreast of any extra work – your E2 visa regulations say so – but you can make up to $100 USD an hour (yes, you read that right) teaching private English sessions to Korean kiddos. I know a couple who saved up a mortgage down payment that way. Seriously.

In short: your living expenses are miniscule, because your employer provides your apartment, and while the salary seem low (about 2,000-2,500 a month) almost all of that is yours to keep because you won’t pay rent, you’ll get health insurance, and you will rarely have to pay for a car.

Starter jobs in American urban centers wish they could offer you those savings – but they can’t. On paper, the salary you’ll make in Korea – about 24-27 thousand a year – sounds like nothing. But you’ll be putting so much of that away, your standard of living will far surpass your peers making twice that (or more) in the States.

What’s more, your bills will be low. Besides having your rent paid for, other essentials cost chump change. The average electric bill in Korea? Roughly 20 USD a month, sometimes less. Your phone bill? 50 a month, more or less. Transportation? Bus fares are a few bucks, and a ticket on the KTX (Korea’s bullet train) roughly 25-50 dollars for a round trip to anywhere in the country. Your health insurance? Gratis.

With your essentials either free or bare-bones cheap, all of your hard-earned money is yours.

Teach in Korea Reason 2: Because Korea is livable – and fun.

While some Americans still think of the R.O.K. in terms of

old M*A*S*H reruns or the bad Engrish in Team America: World Police, those are outdated stereotypes – the country is prosperous, with a robust middle class, tons of stuff to do, and the North Korea threat completely over-hyped. Heck, we’re talking about the 9th largest economy in the world here – the standard of living is luxe, with most people living in high-rises and enjoying a prosperous middle-class life, far from the squalid (and outdated) stereotype of ennui and rice paddies. And people use this money to play. As the teachers interviewed in Chapter 5 note, you’ll never be bored – unless you want to be.

Take Seoul, a metropolitan area of over 22 million people. Making the Big Apple look like a quaint suburb, Seoul is constantly alive – with nightclubs, beautiful parks, hipster Hongdae and its thriving music scene, and shopping that makes the Mall of America look spartan and Vegas look provincial. Want a break? Take a cheap KoreaAir flight to Jeju-do, a thriving Korean island and Asia’s honeymoon travel capital. If you don’t have enough time, you can KTX it to Busan and take in the waves – and make waves – at gorgeous Haeundae Beach. For a change of pace, you can do a Korean “temple stay”, taking in a tea ceremony with monks amongst one of Korea’s many beautiful mountains and watching the sunrise before hiking amongst the cherry blossoms. And in the summer, every expat alive schleps out to the Boryeong summer mud festival – a mud- caked rite-of-passage that you (and your laundry) will never forget.

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Weekend warriorship aside, our day-to-day can be plenty exciting, too. The phrase “Work hard, party harder” applies to Koreans, and there are far more public spaces available than simply the American tradition of “going to the bar”. There’s live music, board game cafes, DVD-bangs (places you can rent the latest with your new buds), Korean saunas, even dog and cat cafes if you’re missing Fluffy (seriously, Google it. Cute overload.) You’ll never have a dearth of things to do – because Koreans love to have fun, and are happy to extend that “work hard, play hard” mentality to you.

You’ll be having all of this fun while saving thousands of dollars a year. Living low-to-the-ground has never been so awesome.

Teach in Korea Reason 3: Because Korea is connected.

You’ll be living in the most wired country in the world, with the best international airport in the world – which means not will your Skype with friends and family be crystal clear, but you can make Japan, China, the Philippines, and Southeast Asia your oyster during your time off. Incheon’s international airport, repeatedly ranked one of the world’s best, is a hub to pretty much any destination in Asia – your passport will be straining with stamps!

(As a personal example, I had money left over at the end of my experience to spend three months backpacking in Thailand and Cambodia – and had payed off my undergraduate debt. Seriously. It’s not unheard of for people to take six months or even a year to travel after clocking in a few years in Korea. Take the gap year you’ve always dreamed – without begging Mom and Dad for ATM fare.)

As mentioned above, Korea’s fast-rail – the KTX – makes getting to any destination in the country a two-hours-or- less journey, making the entire country your oyster for weekend- warrior getaways. Again, you’ll only be bored if you want to be.

Teach in Korea Reason 4: Because even if teaching is temporary for you, Korea is a resume booster.

When you’re surrounded by expats in Korea, it’s easy to forget that you’re making a huge, gutsy leap – and that employers back home, when you choose to return, will notice. Your decisions to teach abroad signals to employers that you’re brave, that you take risks, that you’re not afraid to make it in an entirely new culture, and that if you hustle, you can even pick up a second (or third) language. Those are all laudable – and transferable – aptitudes to any job. If you teach admirably and are careful to cultivate volunteer opportunities, you can easily make an “exit plan” back to the US if you so choose to do so.

It can be easy to lose sight of this in the land of a million expats, but your time abroad matters. International experience, in a tight job market, stands out on your CV. Although I decided to stay in teaching – entering a master’s program that paid my tuition, by the way! – friends of mine jump-started their graduate school applications and found their job callbacks increasing upon returning home. If a traditional career back in the States is your ultimate dream, your law school or MBA app will get a lot more interesting. And if you’re still figuring stuff out, Korea will give you a nest egg so that burger-flipping won’t be your only hustle on returning to the West.

But teaching is not (insert job and skill set here!)” you might say. True – but when an employer sees that you had the maturity, wherewithal, adventuring spirit, and derring-do to make it in Korea, they see a potentially valuable asset.

Additionally, Korea has many NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that would appreciate your time and energy volunteering – yet another experience that will set you apart. If your interests lie in the non-profit world, international business, or the media, Korea has opportunities that you can make your own as a foreigner with English expertise. Compare this to fighting for unpaid internships with thousands of other underemployed grads in America’s major urban centers! You – and your resume – will be the better for it.

Teach in Korea Reason 5: Because it’s darn fun.

I’ve been focusing on “why Korea” in terms of the practical aspects – but have yet to touch on the awesomest part of teaching abroad – the kids. The cute, awesome, often-hilarious, never- boring kids. The kids you’ll have the pleasure of getting to know – who will make you a better person for knowing (and teaching) them.

Whether you’re teaching kindergarten or middle school (and you do have a say over the age level you’d prefer!) teaching English in Korea is the ultimate cultural exchange. Before homesickness can set in, your students will make you laugh, make you “Awww”, and make you go “Huh?” in ways that never get old. It isn’t all dolsot bibimbap – working with children has its cons as well as its pros. But all-in-all, the school culture in Korea aligns towards respecting teachers, and your students will for the most part genuinely want to learn. You’re more likely than not to luck out with some amazing students.

To sum up: your day-to-day will be spent teaching children English, a valuable – no, vital- skill in the global market. It’s not a bad way to spend a year or two – and become debt free in the process.

Decision time

Hopefully, what my story also illustrates is that wanting to teach abroad – but not knowing where to start – is normal. (I didn’t know a single word of Korean starting my teaching job! I now speak intermediately.) I also knew I could save money, but didn’t know how to budget, send money home, or know the best ways to seriously make a dent in my student loans.

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You might still be on the fence about taking a huge leap across the pond – and that’s OK. To wrap this introduction up, let’s clear up some common Korean teaching myths, urban legends and horror stories, traded down like baseball cards in one of the many teach-ESL forums on the Net. I’ll give you the real deal – because I thought the same things, and came out on the other side unscathed.

“But I heard that….” Common myths and misconceptions

When announcing your decision to teach abroad, many well-meaning friends and family members may spring some well-worn myths and urban legends on you in what might feel like a Korean version of 20 Questions. Their concern is admirable – and healthy – but the fact is that many of the horror stories about jobs teaching abroad belong in an Eli Roth movie, not reality. Let’s break down some of the most common fears and concerns:

Teach in Korea MYTH 1 : “It’s a scam/Every Korean boss is a nightmare/None of this is actually ‘free’.”

TRUTH: If I haven’t convinced you teaching in Korea isn’t a scam, I’ll say it again: totally not a scam. (Our bonus content, in which we interview other successful teachers about their Korea experience, will further set your mind at ease. You don’t just have to take my word for it – you can also listen to the tons of other people who have done this and loved this.)

As for the rumor about bosses – well, that’s an ugly (and outdated) stereotype. Mine – and many I know – are lovely people, and the seedy underbelly of the hagwon industry has largely been rooted out with a series of reforms undertaken by the Korean government five years ago. While most jobs have always been fantastic, the government helped the hagwon industry clean up its act – meaning it’s even less likely you’ll be a Korean horror story.

But if you do have a jerky boss (people can be jerks everywhere!) you have options. One is to change workplaces – even easier than being hired abroad because you’ll be in the country. If you do your due diligence and pick a great recruiter (something we’ll talk about in Chapter 3), they will work with you to make sure that your Korean work experience is nothing but copacetic.

As for being skeptical about the “free-ness” of rent, airfare, and health insurance – hey, it makes sense. We were taught “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”, right?

Except all of those freebies, to a Korean employer, are an investment: in you.

First, your Korean employers know that making the leap overseas is hard – and the demand for English teachers is higher than ever. They want to do everything in their power to hire competitive talent – and that means your living expenses are gratis. There are some rumblings this may change in the near future if more people choose the expat teaching life, but for now, Korea provides one of the cheapest transitions out there to living abroad.

It’s the law of supply-and-demand – plenty of people are not as brave as you are to make the leap abroad, and Korean employers know it. They’re willing to put a huge price tag on your bravery – and you’ll only benefit for it.

Teach in Korea MYTH 2: “I have to know Korean or they won’t hire me/I have to speak Korean when teaching the kids.”

TRUTH: You don’t have to know a single word of Korean to thrive in the Land of the Morning Calm – as the legions of expats who don’t learn much more than “Annyeong” (that’s “hello”) can attest.

In fact, many employers actually view a lack of Korean- knowledge as an asset, at least when it comes to your teaching practice. In a full-immersion setting, it can sometimes be tempting for an ESL teacher to “switch back” to Korean with students in order to explain a concept. Obviously, speaking Korean with your students impedes the very English-immersion service you are being paid for! Many Korean hagwon bosses I’ve spoken with have actually expressed annoyance if their teachers use Korean to clarify with students (of course, it’s your choice if you want to learn enough to do so.)

Of course, teaching isn’t the only time that knowing some Korean might matter. That isn’t to say there aren’t huge benefits – besides utter politeness – in learning the language of the locals. Speaking a little Korean – emphasis on a little – is not only good manners, but can go a long way in terms of helping you develop friendships, connections, and simply enjoying yourself in the ROK. But you don’t have to do it overnight. Many Korean cities have an international center that offers Korean classes, and KoreanClass101.com as well as TalkToMeinKorean.com are great resources with plenty of freebies (of particular note – their fantastic podcasts.)

Learning Korean – if you care to, because you don’t need to! – can also provide opportunities for socializing. Seoul is filled to the brim with savvy Koreans on Craigslist looking for a language partner, making learning practice more fun – and sociable. During my two years there, I gained fluency to an intermediate level – and a friend of mine became almost fully fluent, and had an iPhone full of Korean contacts, through studying with Craigslist language partners. Yet I also knew people who only learned a few conversational phrases – and their experiences were perfectly simpatico.

Some people become almost fluent in Korean. Others never bother to learn hangul. Personally speaking, I developed an intermediate proficiency just by paying attention – your experience might be similar to mine. Most people are in between – and all groups have a fantastic experience. Again, the choice is yours.

Teach in Korea MYTH 3: “I need a TEFL certificate in order to teach in Korea/I should have majored in English to teach in Korea.”

TRUTH: Nope! A TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification is great – if it actually helps your teaching practice, or if you’re in the running for a more- competitive public school teaching spot. But in terms of landing a teaching job, a TEFL certification is desirable, but not absolutely essential. Thousands of teachers are hired every year without one – Korea is considered an “entry-level” ESL market for teachers because English fluency and a bachelor’s degree are the requirements, rather than pedagogical know-how. The market is tightening for public school teaching applications, this is true; however, hagwons (private schools) do not require TEFL certifications.

With that said, it is true that a TEFL certificate might get your foot in the door in certain choosier places, such as Busan (particularly for public school teaching and the EPIK program). However, you should be wary of the many diploma mills out there. In fact, I recommend you be choosy about TEFL programs – there are many “online” courses that provide “TEFL certificates” barely worth the paper they are printed on.

My number one piece of advice? Do your research, and remember that you get what you pay for. Instead of paying for an online course from Dr. Nick’s School of Midnight Medicine, go with programs offered by accredited universities only – and when possible, take a course in person, not online. Not only will your resume thank you for it, but so will Future You, armed with actual pedagogical know-how rather than gimmicky textbook tricks.

What this means is that you should ask questions. Find out what university body – if any – grants your TEFL program their authenticity. Ask for verification of accreditation (and make sure said accrediting body is legit.) If the answers are shaky or not forthcoming, skip that program and hold out for one the cert worth more than the paper it’s printed on. Ask around on forums like Dave’s ESL Cafe about a program before signing on. In other words, like the students you will soon teach, do your homework.

(As an aside, one certification program you’ll never regret? The CELTA – that’s Cambridge’s TEFL certification (yes, that Cambridge.) It’s a six-week program, and an investment between $1000-$3000 USD, depending on your locale, but the CELTA is almost universally viewed as the entry-level TEFL qualification for teaching abroad. With the imprint of Cambridge University on your side – and international recognition – this program will give you peace-of-mind and serious street cred if you can deal with the startup costs. )

Says one colleague who finished the CELTA program (and also works in the US after spending some time in Korea), “The CELTA was one of the best programs I’ve ever done, because it gives me security. Schools in tons of different countries recognize it. If I’m ever in trouble in the US or just want to travel some more, I have the key to do so.”

In other words: you can get a job without a TEFL, a TEFL is a nice option but only if you go with an accredited school rather than a diploma mill, and the CELTA is an initially big investment but the entry-level gold standard for ESL qualifications abroad. Got it?

At this point, I’ve hopefully mollified your doubts, and you’re beginning to picture your life abroad.

Let’s bring that picture into sharper focus.

Getting started: Decisions, decisions

So you’ve read my story, considered the pros of a Korean teaching career, and cleared up some myths and misconceptions. You’re tentatively on board with the idea of teaching in the ROK for fun and profit. You’ve started to imagine your flat in Seoul, pictured the joys of lesson-planning in the late afternoon at a Hongdae coffee shop, imagined the simple pleasure of grabbing soju with your new best buds in Itaewon. Your doubts have been assuaged. You’re thinking to yourself, “I can do this.”

Except you’re still not sure how to actually get your dream Korean teaching job.

Never fear – Chapter 2 is here.

In this module, we’ll talk about figuring out what kind of Korean teaching job you want by making three key decisions: – (1) what type of school you’d like to teach at (public or private), (2) where you’d like to teach, and (3) at what age level you’d like to teach. I will give you all the info – and the pros and cons – of the many different teaching gigs available in-country. I’ll also give you a city-by-city rundown of where you could teach – urban, suburban, rural – with the honest truth about each of the contexts.

Once you’ve decided where you want to teach, at what school you want to teach, and at what age level you might like to teach, we’ll then talk in Chapter 3 about the business of actually getting there – putting your candidacy together so that you’re head and shoulders above other applicants.

“Why should I make those decisions now?” you might ask. “Isn’t that what a recruiter helps me do?”

True, recruiters can talk through the undecided – but if you have an idea of what your ideal teaching position would look like, a recruiter can make that happen for you with much more satisfying results than if you’re clueless. Visualization is an important thing – and will make your Korean experience truly your own. (It will also help a recruiter advocate for you when you have a much clearer picture in mind – the last thing a recruiter wants is to talk through the wishy-washy.)

What’s more – and we’ll talk about this in Chapter 3 – knowing what you want helps you market yourself. Once you know what school context you’d like – the stuff of this chapter – in Chapter 3 I’ll help you write your resume, and find a recruiter that doesn’t suck. We’ll talk about different ways of getting noticed – working with a recruiter, applying to the EPIK or GEPIK programs, or both. I’ll help you get your documents in order so that you’ll be on a KoreaAir flight faster than you can say “Oppa Gangnam Style.” Before you know it, you’ll be teaching, putting away money, and experiencing all the country has to offer.

But first, it’s time to decide: Whaddaya want?

Teach in Korea Big Decision 1: Public or private?

One of the first decisions you will have to make, in terms of building up your resume and skill-base and presenting yourself to recruiters and employers, is whether or not you will want to work in a public school – usually through the EPIK program, which we’ll discuss in more detail later – or in a hagwon, or Korean private school.

If you don’t have a BA in English or Education, the decision may already be made for you, as public schools and the EPIK program are largely looking for those requirements. The economy is tighter across the globe, meaning that Korea’s EPIK program – the main feeder to Korean public schools – is getting a bit choosier. Many recruiters these days are only considering applicants to EPIK that have a Bachelor’s in Education (or in English) and ideally, a TEFL cert (although it’s still not impossible – you just have to think about how to market yourself. If you’re dead set on public school teaching, there are still recruiters who will work with you).

Never, fear, though! If that’s not true of you, the choice to look at private schools is made for you – but the market is still vast, and if you’re thinking of getting a TEFL cert it’s still worth thinking about the choice. (Once you’ve chosen a recruiter, they can help clarify the current market even further.)

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Probably the best way to explain the differences between choosing to market yourself for public versus private schools is thinking about the choice in terms of trade-offs. Each choice has pros and cons – it’s up to you to decide what factors (such as money or vacation time) are important to you.

The differences, in a nutshell:

Public/private difference #1: Money v. time. While there are notable exceptions, public school usually pays less, and private school usually pays more. However, private school offers fewer vacation days, while public school offers more vacation days. Public school usually offers significant vacation time – at least a month – while hagwons offer you ten days at the most in a typical contract.

In other words, if you’re in Korea to hack at your financial obligations, a private school might be preferable; if you’re looking for a life experience and a launching pad to see the rest of Asia, a public school will give you the free time to role-play Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider on your lengthy Cambodian vacation.

Public/private difference #2: Choosing your locale v. greater job stability. Public schools offer more stability, but at a trade-off – you often can’t decide where you’ll live. if you enroll in the EPIK program (most public schools hire through EPIK) you will be able to prioritize where you’d like to live, but are not given a final say over the school you are placed with.

In other words, you want to know exactly what town you’ll call home in The Land of the Morning Calm, go with a hagwon. At a private school, you call the shots over your new Korean hometown – you can hold out for a job in Seoul, chill on the lush beaches of Jeju-do, or check out Busan and Gwangju without worrying that EPIK will pull any last-minute surprises and put you in the boonies (yes, it’s been done.)

By suggesting this is a trade-off with stability, I do not mean to suggest that private schools are objectively unstable; I loved the hagwon I taught with so much, I stayed there for two years! Yet hagwons are businesses – and businesses, no matter how solid, could fold (this is rare, but it happens). Public school fans tout the structure of the public school job contract, the stability of being part of an established program with other teachers making the same leap you are – all things to consider if teaching abroad is a few steps out of your comfort zone already.

However, you should not let the lottery-aspect of EPIK put you off, thinking you might be the only foreigner in a small Korean town. Even the most far-flung places – Boseong and it’s green tea fields, anyone? – have a sizable expat community, and Korea is a very small world when the KTX is at your disposal.

It’s a tricky choice, but you deserve to know what’s at stake. Which leads us to…

Public v. private difference #3: Smaller class sizes versus fewer teaching hours. Generally speaking, class sizes at a hagwon will be much smaller than public school class sizes, which can run upwards of thirty students (and even more in some financially-strapped school districts.)

This is not to suggest you’d be overwhelmed at a public school – the EPIK program does its best to provide new teachers with a cooperating teacher (or “co-teacher”) who has your back classroom-management wise and in the best of times is an amazing resource. Yet if you’re a newbie to teaching or if the idea of teaching ESL lecture-style doesn’t appeal to you, many new expats say they prefer the smaller, more intimate feel of hagwon classes.

However, while public school classrooms have many more students, public schools offer fewer total teaching hours. While you might be teaching six hours worth of classes a day with nary a break in a hagwon, your teaching load as a public school teacher will be much smaller – think four classes a day with a substantial preparation period. If you’re new to teaching, you might not appreciate how important a prep period is in designing an effective lesson – it’s definitely something to consider.

The trade-off here, then, asks you to consider your comfort level. If you prefer teaching a smaller group of people, a private school might be your best fit – unless the lure of significantly more prep time (worth its weight in gold to people who take their teaching seriously!) outweighs the class-size issue. Ultimately, when it comes to class size v. teaching load, there isn’t one “right answer” – there’s what’s right for you.

Having a hard time deciding?

After considering the pros and cons – the trade-offs – listed above, you still may not be certain whether the public or private route is right for you. I highly recommend that you take the time that you need to choose one route – recruiters can more adeptly represent your job candidacy if you have a solid idea of what you’d like – but keep in mind that it is possible to apply for both types of positions, depending on the recruiter. (What’s more, recruiters often specialize in one route alone, meaning that your search for a recruiter will be much smoother when you know what you want.)

However, even if you’re still undecided, I recommend that you consider the factors above and have an idea in mind of what the idea school context for you would look like, and what are priorities for you. Vacation time, class size, age level of children – decide what your ideal school day might look like, because that gives potential recruiters the most information they can to represent you the best they can. (It also helps you tailor your resume and skillset when you have a specific goal in mind.)

What you should know is that there is no one “right” answer – your choice of pursuing public school or private school employment depends on you.

It might be helpful during this discovery phase to consider what your motivations are for teaching in Korea, ranking them from most to least important.

Consider:

Are you in it for the money, for an exotic teaching experience, the travel, or a mixture of the three?

Is it important for you to have digs in Seoul (with a higher cost of living and the attendant stress) or do you want to relax in a suburb with cheap groceries and a marginal cost of living?

Is it important for you to be close to a large expat community?

Your answers are your own, but it’s helpful to do a self- inventory when considering whether or not a public or private school is for you.

Teach in Korea Big Decision 2: The “Where”

After having decided on public vs. private, it’s also helpful to know where you’d like to teach. While the EPIK program – Korea’s main public-school feeder – allows you to state preferences but has the final say over where you’ll end up – it’s still useful to have an idea of what type of city might be right for you.

It’s probably helpful to consider the three types of contexts most people find themselves teaching in: either one of the “big five” urban centers, the island of Jejudo, or a suburb of one of the “big five.”

In a nutshell, the five big Korean urban centers are: Seoul, Incheon, Busan, Daegu, and Gwangju. Suwon – just south of Seoul – is a gigantic Seoul suburb, and features plenty of schools looking for teachers. Jeju Island (also called Jejudo) is a remote (but beautiful) place to consider as well. A brief run-down of each city:

Teach in Korea City #1 + 2: Seoul/Incheon.

We’re connecting the two, because they’re right on top of the other – for an American comparison, consider how Dallas and Fort Worth are usually lumped together in the same breath.

The Seoul/Incheon metropolitan area has over 22 million citizens, including a huge, well-connected population of expats and neighborhoods that would take weeks to fully explore and appreciate. It’s considered the most “foreigner friendly city”, and for good reason. You’ll rarely have to speak a word of Korean – many Seoul-ites, native Koreans included, speak English well.

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Yet Seoul has one big con – the cost. Not only is it harder to find a job in Seoul (but not impossible!) the cost of living is higher than other areas – up to 20% more of your budget will go towards living expenses. Like New York or London, things cost more – you’ll have higher food bills, electric bills, and the like. Jobs are also more competitive – you might have to wait a little longer if you’re Seoul-or-bust. If you’re willing to pay a little more for the convenience, excitement, community, and opportunities of Seoul, this is a good opportunity for you.

If you want the benefits of Seoul without some of the financial downsides, you can also ask your recruiter to place you in a neighboring urban center, like the aforementioned Suwon (also a huge expat hub). This makes Seoul a 30-minute ride away on the commuter rail – a fantastic weekend getaway – while still enabling you to save.

Teach in Korea City #3: Busan.

Busan, beachy Busan. Smaller than Seoul, in the more humid southern part of the country, and considered by many to be Seoul’s more laid-back – and ironically more cosmopolitan – counterpart as the city is home to tons of international trade, Busan features beautiful beaches like the famous Haeundae, nicer locals (in the tradition of “Southern hospitality!”), ferries to Japan, and a huge bar scene.

If you like your big-city life a little more laid back, Busan might be for you – but be warned that, like Seoul, the cost of living is a little more expensive than other urban centers, and the job-market might take a bit longer to break into than other areas. Busan isn’t as expensive as Seoul – but it’s up there. If you can’t live without a beach, though, Busan or Jeju might be your top priorities.

Teach in Korea City #4: Gwangju.

Full disclosure: your author is a bit biased, as Gwangju was her home base for two years in the country, but all bias aside, Gwangju has a lot going for it, to say nothing of its notoriously pristine air and low cost of living Consider it a “city in the country” – with a mix of the best both have to offer.

The 5th largest city in Korea, with a population of about 1.2 million, Gwangju offers city life with a more “rural” feel, and a tight, close-knit community of about 1,000 expat teachers. If you’re an outdoorsy kind of person, Gwangju is your place – Mudeung Mountain is minutes away, and Boseong’s thriving green-tea fields (and ferries to more far-flung Korean islands) are but a short driving or KTX distance away.

In short: If you’re interested in saving money but still want a “city” experience, consider Gwangju. It’s two and a half hours away from Seoul, but you won’t miss much considering the welcoming nature of the city’s International Center – a must-visit for the new, homesick expat. If you decide on Gwangju, do stop by Song’s pub downtown – the owner never forgets a foreigner face, and his authentic German beer is to die for.

Teach in Korea City #5: Daegu.

Large expat community, smack-dab in the middle of the country and so equidistant from both Seoul and Busan, a thriving expat community who offer tons of intramural sports opportunities for the athletically inclined – what’s not to love?

Many long-term expats cite Daegu as one of Korea’s “most livable cities”, and for good reason – costs are low and conveniences high because of the city’s central location. You can hop on the KTX and get to pretty much anywhere in Korea in less than an hour – it’s that ideally located.

Like Gwangju, Daegu marries the convenience and thrill of city life with an easier cost of living – which means more savings for the dedicated loan-hacker.

“Korea’s Hawaii”: Teaching in Jeju

A large island on the southern Korea coast and a vacation hotspot, Jeju is the destination teachers either love or hate. On the “love” side are the outdoorsy types who find life to be a beach – if you go ape over the idea of living in constant proximity to beautiful waterfalls and warm weather, Jeju might be your spot, but the beauty comes at a cost – proximity to everything else.

If you commit to Jeju, it will be very difficult to visit other parts of the country – it’s do-able, but hard to leave for a simple weekend trip, and your expat community will be tied to the island as it will be that much harder to make cross-country connections. Like other more rural provinces, living costs are also much cheaper Jeju fans rave about the beauty and laid-back nature of the province, however, so choose carefully.

Teach in Korea Option 6: Teach in The ‘Burbs’

Many new-to-Korea teachers want a big urban center, sight unseen – and understandably so. You’re going to a brand new country with a completely foreign language, and the comfort level of a huge urban center is hard to beat. What you might not know, however, is that Korea’s “suburbs” are not like ours – not only are the indistinguishable from the big cities, but the ‘burbs’ are usually just a stone’s throw away from the city they shadow, and readily accessible by public transit.

The so-called suburban centers such as Suwon, greater Gyeonggi province, Pohang, and Mokpo are worth the research and time to consider for two important reasons: First, the cost of living is usually much lower – ideal for the penny-pinching teacher. Second, you’re likely to find a job much faster – expediting your journey in a “best of both worlds” locale. In short, if a recruiter mentions one of the ‘burbs, don’t count them out. You’re likely to find a tight-knit expat community and just as many opportunities as the heart of Seoul – to say nothing of the much lower cost of living. If paying off debt is your main reason for teaching abroad, a job in the suburbs can greatly expedite your savings.

Again, what’s important as you prioritize your Korean job search is not so much knowing exactly where you’ll teach, but having a good idea of what each city has to offer (and knowing about the cities themselves!) so you can present a clear picture to your recruiter.

Teach in Korea Big Decision #3: How old/how young?

At this point, you’ve got an inkling about whether you’d prefer a public v. private school, and you’ve prioritized your locations. To maximize your portfolio to a recruiter, it’s also a good idea to give some thought about what age level you’d like to teach, as this can greatly affect your candidacy and the way you will tailor your resume and job applications.

There are typically three different main age levels available in Korean hagwon and public school settings: kindergarten/early elementary, elementary/middle school, and secondary or high school.

If your experience with kids is minimal, you might want to think about what age level of student you’d most enjoy interacting with – but keep an open mind. As an example, I thought I’d hate kindergarten, but ended up loving it the most, as very young children. (Kindergartens, by the way, are a great entry level gig – and often overlooked simply because people think the age level is too young for them to handle.) High school may sound the easiest because students are older, but know that in Korean school culture, your secondary-school charges will be incredibly sleep-deprived – making many hagwon teacher’s main goals, “Keep them awake!”

After some soul-searching – and armed with know-how – you have presumably made a solid decision on teaching public school versus private school, where you’d like to teach, and what age level you’d like to teach.

You have your type of school in mind. You have your ideal location in mind. You’ve taken some time to consider the age level you’d like to teach.

Now it’s time to get you there.

Building your teach in Korea candidacy: Getting it together

 

At this point, you’re definitely on board with your decision to teach in Korea, and you’ve got a solid idea of what type of job you’re looking for. In this chapter, I’ll guide you through the process of getting your candidacy in order so recruiters – and employers – take notice.

It’s not that you can’t do these steps on your own, but it’s a lot easier to be methodical about this process – take it from someone who’s been through the stress. To an outsider, the Korean teaching visa application process can seem more complicated than an intricate family subplot Game of Thrones, so having as much stuff together as you can saves you – and your future employer – some serious headaches. Unfortunately, there are some true horror stories about job offers being rescinded because a would-be ESL teacher didn’t have her paperwork together – don’t let that be you!

The smart teach-in-Korea candidate will get his or her visa paperwork in order before even starting the job search, because a simple snafu can mean these papers take months to get in order. Here’s a breakdown of what you’ll need before contacting a single recruiter:

Papers, Papers, Papers: Stuff to get in order

Again, you could technically start amassing your visa paperwork after talking to recruiters and accepting a job offer, but it will make your life a lot harder, stressful, and more time- consuming than getting everything together beforehand. I recommend – and many recruiters will require – you to have the following papers in order to expedite your visa process and make your candidacy as stellar as possible:

A photocopy of the info page of your passport + five passport-sized photos.

You’ve got a passport – right?! If not, apply for one ASAP! Think of it as the start of a big new adventure. A passport application can take a month or two to process, so do this now!

Once you have your shiny new (or old) passport in hand, make sure to take several photocopies of the “information” page – and leave one page for stamps blank so that you’ll have room for your brand spanking new teaching visa!

Regardless of whether or not you need a new passport, the Korean government will ask you for passport photos for your ID card in-country, so take the time to get regular old passport photos made and keep at least five on hand for your visa application. (Most drugstores – CVS, Walgreens, Rite-Aid, and Duane Reade do this for a minimal cost.) Incidentally, you can also use these passport photos for your recruiter applications – and your new teaching resume – if you take the care to look professional.

An apostilled, notarized photocopy of your undergraduate diploma from an accredited university.

There are no ifs, ands, or buts about this – the Korean government will require this in your visa application – so there’s no reason not to immediately have this on hand and ready to go to the visa office.

“What’s an apostille”? Good question – I had no idea what one was before teaching in Korea, either! Simply put, an apostille is a certification from the government in question that your document – in this case, your accredited undergraduate diploma – is legit. Because historically some shady people have attempted to squeak by without legit degrees and teach English in the ROK, the Korean government has wised up – requiring your paperwork to be squeaky clean.

Here’s what you’ll need to do:

  1. Make a legible photocopy of your undergraduate diploma. (Korea does NOT accept originals, so don’t send it!)
  2. Get a notary public to sign off on your diploma. (This does not have to be a person from the university – any notary public will do.)
  3. Obtain an apostille for your diploma – a process that might take some time (even a month or two), so do it early.

Each state has an apostille office, but the federal government does apostilles, too. You can get more info on the apostille process here: http://www.state.gov/m/a/auth/.

Two sealed university transcripts.

For the record, “sealed” means “unopened.” (You’d be surprised at how many people mess that one up…)

Have two copies of your complete, final transcripts on hand. You’ll send one to the school that hires you, and another to your Korean consulate. It seems simple, but having this in order saves you weeks of worry later down the line.

A notarized, apostilled FBI criminal record check. This will take the most time! Do this immediately!

The FBI criminal record check (often shortened to “CRC” on visa documents/applications) is a must and can take up to three months to process, so prioritize this first. The application is available here.

Just like your diploma, you’ll need to both notarize and apostille this document. Get a notary public to attach what’s called an affidavit to the criminal record check, and then send the notarized document to the apostille office.

It’s a pain in the ass, yes, but be grateful – once this pain in the ass is over, your visa application will be smooth sailing.

By the way, criminal record checks are valid for six months only. If you’re postponing your job search or it’s taking longer than expected, it’s a smart idea to order a new criminal record check every few months so that you’re constantly current.

A health statement from the Korean government.

Fill it out here and keep it on record.

One (possibly controversial) culture note: don’t mention mental health problems, no matter how small or manageable – while you can agree or disagree with the stigma, even the most mundane of experiences with depression, OCD, ADHD, and the like will bar you from employment in the Land of the Morning Calm. I may get flak for saying this, but if you have a manageable mental health condition, honesty may (not) be the best policy when it comes to disclosure here.

The steps are all slightly different if you’re from a different country – many recruiter pages will have specific information if you’re from the UK, say. Which leads us to:

Choosing a recruiter: The one simple question that will save you a lot of headaches

You could look up job postings on your own on websites like Waygook.org and Dave’s ESL cafe, no recruiter required. But for many people, the peace of mind a recruiter provides – especially for your first job in the ROK – will mean that the vast majority of first-timers to Korea will use a recruiter to mediate the process.

It’s important to keep in mind that while the recruiter wants you to be happy, the person cutting their paycheck is not you – it’s the employer that will hire you. What this means is that while the vast majority of recruiters are decent, stand-up people, their vested interest is not necessarily always going to align with your own – meaning you need to be a smart, savvy shopper so that the recruiter-recruitee (this is not a word, but it should be!) relationship is copacetic.

How do you do this?

A cursory Google search of “teach in Korea”will lead you to dozens of ritzy-looking splash pages – all promising shinier job offers and more job security than the last. I could name-drop (and I will!) some recruiters I personally know to be legit, but since empowerment is the name of the game, here is one quick and easy way you can suss out the real-deal recruiters from the bad apples in the bunch:

  • Ask to speak with current teachers who were placed by the recruiter
  • Ask to speak with current teachers who were placed by the recruiter.
  • Ask to speak with current teachers who were placed by the recruiter.

OK, I probably sound crazily emphatic, but seriously – the vast majority of teach in Korea applicants do not take this simple step, and many who don’t do this end up regretting it!

Why do I recommend this? (1) If a recruiter can provide you with a list of current teachers, that means they keep in touch with people after placing them – always a good sign. (2) Current teachers, having already been placed and no longer “needing” the recruiter, will tell you the good, the bad, and the ugly about their placement and their experience with the recruiter – giving you the realistic, warts-and-all information you sorely need when making a decision of this magnitude.

If a recruiter is unwilling, unable, or hesitant about providing you with contact information of current and former clientele, run, do not walk, away. I cannot repeat this enough. By buying this guide, you’ve already demonstrated that you understand the importance of doing your due diligence – this is certainly not a step you want to skimp on! (By the way, it’s also helpful to do this before accepting the initial job offer – always speak to the outgoing teacher first!)

For extra peace of mind, you can check out your recruiter by posting a thread about them on Dave’s ESL Cafe (a fantastic forum and teaching resources, by the way), or on Waygook.org. Keep in mind, though, that you are far more likely to hear one- sided horror stories through asking around this way – take what you learn from this method of discovery with a grain of salt.

And for the record, after doing the groundwork and interviewing dozens of other Korean expats, there are some recruiters I’m happy to say are legit. I can vouch for Korvia, ESL Planet, Footprints Recruiting, and Teach ESL Korea as four very solid companies. However, because company culture inevitably changes, I still recommend you do your homework by always asking to speak with current teachers, no matter how glowing the reviews or vouched-for the recruiters are.

Because each recruiter has different clientele, I recommend that you start out by putting in applications to at least three different recruiters. Which brings us to making your application stand out…

Building your application + the interview

With an increase in would-be Korea ESL teachers, many recruiters are streamlining their application process by requiring you to fill out an application on their website and making an introductory video. Regardless of your application being via print or YouTube, here are some important reminders for making your application stand out – and avoiding the bottom of the barrel:

Tips for a resume:

Even if it’s not required, include a photo.

Unlike American resume culture, it’s common practice for Korean resumes to include a photo – so don’t hesitate about putting in a picture. You’ll look smart and culturally savvy, not douchey. You’re a big investment to a Korean employer – they want to know what you look like!

A photo is also a time to display something that can be difficult to ascertain from abroad: your professional judgment. What makes a photo stand out from the pack? Make sure it’s against a clean backdrop, or even taken outside in a sunny, neutral setting – but make sure it looks professional. (Ask a friend with a DSLR to help – but even a nicely done passport photo can work, if you don’t have a photography-inclined pal.) Wear a white button-up with a blazer or cardigan. Ladies, wear professional jewelry – a conservative pair of diamond studs or pearls and a neutral makeup palette. (No eye-liner!) And if you have one, cover up that neck tat – now is not the time to be negotiating for the office chic of ink.

Don’t forget to smile! Remember that your Korean boss will be hiring you (relatively) sight unseen – they want to see that you have the savvy to look professional, well-groomed, happy, and in-your-element when hiring someone from halfway across the planet. This is not the time to debut your Mike Tyson henna tattoo, your lobe spacers, your Ryan Lochte-style diamond grill or your Miley Cyrus-esque fauxhawk. Keep it simple, keep it professional. Demonstrating your judgment in creating a charismatic, professional-looking photo will make employers and recruiters alike take notice.

Include all and sundry information about your experience with kids – and be specific.

In your professionally-typed resume, include all details of any work with kids. Were you a Big Brother/Big Sister? Did you volunteer at the Boys and Girls Club in high school? After- school tutoring? Babysitting? Don’t fret about what you may perceive as minimal experience – anything and everything can strengthen your candidacy if it showcases any experience teaching or working authentically with young people.

But be specific. Don’t just say, “I worked at a Mommy and Me one time last May.” Include any skills that are transferrable to teaching. Did you work with bilingual children? What teaching did your job entail? Did you interact with any parents?

Think of all of the skill sets a teacher must wear – the many hats involved in the profession, such as counselor, instructor, and the like – and apply what you’ve done with those skill sets in mind.

Even if you have not directly worked with children, any experience that involves interfacing with customers and working with the public is a plus in your favor. Don’t be shy about tooting your own horn here.

Include skills like photography, piano-playing, etc, that don’t immediately scream “teaching” – but that a hagwon would love.

Are you handy with the violin? Savvy at web design? Do you take photographs that even a professional could appreciate? It may be difficult to appreciate this if you haven’t stepped foot in Korea, but one thing you’ll immediately see about the hagwon (private school) world is that hagwons are competitive – and they will eat it up if you have skills that can help them stand out from the other hagwon chains out there.

In short: if you’re savvy as a musician, a photographer, as a web designer, or even a so-so art teacher, name-drop it – you’d be surprised at how much value that can add to your application. Never underestimate how much a Korean parent might want to see some glossy photos of their child in circle time, or would love to hear stories about a guitar-playing ESL teacher.

Be professional.

Korean work culture is pretty conservative – so that means your application should be, too.

This is not the time to put your heading in Papyrus or Comic Sans font, or go crazy with the margins or font sizes – make your resume as streamlined as possible, using a standard font (Arial, Georgia, Helvetica, Times New Roman, and the like) and standard template (the new Microsoft Word suite for Windows 8 has fantastic templates, as does Google Drive’s word processor.)

If your spelling and grammar needs a once-over – and even if it doesn’t – ask a friend or two to review your resume, or even call up Career Services at your university (that’s what they’re there for!)

In short: play up any and all experiences working with children and any experiences in a teaching capacity. If you’re lacking those, play up any customer service or experience dealing with the public. Don’t be afraid to tout seemingly “unrelated” skills if they might help a school, such as photography, web design, music, or art. Include a conservative, professional photo. And be sure that your educational info – including your GPA, if it’s high! – is at the top.

Got it?

Tips for a video:

Because application volumes are increasing and there is increased interest in teaching in Korea, many recruiters are now asking you to submit a short, candid video explaining your interest in teaching and your qualifications as your “resume.” They’re doing this not only to get a quick “first impression,” of you, but to judge your potential presence as a teacher – in other words, they’re going to watch you the way a Korean employer might see you. What this means is that you should be yourself – even a YouTube video can’t conceal fakery – but to keep the following tips in mind:

Dress conservatively.

See the above advice about how to dress and what to wear for a resume photo. Conservative, professional, and neutral is the name of the game. If you have any visible tattoos, cover ‘em up, and remove those piercings! You can re-introduce them slowly – slowly – once you’re actually in the ROK, but now is not the time to show a recruiter your rad sleeve.

Speak slowly, clearly, and candidly.

Recruiters and employers alike want to make sure you can enunciate your speech and speak at an appropriately slow pace – both are crucial when teaching English as a second language. It can be easy to talk rapidly when in a tense setting – such as an interview or intro video – so practice this a couple of times rather than simply turning in your first “take” to the recruiter.

Smile!

Remember, you’ll be working with kids! And kids want to like you! You don’t have to plaster the world’s cheesiest grin on your face by any means, but a warm, affable smile speaks louder than the most suck-uppiest of introductory letters. Consider it a way for you to practice your teaching presence – a little smile goes a long way.

Mention your passion for children, and give tangible examples if possible.

Your recruiter – and your future employer – don’t care if your primary motivation is paying off Fannie Mae. They also don’t want to hear that your primary motivation is to backpack around the world. When discussing your motivation to teach in Korea, mention the motivation that matters to them – your desire to work with kids and your love for language, because that will be your day-to-day.

Just like in a print application, be ready to give examples (although they don’t have to be a novel.) Talk about the kid you helped grasp the Pythagorean theorem, or the foreign language study you did in college – anything that connects to the job and is specific. Plenty of people can say they love kids – the candidate that stands out shows rather than tells.

The callback: what to say

At this point, you’ve sent in a completed application to recruiters, and have your visa paperwork in order (or at least the documents you’ll need once you accept that teaching job.) After submitting your application, recruiters will begin to contact you.

(If it’s been several weeks and you haven’t received a response, move on to a different recruiter – it’s very possible that your candidacy is A-OK, but the specific recruiter might not have a job that can match what you’re looking for at that specific time. You should also know that the Korean school calendar has semesters that begin in May and September – those are the peak hiring seasons!)

Again, be sure to ask recruiters to provide e-mails or other relevant contact information of people currently placed by them. Typically, after a week or two and if the recruiter is interested in working with you, they will begin providing you with information about specific gigs. You will soon be asked if you would like to set up an interview with a Korean employer.

A quick cultural note: in Korean culture, job interviews are NOT like they are at home, where multiple candidates are interviewed and you may or may not get the job. If you are asked to interview, the job is all but guaranteed for you – so you should be very sure you’re interested in the position before accepting that final phone interview! Your recruiter – and your employer – will consider your employment a done deal if you’re offered an interview. That’s good news for you – so make sure that this is the place you want!

You should be asking a lot of questions before setting up an interview: of your recruiter, not your employer. (While it’s not necessarily bad to ask a question or two of your Korean employer during the interview, this can be read as a sign of hesitancy or of not wanting to take the job.) Here are the specific job questions you should ask of your recruiter before accepting the interview:

  • What are the exact teaching hours? Will I be working weekends? If yes, is there an overtime policy for working on a weekend?
  • What is the actual take-home salary, and how will it be disbursed? Monthly? Biweekly?
  • Will I have a co-teacher (a Korean native teacher) in the class room? Are there other English-speaking faculty at the school? Who would I go to for support if I have questions or concerns?
  • What class sizes can I expect? How are the classes divided – age-level/grade-level/ability level?
  • Is there a holiday schedule and if so, what is it? Will I be able to request my own holidays at any time?
  • What is the curriculum system, and if so, how should I follow it?
  • How long has the hagwon been in business/public school been in existence?
  • How does the hagwon/public school handle pension money? (The pension is a monthly withholding that employers by law must participate in – but you should receive that money at the end of your contract. Ask questions about this, because pensions can “disappear” with some unscrupulous business owners.)

Again, if the answers to these questions are not forthcoming or if your recruiter seems hesitant about asking these questions, trust your gut. While the school is making a huge commitment in hiring you sight unseen, you are making a huge commitment as well – and every stakeholder along the way can and should respect that. While the market is tightening, other job offers will come along – so breathe!

The interview

After accepting an interview with the Korean employer in question, be promptly at your phone or Skype for their time – it will be an almost unforgivable mistake if you miss it! Use Google to double-check that you’ve converted the time correctly – many a teach-in-Korea hopeful has miscalculated the time and fumbled an important interview because of an easily-remedied mistake.

Besides punctuality, make sure to speak slowly, clearly, and carefully – as you would for any English language learner (consider it practice for your new job as an ESL teacher). Keep a positive note in your voice. Ask a question or two, but a barrage wouldn’t be appropriate here (many hagwon owners in particular may speak decent English, but may be embarrassed or feel put-on-the-spot by fast talking or a lot of questions.) And rest easy knowing that if you’ve made it to the interview stage with a Korean employer, the job offer is almost certainly forthcoming – both your recruiter and your new employer have a stake in making sure you’re the best fit for the job before speaking with you in the first place!

After reading your contract carefully, making sure all your questions are answered, and having accepted your new Korean teaching job – congratulations!!! – it’s time to plan for the teaching adventure of a life-time.

Your recruiter and employer will help you with the remainder of the visa process. I will help you set up your very own loan-hack, so that college student debt is a thing of the past – and the only thing you have to worry about is packing your bags.

Oh, and leaving your student loan debt in the dust!

Setting up your loan hack for fun and profit

If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! At this point, you’ve accepted a job offer, are in the midst of receiving your E2 visa, and may even have a KoreaAir ticket in hand to fly across the Pacific towards your debt-free future. Either that, or you’re reading this in anticipation of having all of those things in the bag. Either way, way-to-go, future you!

And this is the best part about teaching in Korea – even if saving money is not your forte, you will save, without trying very hard at all. Even the least budget-conscious of my friends could pack away at least $1000 USD a month without even trying.

But if you’ve bought this book, you want more than an easy grand – you want the know-how to be a diligent loan- hacker.

Good!

Through making careful choices and setting up a budget like the one I’ll set up with you, I saved about $1,400 USD a month: enough to pay off my loans in two years of teaching and enjoy a month-long trip to Southeast Asia.

And the sooner you take ownership of paying off your student debt, credit card bills and other loans, the sooner you’ll be to financial freedom.

In this final chapter, I will help you set realistic saving goals, breaking down the typical costs of living for the usual line-items in an ESL teacher’s budget. I’ll help you set up your remittance schedule and create a budget. I’ll even offer some advice for coming up with an “exit plan” when you’re done with your adventure in the ROK.

All you’ll need to do is get on the plane.

Setting a savings goal and the cost of living: what’s realistic?

The first thing you should do, if you don’t know the figure already, is to take a look at your contract, ascertain your exact monthly salary (usually dispensed on the first of every month), and convert that to US dollars (or your relevant unit of currency.)

The average entry level teacher salary is between 2.2-2.6 million won a month. The exchange rate fluctuates, but at the time of writing, a million won is approximately 900 USD. If you’re a diligent loan hacker, you will want to check the exchange rates weekly – the information is easily Googlable – because less savvy loan hackers can be hit with a bad transfer rate when it’s time to remit their savings to US at the Korean bank!

If you’re not ready to make a line-by-line budget yet, it’s realistic to assume that living normally, your living expenses could cost from 500-800,000 won a month. Expenses like frequent bar nights out, more than the occasional weekend get- away and shopping sprees will definitely raise that total – but a monthly budget of 500-800,000 won in personal living expenses is realistic for the average ESL teacher. The rest is yours to save!

If you do want to make a budget – which is smart! – you’ll next want to write down the following estimates for cost of living expenses, adjusting when necessary:

Utilities. Most employers won’t cover this, so plan to shell out between 30,000-60,000 won a month for your heating and electric bills. Be energy-conscious like you would at home, and you can make this figure lower.

Some apartments still come with landlines. If you feel comfortable asking your boss to do so, have the landline disconnected – you can easily get a smart phone (often referred to as a “handphone” in Korea) and cut this expense.

Phone. Assuming you’re not racking up crazy minutes, a smart phone subscription in the ROK will net you about 75-100,000 won a month – and this is a generous estimate. You’ll likely pay a bit less.

Food. Groceries are cheap, awesome, and varied in Korea

– if you’re a home cook and have an adventurous palette, you can squeak by on as low as 250,000-300,000 won a month for your personal food budge. Like to eat out? If you’re going out once or twice a week, add an extra 100,000 won total to your budget – Korean food trucks are a cheap and fantastic wonder, and there are plenty of corner diners that can sate your urge for bibimbap for less than 10,000 won.

Drinking is the real expense here, and what eats up otherwise penny-pinching teachers’ budgets. Beer is what’ll cost you – drink at home (or at one of the ubiquitous Family Marts – seriously, it’s a Korean event!) rather than shelling out at the bar.

Bus/taxi fares. If you’re a native big city dweller back home, you will cry at how cheap transportation costs are here. If you avoid the cabs, your bus fares might total as low as 50,000-75,000 won a month – a single round trip on Seoul’s subways or on a bus line is a mere 3-4,000 won.

Add an extra 50k to this line-item if you take the occasional late night taxi – but even the longest of cab rides is usually no more than 20,000 round trip.

Shopping, hobbies, fun. This is a bit of a catchall category, but simple pleasures in life – like a coffee shop trip or a bus pass to Busan for the weekend – add up. You might want to allot about 250,000 won a month in “fun money” – but if you’re scrupulous, it may very well be a lot less. This is the category that most depends on your personal lifestyle preferences.

Adding up the most expensive estimates in each category, that’s 250,000 + 75,000 + 300,000 + 100,000 + 60,000 = 785,000 won a month – and remember, these are the highest estimates. Making smart choices – like foregoing the thrice-daily coffee shop run and nixing crazy all-nighters with your new Korean buds – could very well shave your living expenses down to as low as 500,000 won a month.

Even if you’re spending at the high end of this budget and making the lowest entry level salary – 2.2 million won – that leaves you with 1.4 million won left over – at the time of writing, that’s at least $1251 a month that is yours to save. You can easily save even more if you think ahead and set a budget – as you’re doing right now.

When to send over your money? While there is room for disagreement, I’d argue that you should do this monthly, rather than paying off minimums on your loan and then sending everything over as a lump sum at the end of the year. I advise this because of the currently high interest rates on student loans – while some people feel more satisfied paying their loans in one giant remittance, this might cost you more in the long run.

Some loan-hackers wait until the end of the month, see what they have left over, and then remit the left-overs. The savviest hackers will pay themselves first by remitting a set amount of money each month to their bank account in the US. Not only does this streamline your loan-hacking process, but “paying yourself first” is a tried-and-true budget trick that eliminates the urge to spend unscrupulously.

How to do this? Read on…

Banking and remittances in Korea: An overview

Banking in a completely foreign language can seem frightening – especially when so much money (to say nothing of your future) is at stake. I was in your shoes once too, and will give you the information you need to make your banking experience as smooth as possible.

Fortunately, your hagwon boss or public school principal will almost certainly set up your bank account with one of the many accredited banks in Korea – saving you the headache of starting up an account.

I recommend that you keep things simple and remain with the bank your principal or school director recommends and sets up for you – the customer service with all of the main banks is incredibly high, and why increase the stress? (With that said, the Korean Exchange Bank is probably the most foreigner friendly, with English-language customer service and instant remittances back home. If peace-of-mind and the utmost convenience is your goal, ask your director to help you set up an account with KEB.)

However, besides setting up your initial bank account, most bosses won’t share with you how to set up a remittance at your local branch – the very thing most ESL teachers want to know the most about! If you don’t have an account with Korean Exchange Bank (which lets you set up remittances online), here’s what you’ll need to bring with you:

  • Your ARC card. This is the ID card that you are given after passing your health exam in-country. You should receive this within your first month teaching in Korea.
  • Your passport. Always, always, always.
  • Your bank account information from back home. This will include: your bank’s physical address, your bank account number, your personal account routing number, and what is known as the SWIFT code of the 9-digit ABA number. Each bank has a different ABA number – you’ll need to call your bank’s customer service line and write this number down in a safe place
  • The actual amount you want remitted, in won and in USD. This will save any confusion, headache, and language barriers at your branch bank. Remember that you can only remit up to 10,000 USD at a time – which shouldn’t be a problem if you’re sticking to a monthly remittance schedule!

Once you’re at the bank (arrive early – Korean banks typically close around 6 PM) ask to speak with a customer service rep. Once you’ve indicated your desire to remit money back home (ask a Korean-speaking friend or coworker to come with you, at least the first time), you will be given a remittance form to fill out. Neatly copy all of the information you’ve conveniently brought with you and the remittance process will begin.

Don’t forget to keep all receipts and paperwork, of course, and ask to have several blank copies of the remittance form – the savviest loan hackers will fill these out in advance so that you can save valuable time and energy at the bank in the future! Also keep in mind that many banks are offering online remittance programs – ask the customer service rep about starting one if you can’t wait to send that money back to the States.

Once your money is remitted back home, you can use it to pay off loans just as you would normally. Enjoy that feeling of freedom!

Taxes, taxes, taxes

Many first-timers to the expat life wonder if they will owe any of their hard-earned income to Uncle Sam. Thankfully, the answer is no – some of your income will be deducted to pay Korean taxes, but unless you make more than $95,100 a year you will owe nothing to the US government. Hurray! However…

You are still technically required to file a tax return. Stay on top of this, and save money by using one of the free e-forms offered on Turbotax, HR Block, and similar services. Although the chances are very slim it could happen, you wouldn’t want to get in trouble with the IRS in the middle of the greatest loan hack ever, would you?

I didn’t think so.

Keeping your taxes current is also important for keeping your records current back home – especially if you’re considering the graduate school route.