Saturday, August 7, 2010

How I Secured A Job Teaching English In Korea

The contracts are signed, the visa is being processed, the plane tickets are bought, and all that's left to do is pack my bags. Yes, I'm finally leaving for Asia to teach English.

I've decided to go with EPIK, a South Korean government program that recruits English-speaking people from all over the world to teach in elementary, middle and high schools around Korea. The pay and benefits are both excellent. As with most English-teaching jobs in Korea, your airfare and rent are paid, leaving you free to take home the lion's share of your paycheck. Add to this a lower standard of living than home, extremely affordable health care, and an agreement between the US and Korea so I don't have to pay income tax for two years. Financially, it's the best deal in Asia.

Long-time readers of this site will be wondering why I chose Korea over my beloved Japan. Truthfully, it's more that Japan didn't choose me. I applied to the JET program and ended up on the waiting list and then applied to a number of cram schools as well. But as I found out, it's a difficult time to get an English-teaching job in Japan, especially with no experience. Fewer jobs and more applicants (curse you, manga and anime) means employers can afford to be picky. Korea, however, has made English language a priority. Now is the time to break into Korea, as more and more people are taking the same route.

So how did I do it? In this piece I'll take you though my job application steps. This is not meant to be a definitive how-to, it's just the way I did it. Hopefully it will give you some pointers for your own job search. (I also plan to write similar articles on Japan and Taiwan, both of which I received job offers from before settling on EPIK.)

Public or Private?
There are for the most part two kinds of schools to apply to in Korea, public schools and private schools. The latter could include private day schools but for the most part this means hagwons, or cram schools, places where kids go after regular school to supplement their education. Both public and private schools offer similar salaries and bonuses but the main difference between them is when they hire. Hagwons hire all year round while public schools generally hire twice a year, for spring and fall intakes.

A note about hagwons: there seems to be a lot of disreputable places out there, so much so that there is a warning about them on the US State Department site. Do your research before accepting a position. Ask to speak with a few teachers currently working there and look around online for warnings. I interviewed with a hagwon but am happy I got the public school job, if just for the fact that public-school hours suit me better. Hagwons operate in afternoons and evenings and on weekends and holidays, basically whenever the kids aren't in normal school. I'm a morning person and I prefer a 9-5 schedule.

For public schools, the two main programs are EPIK and GEPIK. EPIK is a nationwide program that includes most of South Korea's provinces and major metropolitan areas. Seoul's hiring is now handled by EPIK but it's known by a different name, SMOE. GEPIK is just for Gyeonggi-do, the province surrounding Seoul. Additionally, other provinces may hire on their own. Sometimes schools or areas hire directly as well.

You don't have to use a recruiter when getting a job in Korea but I think it helps. That being said, there are lots of horror stories about lying recruiters on the web as well, so again, do your research. The recruiter I used to secure my EPIK job was Korea Connections. They're a little smaller than some, like Footprints or Korvia, but they offer a more personalized approach. I went with them after the recommendation of a blogger I like to read (Seoul Patch) so now I'm passing the recommendation on.

Of course, the recruiter you choose will largely depend on the kind of job you want, as each one has access to different positions. At one point I was working with three different recruiters, Korea Connections for EPIK and hagwons, Korvia for GEPIK and Footprints for other hagwons. Don't apply to the same job twice through different recruiters but feel free to sign up with as many recruiters as you need to to maximize your chances. It doesn't cost you anything to sign with a recruiter; they get paid by the school that hires you.

Some people applied directly to EPIK and haven't had any problems. I like having a recruiter though. It's like having an advocate on your side. Also, Korean immigration is complex and confusing and it helps to have someone work through it with you.

Getting Prepared
You know the kind of job you want and you're ready to work with a recruiter (or not, as the case may be). What now?

You're going to need a resume and cover letter. Make sure these are ESL-focused. Even if you have no prior teaching experience, spin your job experience into something that would be attractive to schools.

You're also going to need a scan of a passport-type photo to send them. It's standard practice in Asia. Also, scan your passport, diploma (required), any TEFL certificates you may have (more on this later) and two or three letters of recommendation. Ask former employers to write generic letters of recommendation and have them address them to: To whom it may concern. You can then use them for any situation.

Interviews will take place either via Skype or cell phone. I always wore a suit, if just to get in the right mindset. And if it's a Skype video conference definitely look presentable. Interviews could be as short as 20 minutes or as long as 90, it depends on the interviewer. My policy was to take every interview. Even if I wasn't super interested in the job it was still good practice. Unless you're a seasoned teacher you're going to be answering questions about teaching and classroom management without having done any of this stuff. The more you talk about it the more confident you'll become.

Better than talking is doing, so why not try to get some experience before you start applying? Volunteer in a classroom, set up a language exchange or even do some private tutoring. It'll give you something to put on your resume as well as confidence in an interview.

TEFL Certification
TEFL (or TESL) Certification isn't a requirement for most schools in Korea but having one sure doesn't hurt. In fact, it can often help. SMOE requires it (or at least one year's experience in a classroom). Because I have one, I qualified for a higher salary bracket with EPIK.

There are lots of different places that will give you a certificate. Make sure the school, whether online or brick and mortar, is accredited. You're going to need at least a 100-hour course. Anything less will not be acceptable to a school and thus a waste of money. I went with I To I, a UK-based online school. I really enjoyed the course and was able to apply things I learned directly to the interview. When asked about class management I had concrete things I could suggest, rather than just vague ideas about keeping kids quiet. It also gave me some much-needed confidence—I may not have any teaching experience but at least I've spent 100 hours reading about it.

Korean Language Ability
It's not a requirement. You'll be working with Korean co-teachers for the most part so you're not expected to speak the language.

The main resource for all things Korea ESL is Dave's ESL Cafe. It's a good place to do some research and get the lay of the land but take what people say here with a grain of salt. This is a very cranky bunch. The recruiter Footprints also has a board, which has some useful information on it.

Good luck!


  1. very helpful. I am considering applying to both GEPIK and EPIK and am already hating the application process. For this reason, i feel i might want to use a recruiter but of course that also means more paperwork.

    I wonder how did you get your documents apostilled and how long did it take for your Criminal Bankground Check to arrive. Thanks

  2. Hi Simon, thanks for reading. Yes, the application process is long and tedious. We all hated it and cursed it long and hard.

    As for the apostille process, this is going by memory so please double check what I say. Also, I was in California so my process may differ from yours. I took the items that needed to be apostilled to a notary first (actually, a UPS Store). They notarized them. Then I took them in person to the State Dept (I think) in the capital city, Sacramento. I could have mailed it instead but was only 2 hours from the capital so did it in a day.

    As for the CRC, the FBI check takes 6-8 weeks. I believe you can ask them to expedite it. Put the date you need it back on the outside of the envelope. When I applied EPIK wanted a state check but I had to do an FBI one anyway because JET required it.

    Also, if you have already sent in your application to GEPIK or EPIK you cannot reapply through a recruiter. Double applications will be disqualified.

    Hope that helps. Good luck.

  3. Simon, I'm assuming you're in the US. If not, file in the country in which you live. (Probably didn't need to say that but just wanted to make sure.)

  4. Please took this was an experience.we should follow some rules.

  5. I was wondering whether you knew the Korean language? I've been studying Japanese for quite a few years now and intend to teach ESL in Japan, but I heard that it's difficult to get a job there due to the disadvantage of living in a different country, so S. Korea is my second option. Just want to know how difficult it is to live there if I can't speak the language.

  6. Is it possible for you to go over the information regarding Korean immigration and working visas? This sort of information is confusing for me to be honest

  7. Hi Anonymous. I have learned a little Korean but not really a lot. I can order in a restaurant and take a bus and stuff like that, but that's about it. I live in a small town where very few people speak English and I get around fine. Check out It's a free site for learning Korean and it's really well done.

    As for visas, that depends on your home country. Every country has a different agreement with Korea. But the main thing is, you can't stay and work in Korea without a work visa. So once your job is secured, and before you leave for Korea, you will be instructed to go to your nearest Korean embassy with some paperwork and they'll put a visa in your passport. Should you come to Korea without a job and look for one here, you'll have to leave the country and come back to get your visa. Most people who do this go to Japan for the weekend and then come back.

    I hope that answered your questions.