Korean Proficiency – why TOPIK Level 3 is not enough

So, I’ve decided to address this issue of Korean proficiency after getting many questions over these years.

First of all, to make a differentiation, most universities in Korea have various tracks for admissions. For instance, Yonsei University has an admission directly for Underwood International College (its all-English undergraduate programme), and another regular admission for the other colleges. So in this case, for admissions to UIC, you would not need Korean proficiency.

However, for the regular admission, you would definitely need Korean proficiency. Even if some of the classes offered in say, the College of Business is conducted in English, during admission to the College of Business itself, you need to have Korean proficiency. Even if you are planning to choose only English classes (if they even offer enough classes conducted in English that you are able to complete the number of credits to graduate, which is usually quite unlikely), you would still need Korean proficiency.

Of course, there are some universities that state that for some majors, Korean proficiency is not required. Most of the time, it would be probably the English majors, or some universities that have some global business programmes or international studies/global studies programme. If so, then good (or bad, depending on how much you want to learn Korean) for you (:

However, there are some universities that accept students conditionally. So for instance, the Korean proficiency requirement is actually TOPIK Level 4, but you only obtained Level 3. Since your Korean proficiency is below that of the requirement, technically you don’t fulfill the admissions requirement. However, some universities still accept you for admission, and have you take part-time Korean language classes as you simultaneously take your other major classes for the semester.

While it sounds like a good plan for the students who really want to enter the university, I personally do not agree with such policies. Neither do I think that universities that only require TOPIK Level 3 for majors that are conducted in Korean are fully aware of the consequences on the students. I say this on a personal level, based on my own experience and the experiences of people around me, and so I hope to share our stories so to help all of you hoping to come to Korea for your studies make a more informed decision.

Firstly, why is TOPIK Level 3 insufficient for undergraduate studies in Korean?

My current level of Korean is around TOPIK Level 3. And I can tell you that there’s no way I can fully understand a lecture in Korean. I’ve attended guest lectures conducted in Korean, and depending on the topic and the vocabulary used (whether it’s technical or not), I mostly understand only up to 50%. I still do get the gist of what the person is saying, but I am unable to explain word for word. Just like when I watch Korean dramas, I can understand what is going on, but I can’t give translations even per sentence. And dramas have visual aid (actions of the actors). while lectures usually don’t.

Maybe if you get powerpoint slides in lectures, it will be a great help. Yes, definitely. You can check the dictionary on your own. But think of those long hours you spend just trying to understand the language, while there are more difficult concepts waiting for you after you get past the language barrier. College material, especially undergraduate studies, is no joke. They are not easy. And also, depending on your major, you may or may not have a lot of readings. For example, if you are a political science major, you’re going to have a lot of readings to read and understand, plus lots of papers to write, all in Korean. How much time would someone who cannot understand the lecture in its language of instruction take to do his/her readings and papers? What about exams?

I am really not trying to discourage anyone here. But the fact is, TOPIK Level 3 is honestly not enough, based on my personal experience. Even my friends who have completed the entire Korean Language Institute course up to the highest level, as offered by her university, takes much time with her schoolwork. And her level would be considered a TOPIK Level 5 at least.

The difference between undergraduate studies and graduate studies is that graduate studies have lesser in-class sessions. Therefore while an undergrad student is struggling to understand her classes, at least the grad students have lesser classes to catch up on. Moreover, graduate schools are usually more flexible with grading. I’ve seen many of my friends in graduate schools had kind professors who allowed them to make presentations in English/submit assignments in English and even write their theses in English. However, given the structure of the undergraduate system, it is nearly impossible for the professor to be so flexible and give you so much privilege. I have never heard from any undergraduate friends that their professors allowed them to write in English and things like that. So it appears that the case for undergraduate studies is stronger, ie it will be more important to get sufficient Korean proficiency before you apply for a major that is a Korean undergraduate programme.


Then what about those universities that allow you to take part-time Korean language courses to improve your Korean proficiency and you simultaneously take your major classes? Doesn’t that save time for you too?

While I am personally glad that universities are offering such alternatives for potential students, thus showing that they do care for students’ welfare and learning, I am not so sure if it is really the best option. For one, you would have to juggle your major classes plus the Korean classes. These Korean classes, if provided by the Korean Language Institute of the university, is not going to be a walk in the park. It is pretty fast paced and rigorous to make sure that you really learn the language well. At the same time, your major classes are probably not going to be easy too. Even if you can manage to find classes conducted in English, college is different from high school, and it may take some time to adjust to it. If you can only find classes in Korean, the situation is worse as you will be struggling in class. With such stress coming in on both sides, I would be wary if one would be able to successfully absorb the learning on both sides. Of course there would be people who can handle this, but it is one important thing to consider as you are deciding to take on such offers.


What level is sufficient then?

One of my friends doing grad school is a TOPIK Level 4, majoring in Economics. You would think that Economics is easier if you had to choose a major conducted in Korean, since it is mostly Math-related (so not many words). However, she still has difficulties understanding difficult concepts, and she has to work doubly hard to get past the language barrier.

Seeing such cases, I myself would say that a TOPIK Level 5 or 6 is the best. If I had to take an undergrad or grad programme conducted in Korean, I would rather spend 1 year or 1 1/2 years to obtain this level, so that I can make the best out of my learning when I take major classes. I personally believe that coming to college is to learn, and I really wonder how much can I learn if I don’t even understand the language of instruction well enough. And even if I want to spend all my time and effort on getting past that language barrier, it is also a problem of practicality. If I have 5 classes, how much time can I afford to spend on each class?


Of course, this is not to discourage those who are hoping to take programmes conducted in Korean, or even those who are already doing so. In fact, I really want to applaud those who are taking courses in Korean, and pulling through it. It is already not easy attending college with classes conducted in your native tongue, and to take classes conducted in your second or even third language, it is really quite a feat. Moreover, if you really wish to learn the language well, taking classes conducted in the language is an effective way too (just that maybe you need a certain level of Korean proficiency to begin with). It’s just that whenever I hear my friends complaining every now and then, I wonder if they ever regretted not choosing an English programme, or if they at least had some knowledge of how it’s like, they would have been less shocked or would have pressed on and continued to get higher Korean proficiency before they applied for undergrad/grad schools conducted in Korean.

I hope that I have not scared you away (haha). I just wanted to present the reality as it is. If you are keen on a Korean programme, I hope that this post will help you in your consideration of whether to take conditional offers, or just complete Korean language studies first before starting. After all, you know yourself best, and you would know which way is suitable for you ^^


(Just wanted to say again that this is my personal opinion, based on personal experience and experiences of friends around me. It is of course not the case for everyone in the same situation, and I am not trying to make generalizations. More importantly, I am not trying to tell you what to do or insisting that everyone needs TOPIK Level 5 or something like that. I just hope that by sharing our experiences and my personal opinion, potential students will know the reality and what they are getting themselves into, and then make a more informed decision.)


8 thoughts on “Korean Proficiency – why TOPIK Level 3 is not enough

  1. lisa says:

    http://koreanvitamin.wordpress.com/2013/09/16/changes-in-standard-topik/ The new TOPIK standards are going to make things more confusing.

    So many things about this post ring true for me. A Level 3 simply isn’t enough, and in my case, I didn’t have the prerequisites needed for my graduate school major (compared to other countries), yet they still accepted me. I guess they really want international students! You could say it has been both a blessing as well as a curse. While my Korean is pretty decent (level 4 TOPIK was a breeze), I still struggle in class, not just with the material itself. It gets worse when they switch to Korean, then I just space out… 😮

    • studyinkorea says:

      This is really the reason why I wrote this post.. Because I hear of experiences like yours. So many people don’t realise the challenges and sometimes the schools, in a bid to get more international students, neglect the fact that the students are in school to learn.. So lowering Korean requirements isn’t going to benefit the students at all.. But anyway hope that you are enjoying yourself in Korea still and fighting!! ^^

  2. marcgohyunjung says:

    Jus asking, know any foreigners taking Korean Literature degree or Korean education degree in Korea? Cos I’m like really super interested in those courses in snu but nth much online about it 😦 and further it doesn’t seem realistic to take it tho as much I am interested in it

    • studyinkorea says:

      I’m not quite sure about the number of people, but I do know of a friend majoring in Korean literature. Generally it’s not an easy path because it’s already difficult taking a degree in Korean and competing with all the Koreans who are native speakers. So first you have to get your Korean to native level, which might take 1~1.5 years of intensive language study. Only then would you be able to handle the academic demands of majoring in Korean lit or similar majors. If you are willing to commit the time, I’m sure you will be able to do it! ^^

  3. KH says:

    Hi! Your post was really helpful but I just have a few quick questions. If I’m going to UIC, in the four years there is it a graduation requirement to attain a certain level in TOPIK? If so then would we have to enroll separately in KLI? Eventually we’d still have to take it though right if we intend to work in Korea…? Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions (:

  4. Franny says:

    Hi I have come accrpss this blog while researching about studying in Korea. I was wondering about the same thing, whether or not I will be able to survive studying a graduate program at SNU with only pure basic Korean knowledge. Their requirement to enter the university states that I can do TOEFL instead of TOPIK so I thought it will be easy. But based on your post it seems impossible to pass without really doing at least level 4-5 TOPIK? Moreover, do you know of some international students who actually tried to enter the university without prior TOPIK level?

    • studyinkorea says:

      Hi, I’m not sure about the program at SNU but I know graduate programs have more flexibility (eg allowing international students to write their thesis in English) but if the program is supposed to be in Korean, then basic Korean is definitely not enough. If you’re applying for say Global MBA or Graduate school of international studies that conduct their programs fully in English then that would be fine.

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