January 11, 2023
Recently, I have been getting a recurring question from Storypal students and the grand question was…(drumroll please) if I could help them get into universities abroad, especially in the US and South Korea. Many students who asked me the question were from developing countries. I think it is great that many students get inspired to go study abroad after interacting with international friends on Storypal.
However, the story does not have a happy ending yet. I intend to change that through this post. Conversations with some of the students helped me become aware of how unequal economic and social grounds are for students around the world. For example, while many good universities in the States ask international applicants to submit TOEFL exam records, the $220 (as of 2022) required to take TOEFL is a lot of money for many students from countries with relatively lower economic powers.
Furthermore, still in many countries, students from middle and low-income families face difficulties in developing university-level English proficiency by solely following the locally accessible public education system. It almost feels hopeless if a student from a regular public school with no financial support suddenly decides to dream big and go abroad. So, in this post, I captured the advice I have been giving to students facing similar obstacles. The 4 action items suggested in this post are for students from countries with relatively low economic power but any students interested in applying to good universities in the States can consider them in their academic and career planning.
#1. Ask yourself why.
Why do you want to get into a university abroad? You should be able to articulate why you want to pursue higher education by attending a certain school in a certain country. The “why” should be more than just a desire to study in a better place. It should have a more long-term and unique reason that resonates with you. How does it fit in with your long-term dreams and goals? Getting into a school should never be an end goal. By doing this, you can start seeing the big picture where a university you may attend is a part of your journey, not the final destination. This will save you from becoming blindly obsessed with getting into a school abroad.
#2. Identify the motivation behind the “why.”
If you have your “why” from #1, now it is time to look deeper into the motivation behind it. In other words, we need a second layer of the “why.” This second “why”, the motivation does not have to be based on your passion or what you think you are good at since these can grow and change as you go through your life. You’d most like to see many different categories of motivations such as financial goals and lifestyle goals. However, if the motivation is heavily based on what other people are suggesting as the best option, you might want to take some time to research the other possible life scenarios that connect more with your thoughts and feelings.
#3. Take a designer approach to your life.
If you had difficulties answering #1 and #2 or you are not satisfied with what you see, here is the good news – you can always redesign your life. You may be thinking, ‘But I am not a designer..’, and be unsure of where to start. Enter the “life design lab.” It is co-founded by two professors at Stanford, Bill Burnett, and Dave Evans. Thanks to the Internet, now everyone can access the resource online. The content itself is not rocket science or extremely unique, but the framework has helped many people live a life they love. If you learn the life design framework as an elementary, middle, or high school student and use it, you’d be far ahead of your peers who are passively walking the academic and vocational careers without asking any questions.
When you implement the framework by watching YouTube, reading a book, or taking an online course, there are two things to keep in mind. First, do not limit yourself to what you are “good at” or “can do” right now. Besides, what is more important is your traits and personality which cannot be captured in simple subject titles. It is possible that you have not yet discovered activities, skills, or knowledge that bring out your traits as strengths. In other words, you should avoid limiting career compatibility to a small number of name-able options.
For example, in my case, when I was making an academic career decision as 17 years old high schooler, I thought of myself as someone good with English and bad with Math. So I tried to pick something that a reasonable person who is good in English would pick as a career goal, a diplomat. However, eventually, I realized that I don’t like working in a top-down, highly political, and ritual environment. I turned out to be an idea person who likes implementing ideas to see tangible impacts. This led me to create Storypal with Sumbal and in the process of overcoming the obstacles I taught myself how to code. In the life design framework, after brainstorming 3 completely different 5 years-long life scenarios, you are asked to score “resources”, “I love it”, “confident”, and “coherence”. Pay attention to these scores and if possible discuss with supportive friends and family members to learn more about yourself.
Second, try to spend more time on prototyping actions you could take to test living the life scenarios. This could be an internship, talking to people in the field you are interested in, creating personal projects, etc.
#4. Read broadly to see where you get inspiration from and improve your ability to ask better questions
The fourth thing you can do is to read. If I were to pick one role model to make a case for #4, it would be Elon Musk, a person who cofounded and holds a CEO title for three companies that sound and look like science fiction: Space X, Tesla, and Neuralink. When asked to advise young people, the first thing he said was to read a lot of books. He said reading broadly can expand one’s consciousness. In other words, reading books is not about consuming the contents like a computer memory storage. Let books influence and inspire you like they did for Elon.
When he was a teenager living in South Africa, one of the books that inspired him is “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” a science fiction written by Douglas Adams in 1979. He referred to the author as his favorite philosopher, and one could connect the dots between the book and his aspiration for bringing artificial intelligence, big data, robotics, and bioengineering together to move the needle for humanity, to say the least. As Steve Jobs said, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. Note that at this point, reading broadly is not necessarily about becoming an expert in something but about expanding beyond yourself and learning about undiscovered aspects of the world. Even though nowadays, there are other ways to broaden the world view and learn about ourselves, it is still hard to beat the books. If you have hard time reading texts, try listening to audio books.
#5. Prepare to apply for scholarships
I am fully aware that many students wish to go study abroad not just for obtaining knowledge and skills but also for experiencing real culture, travel, and face-to-face meeting with new people. If attending a school abroad is still part of your life design, then there are administrative and financial requirements that one cannot avoid. For the USA, many colleges and universities have scholarships for international students. In the case of Korea, most well-organized study abroad program is called Global Korea Scholarship(GKS). The program has two tracks, the embassy track and the university track. It is available for both students who are graduating from high school and undergraduate program. However, an applicant must be under 25 years of age. The Korean government usually announce the application process for the following year in September. For example, if you are interested in applying to the GKS program for 2024, you should check the site in September 2023 and start submiting documents in October 2023. While Korean language is not required to apply for the program, starting from 2024, the applicants with TOPIK and TOEFL will get additional points. Since the program is highly competitive, it may be a good idea to take TOPIK and TOEFL if you can. You can study for TOPIK on the TOPIK’s official website.
While application requirements and deadlines change slightly every year, the major requirements are going to be similar. So if you want to start preparing for it, review the documents published for the past year. The program is run based on the partership between the Korean government and the foreign embassies in Korepartnershipou are interested in applying, start early by first carefully reviewing the application guideline, and then talking to the embassies or the universities you want to attend to see if you could get connected with and talk to the students who have received the scholarship previously.
After reading everything, you may still be thinking about money needed to take the TOPIK or TOEFL to move on with your dreams. Or you may have tried applying to various schools but you did not get in. No matter where you are, don’t let it stop you from designing the life you love. The quiet truth of the time we are living is that more things are possible than we think while we are still prone to the past proxies created to signal trust and value. Be your own brand and own driver.