Launching a Career: Student Internships in South Korea

November 07, 2019 by Yeon Seo Koh


The overall youth unemployment rate of South Korea has been continuously rising since 2001 and has reached 10.4% as of June 2019, a rate significantly higher than 3.7% of Japan and 8.6% of the United States. More and more young adults are becoming discouraged as they face the harsh reality after graduating from college. A decent educational background no longer guarantees a job. The standards of companies have become higher than ever and competition is intense with a large pool of individuals applying for limited job positions. Job market competition, however, does not necessarily begin after one graduates from college. It begins even before that with internships. 

Although human resource managers claim that it is not necessary for individuals to have completed at least one internship before they apply for full-time job positions, it has somewhat become a norm for South Korean college students to search and apply for internships as a strategic tool to build their future career. Work experience has become one of the most crucial aspects employers consider when they hire people. As selfish as it may sound, firms strive to minimize investment (e.g. cost and time for skill development training programs) and maximize profit by hiring individuals who are already familiar with the work environment and thus more likely to adjust quickly. As a result, a great number of undergraduate students constantly feel the pressure to work as interns at private or public enterprises, educational institutions, or international organizations.

Being accepted as an intern at a prestigious firm, however, is extremely challenging with more than a hundred applicants for intern position offerings. In fact, Henkel Korea, a German chemical and consumer goods multinational company, has claimed that it receives about 150 to 200 applications for their regular summer and winter internship programs. Similarly, the Innisfree Global Marketing Team claimed that they received 55 applications in two days for their August 2019 intern opening, making them close applications earlier than expected. For P&G, an American multinational consumer goods company, the competition ratio reaches 500:1, a ratio that clearly indicates the challenge of being accepted as an intern.

Applying for Internships

The most common way to apply for an internship is to visit famous online job-searching websites (e.g. JobKorea, JobPlanet, Superookie, Peoplenjob, etc.) or college career sites. Other methods would be visiting the company’s career section homepage to upload one’s resume to the company’s database or cold-mailing HR managers even if there is no intern position offering at the moment. 

**Resumes: Showing your Qualifications **

_“Show what they[firms] want to see on the resume” _

In order for one to gain work experience as an intern and eventually carry out a successful career in South Korea, it is recommended for one to prepare in advance. Creating a solid resume would be the first step in securing an internship position at a prestigious firm. The resume should be straightforward and concise, a length of no more than 2 pages, 1 being the optimal. It is also important to focus on one’s key achievements, experiences, or capabilities and to provide specific elaborations rather than trying to squeeze “everything” into one’s resume. One must thoroughly research about the firm and about the specific intern offering before writing one’s resume. Not all firms look for the same qualities. Therefore, it is essential to figure out what the firm wants to see from the candidate and to directly show them those competencies. 

**Interviews: Showing who You are **

_“Don’t think of interviews as evaluations, think of them as intellectual conversations” _

Many candidates consider interviews to be the most intimidating step throughout the intern application process. In the case of consulting firms such as Bain & Company, PwC Consulting, and Roland Berger, it is highly recommended to read Case in Point by Marc P. Cosentino, a book considered as  the “bible” for the consulting industry. The book will help individuals to learn how case interviews are carried out and ways in which they can study for them. Other helpful practices would be to search online for guesstimation problems or brain teasers, 1 or 2 types of questions that usually pop up during the consulting firm interviews. One should also prepare for more personal questions such as “Why consulting?”, “Why the specific firm[e.g. Bain]?”, and “Why you?”

The Korean job market is tough and hypercompetitive. For students to successfully launch their careers, it has become highly necessary for them to participate in internships. Searching for appropriate internship positions is a long and arduous process, from acquiring language proficiency tests and taking part in extracurricular activities to writing one’s resume and going to interviews. It is indeed a frightening experience and a challenge, but with a decent amount of preparation even the shyest and the least confident can excel.

The UIC Scribe was founded in 2006 as the official student-run newsmagazine of Underwood International College. It celebrates diversity of thinking, excellence in writing, and the freedom of self-expression.