“We are interested in your ability to succeed as an ESL teacher in a public school in Korea. In 500-800 words, please share with us your reasons for wanting to teach ESL in Korea, your teaching philosophy and your thoughts on encountering cultural differences.”
Oy. Where to start, right? The personal essay is a critical component of your EPIK application. In less than a thousand words, you have to: personalize yourself in a way that distinguishes you from other applicants; convince the reviewer(s) that you’re in it for the right reasons; reassure them that you not only can do the job, you can also do it well/better than other applicants; and make them believe you can handle whatever Korean culture is going to throw at you…all with as few grammar mistakes as possible (you are applying to teach English, after all).
When I was in the process of writing my personal essay, I did some research to find out how other applicants went about it. I also asked my recruiting agency (which turned out to be the most helpful source of info) and my TEFL certification instructor. Here’s what I learned that I’d like to pass on:
- In discussing your reasons for wanting to teach in Korea, mention the word “travel” as little as possible. With the exception of using the T-word to illustrate how you deal with/enjoy cultural differences, try to avoid it, as it makes you come off to application reviewers as someone whose head is more in the clouds than the classroom.
- Instead, focus on what you like about teaching. Perhaps talk about a past teacher who inspired you, or how your own passion for education drew you into the field. What aspects of being a teacher excite or motivate you?
- Make it clear why you want to teach specifically in Korea. Yes, Korea offers arguably the best salary and benefits to first-time English teachers anywhere in the world, but that’s not what they want to hear. What elements of Korean culture interest you (K-Pop, hiking, holiday traditions, social norms)? Do you find the reputation of the country’s educational system impressive? How about its rapid economic and technological advances? Maybe you’ve already begun learning Hangeul and are looking forward to mastering the Korean language. Whatever your reasons, express them in a way that demonstrates your curiosity about and commitment to living in Korea. If it truly is your #1 choice, make sure they know it.
- There is no wrong way to describe your teaching philosophy, as long as you pull from the philosophies and strategies preached to you by your TEFL certification course. A few key points to hit might be: limiting teacher talking time/maximizing students’ interaction with the material, employing a variety of teaching strategies in order to engage all learning styles, and fostering a supportive classroom environment.
- Use examples to describe how you deal with and view cultural differences. This is where your travel resume can come into play. “Studying abroad for six-weeks in Spain showed me that the best way to learn about another culture is to immerse in it.” “While volunteering in a rural Guatemalan village, I became fascinated with just how similar and, at the same time, different small-town life can be around the world.” Your essay shouldn’t make living in Korea sound like #37 on your Travel Bucket List. It should prove that you believe working for EPIK is an opportunity to dive into another culture and learn from the experience, personally and professionally.
- Finally, a successful applicant can structure the essay in a few different ways, all of which are perfectly fine. Some people break each topic (reasons for wanting to teach ESL in Korea, teaching philosophy and thoughts on cultural differences) into three very distinct, numbered segments. Others find a way to transition from one topic to the next in a more fluid approach, but still follow the order in which the topics were revealed in the question. You also might find, like I did, that your answers speak to more than one topic at a time. Your paragraphs, then, will be less this-is-my-answer-to-topic-1, this-is-my-answer-to-topic-2, this-is-my-answer-to-topic-3, and more, this-is-my-thought-and-how-it-relates-to-topics-1-and-3, this-is-my-thought-and-how-it-relates-to-topics-2-and-1, this-is-my-thought-and-how-it-relates-to-everything-you’re-asking. And that’s okay.
In the end, it all comes down to your personal writing style and what you believe will land you the job. The above tips were what made my essay a success, but that hardly means they are guarantees. They’re also not the be-all end-all of EPIK tips. If you have any suggestions, questions or would like help with your essay, feel free to leave me a message. Good luck!