Native teachers enter the EPIK program via one of four different intakes: Winter, Late Winter, Fall, and Late Fall. Regardless of when they start, all teachers receive the same pay and benefits; and no intake is reserved for hiring more or less experienced teachers. So when it comes to beginning your year in Korea, objectively speaking, no time of the year is better than another; and one could argue it really doesn’t matter. But after giving it some thought, I’ve realized there actually are pros and cons to arriving with each intake; which really means (if you have the luxury and freedom to choose) it is important to consider when you’d like to embark on this adventure. To make the comparison easier, let’s generalize the intakes into two groups: Winter and Fall.
Pros of Starting in the Winter (late February – late March):
- Your students are your students. Unlike in Western schools, the academic year in Korea begins in early March. The first semester ends in late June or early July. The second term starts in mid August and concludes in mid December. By starting with EPIK in the winter, you are able to begin the new school year with a fresh group of kids that are completely your own, which could make establishing classroom rules, norms, routines (etc) easier.
- One last holiday at home. Because your contract is for one full year, it’s inevitable that you will miss Thanksgiving and Christmas with your family at some point. But…it might be nice to leave for Korea in February and make the most of that quality family time right before you leave. And then, when the next holiday season rolls around (9-10 months into your contract), by that point you’ll be all settled and acclimated into your life in Korea (and it’ll practically be time to go home), so being away from your loved ones might be easier to manage.
- Splinter the winter. If winter is not your favorite season, it actually may behoove you to come with the February intake because spring will be just around the corner. You’ll get a taste of Korea’s surpisingly frigid temperatures (you can thank Siberia and it’s south-bound winds), but you won’t have to endure it for a full straight season. Plus, the first six months are typically the hardest in terms of homesickness and culture shock. So at least while you’re working through that 3-month-slump you can enjoy the warmer weather and beautiful, blossoming mountain scenery instead of holing up in your apartment and succumbing to seasonal affective disorder (that sounds ridiculous but I’m pretty sure it happened to me this year!).
- A Goldilocks amount of freedom. If graduate school is on the horizon for you, but you want to extend your time abroad before going back home, the winter intake is perfect. Finishing your contract in February gives you half a year to galavant around the world before “settling down” again. It’s not too little freedom, and it’s not too much. It’s juuuuuuust right.
Cons of Starting in the Winter (late February – late March):
- Hit the ground running. Unfortunately, the first semester of the school year in Korea sees fewer national holidays/paid vacation days than the second; which means you’ll have to dive right into steadily teaching 5 days a week for a solid two months until Children’s Day rolls around in early May (ironically Teacher’s Day, which happens just a few weeks later, is not a paid holiday….womp womp).
Pros of Starting in the Fall (mid August to early October):
- Easy does it. Between Chuseok (the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving and Christmas combined) in early September and several other national holidays sprinkled throughout the fall, teachers who start in the second semester have the luxury of easing into their new job and life. As a new teacher who came in during the August intake, I can vouch for how nice it was to have such frequent breaks/holidays at the start of my contract.
- Get in, then go out. When you come to Korea, everything will be new and exciting. You’ll want to explore your neighborhood, the not-too-distant mountains and enjoy a night out or weekend festival trip (of which there are many in the fall). Unlike the chilly and less pleasant winter temperatures, which drive most people inside, the mild fall weather is ideal for getting out and becoming familiar with your new home as soon as you get in the country.
- Back to school. If you’re looking to return to graduate school immediately after you wrap things up in Korea, the fall intake is ideal. You’ll basically finish your contract one day, hop on a plane home that day after that, and the next thing you know you’ll be the one taking notes again!
Cons of Starting in the Fall (mid August to early October):
- Unfinished business. The more you get to know your students and develop a relationship with them, the more you’ll wish you weren’t leaving them halfway through the year, which will happen if you start in the fall (unfortunately EPIK doesn’t do 6 month extensions). It’s hard to pick up where the previous teacher left off, but it’s also hard to be that other teacher. Especially if you become close with your students, it can feel like you’re leaving with unfinished business. That’s how I’m starting to feel, anyway.
- Get in, stay in. Besides winter and summer vacation, Chuseok is one of the longest stretches of paid vacation time you’ll be given in your contract (it varies between a 3 and 5 day holiday weekend each year)*. Now, you still get that time off no matter which intake you are with. But, if you come in the fall, you won’t yet have your Alien Registration Card (ARC) yet, which is basically your proof of residency and the thing that allows you multiple entrys into the country. So if you’re hoping to make the most of your vacation time by traveling internationally, you won’t be able to do so if you’re part of the fall newcomers. You can’t apply for your ARC until after you’re in Korea, and it takes 3-4 weeks to process (in other words, until after Chuseok).
When putting this comparison together I tried to be objective, but you probably noticed that I’ve presented more pros and fewer cons for coming in the winter, and that’s no coincidence. If I could change one thing about my experience–and not have it affect anything else (i.e., the school where I’ve ended up, the friends I’ve made, and the trips I’ve taken)–I would have prefered to come with the winter intake. It would’ve been nice to enjoy those benefits and avoid Con #1 of the fall intake. But since there’s no doubt I would’ve had a competely different experience–one that still would’ve been positive but different nonetheless–if I had come in the winter, I’m still glad I came when I did.
Like so many other things about this experience, it all depends on you; your preferences, goals, desires, etc. If you have the luxury of freedom and flexibility in choosing when you start with EPIK, I hope this was helpful! And if your options are more limited…well..now you have a better idea of what to expect!
*The other major long weekend is in mid February for Chinese New Year, where teachers usually get 4 or 5 paid vacation days.