Most Korean employers require applicants to submit a photo along with the usual resume and cover letter.  American applicants tend to underestimate the significance of the application photo, since most of them have never been required to submit an application photo before.  Employers aren’t allowed to judge applicants on looks, right?  That would be unconstitutional, right?

Wrong!  In Korea it’s fair game.  Ethics aside, the consideration of physical appearance in the application process stems from an important truth: whether consciously or not, society tends to judge people on the basis of physical appearance.  Korean schools realize that their customers–students and parents of students–are likely to judge teachers based on physical appearance.  Teachers who ‘look the part’ are more marketable and, therefore, more likely to be hired.  Even in the west, this is true to some extent.  American employers may not be allowed to demand a photo, but they will often require an interview, and wouldn’t likely hire an applicant who shows up to the interview in a stained t-shirt and ripped jeans.

In short, the application photo is an important part of how you market yourself to employers.  That does not mean that you have to be naturally good looking.  It does mean, however, that you should be sure to submit a photo that presents you favorably.  Most Korean job applicants opt to have their photos taken professionally and, often, they go to great lengths to prepare for the occasion.  The usually step into the photo studio in their ‘Sunday best,’ with a new haircut and generous makeup.  Although we don’t discourage it, you don’t need to go that far.  Just ten or twenty minutes of care could end up earning you a higher salary or a better job.

I’d like to illustrate this observation with some personal examples…  This is a photograph of my passport photo:

I took it at the age of fifteen, when I was considerably pudgier than I am now, and looking younger than most of the students I currently teach.  The passport is still valid (although I have been detained briefly at multiple boarders because, apparently, it doesn’t look like me) but, for application purposes, it should not be.  Nevertheless, for the sake of expediency, this was the photo I submitted when I applied to my first jobs in Korea, as a senior in college.  Though I managed to land a decent job, I suspect it was mostly due to personal connections and my Ivy League education, and I wonder whether I could have landed an even better job with a different photo.

For my second round of applications, a year later, I knew enough to take a new photo for the occasion.  However, I neglected to put any care into my photo, snapping a quick shot on my self camera without even budging from my seat.  It probably looked something like this:

Note the grungy  beard, frumpy attire, squinted eyes, and lack of smile.

Now, let’s look at what I could have done, in just a few more minutes, without spending a cent.

This time, I’ve chosen to smile, and I’ve posed in front of a white cabinet to avoid a cluttered background.

Ahh, much better!  I’ve put on a collared shirt (one that brings out my beautiful blue eyes)

I shaved.  It took a whole five minutes.  Totally worth it.

Oooohhh, so professional!  All I did was put on a tie.  It took about 90 seconds.

If I’d wanted to take the next step, I might have recruited a friend to photograph me so that I wouldn’t have to use the self-camera feature on my phone.  However, I think it’s safe to say that the extra ten minutes I spent photographing myself resulted in a much more competitive application photo.

Notice that I still haven’t given a full open mouth grin (I tried that and was appalled by how yellow my teeth looked), nor have I elected to face the camera straight on (I tried that too, but it looked too forced).  The moral of this story is that there’s no single recipe for a decent photo.  The key is to find an angle and pose that you feel brings out the best in you and, above all, that you can be confident about.



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