Self Reflective Essay

Stanford GSB

2018.06

What matters most to you, and why?
Self Reflective Essay
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I have ten days left in America before I move back to Korea. It’s a good time for me to look back on my life.


My life has something in common with comic books like Dragon Ball and Slam Dunk. Like comic book protagonists, I have always had a powerful opponent that I needed to face – an opponent that I could never defeat easily with a single blow. I would always get beaten up against every opponent, only to barely squeak by at the last moment with a win. Then when it finally seemed as if I could get some peace after overcoming my opponent, a new, stronger foe would always appear. Again, I would struggle mightily, but I still somehow managed to defeat it. My life has been a constant repetition of that cycle. As I read comic books as a kid, I would sometimes think to myself, “Couldn’t the villain be a weakling for once so that the readers don’t have to worry for the hero all the time?” There were many nights that I wondered something similar about my own life.



Act I: From Jeonju to Seoul (Elementary school, junior high, high school, and college admissions)

I went to elementary school, junior high, and high school all in Jeonju. At the time, I was ashamed of the fact that I went to school in the provinces. I visited my aunt’s house in Seoul every vacation, and all the kids I met there seemed like perfect people. They were good students. They had good tutors. They had personal computers that they used to chat with their friends. They vacationed overseas. They were tall. Their schools seemed so much more advanced than schools in Jeonju. Compared to those kids, I felt dull. I felt like I wasn’t ready to compete. So for college, I wanted nothing but the best. I wanted to go to the best college in Seoul. And all I could cling on in Jeonju to get me there were textbooks and practice tests.


Unfortunately, my practice test scores weren’t great given how hard I was studying. Tests tend to favor students who are naturally gifted, and I wasn’t the smartest kid around. On my report cards, my teachers would always talk about how much of a hard worker I was – but there was never any mention of me being smart. I was a student who had to hustle, and I yearned to be as talented as the naturally gifted kids who aced tests without breaking a sweat.


I took the college admissions test after a few years of studying, and with a bit of luck, I was able to enroll in Seoul National University as a social welfare major. But I wasn’t satisfied. I wanted to major in business administration, because it was one of the most popular and selective majors at the university. I wanted to be a part of the most competitive department on campus so that I could prove my worth. So when most of my friends were partying and enjoying college life as freshmen, I was studying harder than I ever had, intent on switching majors. After two years of that, I was able to switch in to business administration.



Act II: An Endless Struggle to Rise to the Top (College – job search)

But even after I became a business administration major, I still wasn’t satisfied. At the time, foreign companies (e.g. consulting firms and investment banks) were beginning to hire more college interns. Being hired by one of these companies was like a badge of honor – something that proved to others that you were different. I needed that badge. I applied to a bunch of different companies (Bain, BCG, Monitor, AT Kearney, KPMG, Deloitte, Accenture, ABN AMRO, Leman Brothers), but none hired me. I also applied to several business clubs on campus, which was another highly coveted “badge” at the time, but none of them accepted me.


Objectively speaking, there were many other applicants who were better prepared than I had been. Some had already mastered their command of English. Others had studied abroad while I was preparing to switch majors. Many had already interned for a company or two.


For better or for worse, I didn’t really know how to give up. So I kept on applying. KT, a Korean company that had just started to accept college interns and didn’t know much about selecting interns, chose me to intern for their marketing team. Around the same time, I was also accepted to S&D, a newly formed business club. I still remember what I said in both interviews. At the KT interview, I told them, “If you give me this opportunity, I will do anything you ask of me, and I will put my heart into everything that I do.” At the S&D interview, I told them, “I will devote all of my time to this club”. At the time, all I had to offer were my time and effort.


I successfully finished my internship and settled in at my club. But even then, I still wasn’t satisfied. I had been proud of my English, which by that point had been well-adapted for college admissions testing. Then I hit a wall – the wall of real world English. The business club I was involved with held a weekly, six-hour case study session where club members discussed and debated Harvard Business Review case studies. For three hours, club members were to speak only in English. Many of the club members had graduated from foreign language high schools or had studied abroad for many years. I felt like a mute person among them. There was so much that I wanted to say during those sessions, but the words just wouldn’t come out. I recall being frustrated to the point of tears. I knew that English was not something that I could master in a short amount of time, no matter how hard I tried. So I decided to let go of the English speaking sessions in order to excel as much as possible during the Korean speaking sessions. My strategy was to dominate the debate by outworking everyone. I doggedly studied and researched every aspect of the case studies and prepared an exhaustive collection of data and analysis for every session. I used the Korean speaking sessions as an outlet for all of the frustrations built up from the English speaking sessions.


After spending four years with the club, it was time to look for a job. I wanted to work for the Investment Banking Division (IBD) at Goldman Sachs, which at the time was one of the most difficult firms to get into. I applied for IBD internships from time to time, but I was never accepted. My English wasn’t good enough. To work in investment banking, it was necessary to speak English at a near native level. But the extent of my English education was inadequate, to say the least. I learned English in Jeonju from teachers who were over 50 years old, and I had stopped improving altogether in college. I applied to Boston Consulting Group, a management consulting firm that was as well respected as any foreign investment bank. They did not conduct English interviews. With a bit of luck, I was accepted.


So I started working for BCG, which was an excellent company to work for. But I still wasn’t satisfied. After every project, we were given an evaluation. I desperately wanted a score of “1” on my evaluation, which was the highest possible score. That score seemed to me like a badge that proclaimed, “I’m different”. But it was an extremely difficult badge to get. The hardest part was interviewing experts of various different fields. The interviews had to be done in English, and I was horrible at it. It was difficult to ask questions in English, and it was difficult to comprehend and organize the responses that I got. So I came up with a solution – I decided to come into the interview as well prepared as possible. I would find 90% of the answer to my own question prior to the interview and use the interview to simply confirm what I had concluded. While my co-workers were using the interview itself to find answers, I was finding the answers myself. I spent long hours collecting articles and data. Then I would carefully analyze the research that I had done in order to make sense of all that information. I looked up interviews of CEOs and replayed them over and over again. I did all of this to make up for my deficiencies in English. I also tried to avoid projects in which English was absolutely critical. I clung on to projects in which research, critical thinking, and imagination were most important.


I held on like that for 3-4 years at BCG. I then decided to pursue an MBA in order to add another badge to my resume. I first wanted to go to Harvard Business School, which was the best business school at the time. But I was not prepared enough to apply to schools like Harvard or Stanford. I could only apply to lower ranked schools which did not require high TOEFL scores. My experience in management consulting got me an interview with all of the schools that I had applied to, but I was destroyed in the interviews. MBA interviews were conducted 100% in English. I was nervous about the English interviews as well as having low TOEFL scores, and I bombed the interviews. All four of the schools that I had applied to rejected me after the interviews.



Act III, Scene I: The question that changed me – “What matters most to you, and why?”

During my second MBA application cycle, I felt an unexpected connection with Stanford, though I initially wasn’t too interested in Stanford during my first application cycle. It wasn’t because of Stanford’s prestigious reputation. I was drawn to Stanford because of the first essay question on Stanford’s application – “What matters most to you, and why?” It felt as if the question was telling me to stop chasing prestigious jobs and to start trying to live a life that I truly wanted to live. I began feeling a strange, irresistible attraction to Stanford. I stopped paying much attention to the five other schools that I had applied to and focused only on Stanford.


But once again, I failed at the interviews. The English interview was too big of an obstacle for me. I was rejected by the other schools as well, perhaps because I didn’t prepare enough for them.


I was honestly embarrassed. Many people were accepted to business schools on their first tries, but I had tried twice and failed both times. My BCG seniors were genuinely concerned for me. That embarrassed me even more, as I didn’t want sympathy for failing. I felt like I had let down my junior colleagues.


However, I still yearned for an MBA at Stanford. I still wanted to live the life that I had envisioned while writing the response to the essay question on Stanford’s MBA application. I wanted to start on that path with Stanford, the school that had inspired me to think differently. Of course, I also wanted the title of Stanford MBA. Risking further embarrassment, I applied to Stanford for a second time. It was my third try at an MBA.


Writing another essay for Stanford wasn’t difficult. “I want to live the life that I wrote about in last year’s essay. I want to make the world a better place by living that life, and I mean it. But to live that life, I still have much to learn. And that is why I need Stanford’s help.” Miraculously, Stanford invited me back for another interview.


I prepared as much as I could to be able to tell my story in English. I thought about what I really wanted to tell my interviewers and wrote my thoughts down in English. I made sure to keep the language simple enough for me to be able to use in the interview without too much trouble. I diligently prepared materials to support my interview.


But when I stepped inside the room for my interview, my mind blanked out. I couldn’t remember any of the sentences from the script that I had memorized beforehand. However, the story and message that I wanted to tell the interviewers hadn’t changed. I felt embarrassed and my English was poor, but I trudged through my message with everything that I had. I could tell how bad my English was even as I was speaking, but I kept going. That interview was the first English interview that I had ever done that left me with no regrets. I finished the interview and left everything to fate. Fortunately, I was accepted.



Act III, Scene II: Communicating with a bigger world

I was finally accepted to Stanford. But I was definitely not satisfied. Out of about 400 students in my class, only about 5 to 10 had trouble with English. Class participation is absolutely critical in business school. Classes last about an hour and 45 minutes on average, with about 60 students in a single class. Everyone was expected to participate, and the professors coordinated class participation like orchestra conductors. Participation was reflected in grading, and students who did not participate enough ran the risk of failing out.


Changing the world had to take a backseat to not failing my classes. I prepared for 14 hours a day so that I would be able to say two or three sentences in class. In my first quarter at Stanford, I had three or four classes a day. I prepared for each class for 3 to 4 hours. I wrote about 10 lines of comments and memorized them, but at times when the class moved too fast or went in unexpected directions, I would often leave the classroom without having said anything at all.


There was a class I took during that first quarter called “Leadership Lab” where six people had to form a group. One day, my group members pulled me aside. They wanted to talk to me about something.

Group members: “We enjoy listening to what you have to say in these group sessions, and we think that what you say is really genuine. Why don’t you speak out in the larger classes?”

Me: “I feel like I have to give good responses so that I don’t waste everyone’s time. To do that, I have to be perfectly prepared. If I don’t feel like my preparation is perfect, I just can’t bring myself to participate.”


Group members: “What do you mean by ‘good responses’?”

Me: “Um…”

Group members: “The rest of the class doesn’t care about how great your comments are. We want to know what kind of person you are and what your opinions and ideas are. You’re the only person who’s hung up on the quality of your comments. We don’t care about how good your English is or whether or not you have the right answer. We just want to know what you think. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to talking about your opinions and experiences.”

Me: “Hm… T.T”

Group members: “It seems like you have no problem speaking in our group sessions. We always appreciate what you have to say. Just do the same thing in our 60-student classes. We feel responsible for you now, so if you don’t speak out next class, you’re going to hear it from us.”


I didn’t want to disappoint my group members. So I mustered up the courage to say 1 or 2 more comments in every class. As I did that, my sense of responsibility grew. Before, I was participating in class only because I didn’t want to fail my classes. Now, I was participating so that my classmates would understand my opinions and ideas better.


This was the first point in my life that I started to let go of the burden of trying to be better than others.


At Stanford, it was difficult for me to be better than others. More importantly, Stanford was a place where it wasn’t important to be better than anyone. The most important thing was to pursue the things that interested me most and to produce results.


Around the time my first quarter at Stanford came to a close, Sungpah, a classmate of mine, made an interesting offer.


“Seunghoon, what do you think about starting an English education service in Korea with Stanford undergrads as tutors?”



Act IV, Scene I: Entrepreneurship - a new challenge

When Sungpah brought up that idea, I first thought to myself, “Is he one of those (1)wantrepreneur guys?” But the more I thought about the idea, the more it grew on me. I could understand why Sungpah wanted to create a service like this in Korea. It also made me think about how I avoided English for so many years.


Looking back, I had spent quite a long time in my life trying to avoid English. I tried to get better at other things to compensate for my poor English. However, I didn’t always try to avoid English. I tried hard to get better and tried various different approaches, but I just couldn’t find something that worked for me. When I was young, good tutors were difficult to find in Jeonju. When I was in Seoul, there weren’t many places where I could discuss business-related topics in English. Now at Stanford, I was tired of running away from studying English. I had worked so hard to get to California where I could talk to friends from all over the world. I couldn’t pass up an opportunity like that. I recognized how important it was to be able to speak English well in a setting like this. It was no longer about whether or not I was running away from English. I now needed to learn English in order to make friends here and work with them to make the world a better place. So to both master English for myself as well as to help people in Korea to get better at English, I decided to start Ringle.


Starting Ringle introduced me to a completely new world. After starting with Stanford students, we were later introduced to Harvard students as well. As I got to know our tutors, I could feel that they had many things in common with me – their dreams, their struggles, their passions. They felt a strong sense of duty as the leaders of the future. At the same time, they felt juxtaposed between the fear of an uncertain future and the desire to contribute to the world. Although these students enjoyed what was an even better environment than that of Seoul National University students, they weren’t satisfied with what they had. They put it on themselves to leave the world a better place than they had found it. They felt obligated to do so. I once had an opportunity to take a look at the Google Calendars of a few of these students. The calendars were filled from top to bottom with things to do, scheduled at 30 minute intervals. I was humbled and filled with gratitude to see that our tutors were leading Ringle sessions in such a responsible manner and working so hard to pay off their student loans, all while juggling such immense (2)workloads.


These students were more than ten years younger than I was, but perhaps because we had so much in common, I had no trouble getting across to them. I recall holding a session about how to operate a startup, where I talked to a tutor about how I lived my life so far and why I decided to start Ringle. The student teared up and told me that she had felt lost in regards to how she should move forward with her dreams and that she was glad to hear my story. I felt that I needed to make Ringle into a platform which would help students like her. At the same time, I became convinced that these students would in turn be able to help thousands of people in Korea as their teachers, friends, and partners in a journey of learning.



Act IV, Scene II: Connecting the Dots

During my two years at Stanford’s MBA program, I worked tirelessly, balancing school and my new business. I graduated two weeks ago, and I am now preparing to return to Seoul.


There were moments and elements in my life that I believed to be setbacks and obstacles. But looking back now, they actually ended up shaping my life in a profoundly positive way.


Growing up in Jeonju helped me greatly in acclimatizing to Stanford and Palo Alto. Palo Alto is a quiet and rather uneventful town, and that was exactly what I loved most about it. Palo Alto felt like home. Living in Palo Alto for two years was a blessing.


Beginning my university studies as a social welfare major taught me that humanity should come before money.


Working for BCG gave me insight into various industries and taught me how to communicate with others. I love writing articles for Ringle, and I have BCG to thank for that.


I failed twice with my MBA applications and was only accepted on my third try. Stanford rejected me once before they accepted me. But those rejections gave me two years to develop my thoughts. I was able to meet my business partner because I was rejected.


I always wished that I would have had the chance to live and study in an English speaking country growing up. Not having that opportunity made learning English infinitely more difficult. But because I had struggled with English so much, I eventually founded a startup to help others who struggle with English just like I once had.


It is strange and amazing to see how seemingly unrelated events of the past somehow end up connecting themselves together in a long chain of cause and effect. That chain is not a straight one – it has had many ripples of ups and downs – but those ripples are what made me into who I am today. And for that, I am grateful.


Now, I have another extremely formidable opponent that I have to face. But this foe is different from any other opponent that I have faced before. I am in the process of building a business from the bottom up. I am not helping an already successful business grow even further. I started from zero – zero customers, zero revenue. I am not competing with others to win a coveted spot at a prestigious organization and rise through its ranks. I am exploring unknown, (3)uncharted territory with my team, constantly challenging ourselves to raise the bar a little higher every day. Fortunately, my two years at Stanford and Silicon Valley taught me how to live a modest life and how to free myself from being bound to success. I realized how gratifying it is to live a life centered on solving problems and making every day more enjoyable than the last.


I have learned many things at Stanford:


The world is big. There are people from all (4)walks of life living their lives in their own ways. The world evolves constantly as people from different backgrounds connect with each other.


It is extremely important to communicate with people from around the world. They say you can only see as much as you know. That adage has never been truer. If I never met my MBA classmates and our Ringle tutors, I would never have been able to see what I see now. I may have been wealthy and successful, but my life would have never been as enriched with meaning as it is now.


Together with my team, I hope to help bring Korea and Asia closer to the rest of the world. I want to create a service that changes the world in a meaningful way.



I now return to my beloved home country, with big dreams and new ideas.

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