Let’s face it. Apart from all the banter and ridicule that they get for being too “soapy,” Korean dramas have always been God’s (or South Korea’s) gift to men–1-hour cinematic masterpieces full of love triangles, attractive actors and juicy plotlines. More than this, they act as small pieces of time where audiences can truly immerse themselves in a world of characters who are both entertaining and relatable. More recently, university-themed K dramas have been on the rise, and after watching a handful myself, I can confirm that such K dramas act as a necessity to college students as confused about college as I was.
Check out these 10 must-watch K dramas for anyone in college, offering entertainment and real-life lessons to learn from.
10) Because it’s the First Time
We’ve all been there. As a kid after hearing all the “No”s and “You’re too young”, we’d fantasize about the day when we became adults and finally, finally have the power to make our own decisions. Fast forward through our uncertain teen years and — BAM! adulthood hits you like a brick wall. Suddenly, you face all these new adult problems and responsibilities you didn’t necessarily ask for. Because it’s the First Time covers this gray area of life called our early 20’s where we make the big jump from teenager to adult. Following the lives of 6 friends, the plot centers around main character Tae-Oh’s rooftop which the friends use as a safe space to hideout and reflect on their young lives. Consisting of only 8 episodes, the drama personalizes each character revealing their own stories as they navigate love and friendships in the real world. The drama’s content covers everything from financial struggles, secret crushes, career choices, familial disapproval, death of family members and interesting yet difficult relationship dynamics. The show offers a raw take on growing up through its controversial topics, imperfect yet lovable characters and raw emotion– definitely a gem of a drama amongst all the cliché romance that Korean dramas typically embody. After a long and exhausting day on campus, cuddle up in your dorm room and dive into this short yet very sweet drama you can’t help but connect with.
9) My ID is Gangnam Beauty
Interestingly enough, My ID is Gangnam Beauty tackles two giant life topics that most of us eventually come in contact with at least once: college and beauty. Since this drama takes place in South Korea (the plastic surgery capital of the world) it covers everything like incision double eyelids, lip fillers and nose jobs. However, as the episodes proceed you start to realize that the drama worries less about this surface level beauty and more about the true character that lies beneath a person’s skin. The story starts off with college freshman Kang Mi Rae who heads to a plastic surgery clinic with her mother. As she prepares to transform her face completely after a lifetime of hardships after continuously getting judged by her face and weight, the scenes alternate between her present self on the surgery table and her childhood mishaps. At the end of this tear-jerking and shocking montage, Mi Rae finally finds herself beautiful enough to face the world. Here, the drama officially starts as we see Mi Rae embrace life as a college freshman with her new face. Going through the motions of new student orientation, new found popularity, love confessions and college life, Mi Rae starts to feel the pressure of beauty’s expectation as well as the normal pressures of college life. More so, with the help of an old middle school friend and unlikely love interest who knows Mi Rae’s hidden secret and dark past, she slowly begins to restore her self-esteem. With its unique plot, realistic characters and various college characters, this drama proposes an outlook to college and growing up through the lens of recognizing the true value of the self— something every college student must learn to value.
Quick, grab your popcorn, tea and tissues because Heartstrings offers everything a modern-day juicy college drama should have: enemies turned friends, romance, a conniving jealous enemy and, of course, talent. Lots of talent. The story centers around Lee Shin, a cocky leader of a campus-famous band majoring in Western-Style Music, and Lee Gyu-Won, an outgoing Traditional-Style Music major. Both attend an art university but cannot differ more from one another. However, that doesn’t stop fate from having its way. They meet each other and immediately start off on the wrong foot. After attending Lee Shin’s concert to try and understand his popularity, Lee Gyu-Won not only becomes entranced by his performance but becomes captivated by Lee Shin himself. When both of them join the production of the musical for their school’s anniversary performance for two entirely different reasons, they learn more and more about the other as they interact and cross paths each day. Still, jealous characters and unexpected circumstances try to break Lee Shina and Lee Gyu-Won’s budding and Heartstrings contains a gem of a story centered around life at an arts university, relationships and first impressions turned into deeper connections. You just cannot overlook this K-drama classic.
7) Sunkyungwan Scandal
Now for those looking for an even greater escape from the world than modern K-dramas typically offer, how does going back in time, say, a couple hundred years, sound? Taking place during the Korean Joseon Dynasty, an era when women could not pursue higher education or careers, Sunkyungwan Scandal tells the story of a girl who disguises herself as a man in order to attend university and make ends meet for her family. After the passing of her father, Kim Yun-hee riskily takes the place of her brother and takes a men’s only exam for entrance into Sunkyugnwan, the highest rated university at the time. Little does she know that upon succeeding and getting in, she’ll come in contact with some of the most rich, arrogant and interesting men she’s ever met, including men who learn her secret. Full of love triangles, lovable characters, bromance and a secret itching to get out, this drama offers a great story with high stakes bound to keep you on your toes. More so, the college setting full of young energetic people living life and an independent and educated female protagonist offers a storyline that college students can relate to. Sunkyungwan Scandal offers a comedic yet dramatic take on college life in the Joseon dynasty that one can’t help but enjoy.
6) Go-Back Couple
As 18-22-year-olds in the prime of our youth and vigor, it seems hard to believe that we can’t look back in nostalgia 20-30 years back like our parents and grandparents can due to actually being pretty young. Either way, nostalgia rings far and wide for anyone alive (even you and me) and that makes up the core of Go-Back Couple’s plot. Married couple Choi Ban-do and Ma Jin-Joo find themselves unhappily and discontent living life, despite having a son together. While Choi Ban-do spends his days at his unfulfilling job as a pharmacist and drinking in the evening, Ma Jin Joo lives as an unhappy housewife who cares for her son yet questions the purpose of her life and whether her husband really loves her. Suddenly, a climactic point in their relationship sends them back in time to their college days as 20-year-olds, where they get a second chance at their 20s. Back in their glory days, the couple decides to relish in their time and make different decisions than they did the first time. Still, as obvious yet heartbreaking as this seems, the two start to realize that decisions made in college will forever change the trajectory of their future and the rest of their lives. With its unique storyline and amazing cast, Go-Back Couple uses comedy and the stakes of the ever-changing “what if” to make a drama worth watching. Its depiction of college life filled with important decisions and relationships deems something every college student must take into account at some point in their college career.
5) Cheese in the Trap
Looking for a quality show that involves suspense and romance set in college complete with an introverted redhead and a popular guy with psychopathic tendencies? Well if you didn’t before, you can now immerse yourself in the world of Cheese in the Trap, a drama based on a popular webtoon. The story centers on the relationships and lives of university college students, with an extensive focus on Hong Seol and her relationship with her senior, Yoo Jung. Although rich and popular, Yoo Jung’s psychopathic tendencies and cold demeanor has made Hong Seol take serious time off of school, making their relationship from the start complicated. Suddenly, she returns to school living off a scholarship that was meant for Jung, and so their relationship takes a turn for…the better? Jung mysteriously treats her nice and asks her out on a date, and they begin their awkward relationship together through college. College…what better place to pursue a relationship with someone who simultaneously likes you and might want to kill you, right? The drama offers everything from likable and extremely unlikeable characters (on purpose), a great budding romance, unexpected plot explosions and great college aesthetics in set design and costume. The drama seems like one of the rare K-dramas that paints university in a realistic light, with relatable topics like not wanting to leave your bed for morning classes, the financial struggle of paying for college, drinking, facing people from your past and, of course, completely new relationships. Cheese in the Trap offers insight to college as well as a binge-worthy and lovable plot.
4) Fight My Way
Tired of watching shows with perfect protagonists well-off with wealth and luck from the start? Fight My Way tells an organic story of friendship, love and following one’s dreams through underdog characters struggling to make a living and pursue careers they find themselves underqualified for. Main characters Ko Dong Man, an aspiring mixed martial arts fighter and Choi Ae Ra, an aspiring news anchor have longtime friendships with one another yet are stuck in a point of life where their laborious jobs get in the way of properly pursuing their dreams. As the drama offers a “slice-of-life” feel with ordinary characters living ordinary lives, the story gives insight to these childhood friend’s transition from deeply rooted friendship to eventual romance. The drama also focuses on another couple who find themselves in similar predicaments of success whose own relationship starts to fall apart just when the other couple’s relationship just gets started. The bottom line? Each character at some point in the story has found themselves in their own version of “rock bottom” and must find it in themselves and their abilities to pull themselves out of it. The drama presses on with the question: does this mean going after your dreams or forsaking them altogether? Overall, Fight My Way offers a solid K-drama experience with themes of failure and romance –sensitive topics for all college students I would say. Despite this, the drama includes just enough inspiration, lovable characters and a promising themes suitable for any college student.
3) Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo
Among all the college and young love romances (basically every other drama in this list), Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo wins a top spot due to its well-developed characters whose quirks reel us in and beg us to keep watching. Based on main character Kim Bok Joo, a talented and bright collegiate female weightlifter, and Jun Joon-Hyung, a collegiate swimmer plagued by his past, this drama explores their friendship to romance relationship as they interact with family, friends and their own respected sports. Kim Bok Joo and her female weightlifting friends spend their days carb-o-loading, lifting weights and realizing that they don’t get the attention that other girls in the other sports like gymnastics get. The drama also offers realistic characters and situations as well as a romance progression that is pleasant, believable and excitable. Although the two start off on the wrong foot after a run in with a bicycle and handkerchief, they learn that they knew each other when they were kids when Kim Bok Joo saved Jun Joon-Hyung’s life by catching him when falling. Still, the drama goes further in providing insight to each college students’ admirable parental relationships, student-athletes’ lives and entertaining college lifestyles spent with friends. Most of all, Kim Bok Joo’s character steals the show as it doesn’t just settle in using her romance with Jun Joon Hyung to propel the plot. Instead, it reveals her passions and difficulties as the love and hate for her sport and other complicated endeavors pulls her in different directions. This paints Kim Bok Joos as a lovable and relatable character to college girls everywhere. Weightlifting Fairy Kim Bok Joo has the full package of what a college romance should be and offers an endearing storyline to accompany its sports-like theme.
2) Reply 1988
You know that one feeling you suddenly get in a crowded room where you have a flashback of your simple life as a kid full of childhood friends, food and neighbors that you can never to return to? That, my friend, makes up the bittersweet and entertaining world of Reply 1988. As the title suggests, the drama takes place in Korea in 1988, at the peak of the globalized Olympics taking place in Korea at the time. The story centers around 8 childhood friends who not only grew up together, but live across from one another in the same neighborhood. Their lives interact daily as they navigate high school, pop culture, new feelings and eventually grow up into adults in their early 20s. Seems pretty simple right? Well, throw in their relationships which change and develop feelings for one another, their parents, siblings, individual familial struggles and you get a rich plot with always something to adhere to- not to mention its extremely comedic and relatable moments one can’t help but crack up at. The drama also alternates back and forth between their teenage lives and their adult selves. The only catch? As the adults sit back married and getting interviewed, the audience get driven into suspense as they cannot be sure who ended up with who in the end.
Thus, we have no other choice than to sit and watch the drama unfold for ourselves. I grew to also appreciate the plot which did not stay exclusive to the main characters and their young lives, but involved itself in the adult parents with their own quirks giving insight to raising and providing for a family in 1988. A definite plus, the drama seems to offer its own history lesson as well, covering Korean college riots, the 1988 Olympics, the rise of Korean pop music, college entrance exams, neighborhood competitions and so much more. Watching it in my freshman year of college when my life seemed all too new and confusing for me to handle, holding this drama and its characters close to heart reminded me that growing up and change, though scary, contained worth beyond all measures. As I longed for and relished my time as a teenager and kid, the drama ultimately told me that leaving my past safely tucked in my memory box as I embraced a new future as an adult proved okay. If you don’t have anything worth feeling nostalgic for, Reply 1988 will freely gift you this nostalgia. It contains an immense amount of wisdom, love, sadness, and victories nestled safely in a group of neighborhood friends growing up in 1988 Korean town called Busan.
1) Age of Youth (Hello My Twenties)
Among all the college-themed K-dramas on this list, Age of Youth gains victory above the rest due to the intentional way it depicts college life and our twenties: raw, communal, emotional but always worth it. Age of Youth tells the story of five very different girls sharing a house together at university, where each girl’s story, love arc and personalities are revealed through the events that happen both in their apartment and in the outside world. You have the quiet and shy Eun Jae, the sexy and popular Ya Ni, the pretty and dramatic Ya Eun, the hardworking and reserved Ji Myung, and the out spoken and bubbly Ji Won—girls who couldn’t have personalities any more different from one another. Despite working different jobs and going after different goals, at the end of the day they return home and bond through their shared lives and problems. As cheesy as it sounds, Age of Youth has the perfect combination of light, feel-good vibes and deep, thought-provoking issues brought up throughout the story. More so, while the girls embody distinct personalities and kinds of people, everybody can find themselves in each of the girls’ personalities and conflicting situations. My favorite things about this drama include its “slice of life” feel which covers relatable and comedic topics, no matter how small or big. From topics of introversion, going after what you want, mental health, first loves, community, sisterhood, living arrangements and even ghost sightings, Age of Youth offers a realistic and endearing view into character’s lives that directly reflect the what the “age of youth” really lives up to fulfill in our young lives.