On Getting Into the JET Program, Part 2: What does JET want?


When I started applying for JET in 2010, there was plenty of terrible advice about what JET wanted. Here are a couple of the rumors that, in hindsight, made absolutely no sense:

  • You must speak Japanese
  • You must not speak any Japanese
  • You have to be white, blonde, and blue-eyed
  • You have to be super energetic (“genki”)
  • You can’t have any teaching experience
  • You must have teaching experience
  • You can’t be Asian

I’m not sure where these came from, but my guess is that they came from rejected applicants in denial. I can say that within my prefecture alone, we had JETs who were fluent and incompetent in Japanese; we had black, Asian, Indian and Hispanic JETs, we had people with master’s degrees in Education and two years of teaching experience, we had people with degrees in Film Studies and people who worked in the agricultural sector. There are plenty of hyperactive JETs, but plenty of quiet, downright droll ones, as well. (I know, I am one!)

JET is really looking for the following: People who are interested in Japan, children, or teaching (or all three). After that, it’s people who will be able to make friends and give back to their community despite the cultural differences. Then, finally but quite importantly, people who take their promises seriously and won’t fly home from Japan after three months.

You don’t have to speak Japanese, you don’t need teaching certificates, you don’t need to have teaching experience or to desire teaching experience. All of that will make this program a lot more fun for you, of course, but it’s not required.

The JET application is a bit daunting. It may seem like you are burning through enough ink and paper to subsidize your own flight to Japan. Let’s make sure you get it right.

First, here’s what we know about the application process as a whole.

To get the best information we can about the JET Programme, let’s hop into a time machine and travel back to the 1990’s. That’s when David L. McConnell wrote “Importing Diversity: Inside Japan’s JET Programme.” Now, you may be wondering if maybe you should be reading that instead of this. That’s OK, I get it. Problem is, the information in that book is pretty outdated. A lot has changed since the mid-1990s, in terms of Japan’s education system and priorities.

But the book does explain how the application process was weighted back then, and I think it’s safe to say we can apply that information to the modern day. Here’s how he broke it down:

  1. Personality – 40 points
  2. Ability – 20 points
  3. Motivation – 25 points
  4. English Ability – 10 points
  5. Japanese Ability – 5 points
  6. Overall Impression – 20 points

Your goal is to show all of these in your SOP, references and application. So, what do they mean? These targets are a bit vague, and knowing what I know of Japanese bureaucracy, each part’s “points” are probably assigned based on the whims of whoever is looking at them. But since these people are theoretically making judgments based on their knowledge of Japanese work environments and culture, I think we can figure this out pretty easily.

Here are my suggestions on each piece of the puzzle.

Personality (40 points)
This is the part where they want to know if you can get along well with other people, and if you can handle challenges without giving up. This is a big deal, and will be the primary focus of your SOP. You can also ask other people to vouch for you in your references. You get points for being interesting, confident, and adaptable, but also for showing good conflict resolution skills.

Ability (20 points)
Are you clear and articulate? Do you have creative ideas? Did you excel in your studies or job? Basically, are you a hard worker with something to offer to Japan? One of the questions I’ve heard from people on the Web is if this means you need a 4.0 GPA from an Ivy League school, or high honors, to get into JET. I can say that this seems to vary from embassy to embassy, and possibly even based on the person looking at your application.

Some prefectures tend to look at the school you attended and your GPA when assigning people to certain levels of school. However, I will point to myself and say: I had a pretty decent GPA from a good, but not particularly prestigious, state school in Maine. Because my consulate was in Boston, I was up against a lot of the best universities in the country – Harvard, Dartmouth, MIT, Tufts, BU, BC, etc. If I got in against the Ivy League crowd, so can you. 

Motivation (25 points)
How strong is your desire to be in Japan? But most importantly, what will you do with your experience in Japan once you leave? Assume you will return to your home country. What will you bring back, experience-wise, from Japan? Anything that says “sending this person to Japan is more than a vacation” is good. I was interested in Japanese Cinema and wanted to study it in graduate school. I wrote about how I wanted to live in Japan to give me a better perspective on the films I loved. Because I addressed this in my essay, my interview was ridiculously cool: I just got to talk about old Japanese movies. The bumper sticker for this is: Why do you want to go to Japan, and how will that benefit other people?

Japanese (5 points) and English (10 points)
Your ability to speak English is about twice as important as your ability to speak Japanese. But, from my experience, this has shifted as recently as 2010. It seems like the year I was hired, I was surrounded by beginners who had never studied the language. By the time I left, a good number of new arrivals had spent time in the country before, or spoke at least basic Japanese.

I took one year of University Japanese, and it was during the year I applied to JET. It’s useful to have, but in my opinion, one reason so many people with impressive Japanese skills may not be accepted is because they put all of their eggs into that one basket. If your essay and application is more or less “I speak Japanese” copied and pasted a thousand times, well, congrats: You got the 5 points. Prove your ability in the application by showing it once. Don’t spend much time talking about it in your essay.

As for the English, you may wonder why it’s worth 10 points when it’s mandatory for you to be a native speaker. The short answer is obvious to anyone who has done any peer editing at university: Most people are actually pretty bad at English. Know your punctuation, run spell check, and polish your essay. It might literally be worth more to spell check your essay than to study Japanese for 4 years.

Overall Impression (20 points)
Just when you thought it would be straightforward, you find yourself facing the “potpourri” category. What is it for? What does it do? My sense is that this gives the judges some leeway to determine, fundamentally, if you are coming across as kind, confident, and organized. Organized means answering e-mails and filing paperwork by deadlines, engaging with the judges, etc. I’m sure some judges use it simply as an extension of what they perceive to be the most important category – so perhaps one judge is happy to give you an extra 15 points because you have a very good motivation for going to Japan, while another will give you the full 20 just based on your history of traveling abroad. It is anyone’s guess.

So what can you do? Don’t sweat it. Just focus on making the other categories as strong as possible. Which brings us to…

Letters of Recommendation
Anyone who knows Japanese culture can attest that experts are respected, and teachers are the most respected of all experts. Getting letters of recommendation from a teacher at your university (or the highest up that you can go at your company) are a major boost to your application score.

Which is why it’s very important to talk to whoever writes your letter of recommendation, to let them know exactly what it is that JET is looking for. Subtly encourage them to touch on the above points. Showing that you struggled and didn’t give up is OK, whereas a letter of recommendation attesting to your profound Japanese ability is probably wasted. Use these letters to address your character strengths and abilities first and foremost.

In part three, we’ll look at the nitty-gritty details: What to say on your JET application and how to spell the words. (Hint: Correctly!). Or, if you missed part one, you can read it here: What is JET, Anyway?

You can follow This Japanese Life on Facebook for a free 20 points. 

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15 Responses to On Getting Into the JET Program, Part 2: What does JET want?

  1. meirelav says:

    Thank you so much for these JET program posts!! I’m still about a year and a half away from college graduation, but JET is what I’d like to do for a few years once I do graduate, so these posts (and your whole blog, really) are quite invaluable to me. Looking forward to the next post!

  2. NJ says:

    I’m an ex-JET and now president of the local JETAA, by virtue of which I sit on the local interview panel for prospective JETs. Your succinct (and, as always, wittily incisive!) synopsis of the interview criteria is pretty much spot-on. If you’ve made it past the initial paper screening, you don’t have to worry too much about your academic scores and stats. We are judging you as a _person_. Scary, huh? You basically just (!) need to show that you are flexible, open-minded, reliable, have some relevant future goals, and have some understanding of what will be required of you as a representative of your country in a professional environment (even taking into account ESID!). Although there are significant subjective elements to the judging, everyone vying for the same positions (i.e., those leaving from any one particular departure location, because you are not compared with applicants from other locations) are subject to those same subjective criteria (at least from my experince) – which I guess makes them objective.

  3. misshowk says:

    My biggest concern at the moment is how my gpa will be viewed. I also go to a good, but not so prestigious school in Vermont (UVM). But, I had a rough transfer, which significantly impacted my gpa, which was a 3.6. Since then, I’ve raised it to a 2.42, which isn’t great, but a significant improvement considering how low it was. I have one year left, so there’s still time to improve my score. However, it won’t be fully restored to what it was before I transferred.

    • owwls says:

      Hm, if you wrote about it as an upward trajectory – explaining that you are working harder now, have learned lessons, kept at it, etc, it might help. It’s hard to say, but good luck!

    • Jessha says:

      I’m Canadian, so this may not be relevant to you, but my grades were incredibly average from an average school. I even had “academic probation” on my record. (That means my grades slipped below the mandatory minimum and I had two semesters to improve them or be thrown out of school.) I wouldn’t let it stop you from trying.

      • Ashley says:

        Hey Jessha!

        Saw your reply and I was wondering; are you an ex-JET as well? My grades are also pretty bad right now (not quite academic probation, but on the low-middle end of average), and I’m worried that they’ll see that and not even glance at the extracurriculars I’ve carried in exchange. Should I be as freaked out as I am, or do you think showing lots of relevant experience will make them more likely to turn a blind eye?

  4. Jessha says:

    One correction!

    “As for the English, you may wonder why it’s worth 10 points when it’s mandatory for you to be a native speaker.”

    You actually don’t have to be a native speaker. There’s an ALT here in Sendai that speaks English as his second language. His native language is French. ESL speakers are just as likely to get in as native speakers if they have the ability. :)

    • owwls says:

      Is he a JET? If so, thats definitely a new shift in policy. Unless hes Canadian.

      • Jessha says:

        He’s a JET. Also Canadian. But I’ve met other ESL JETs from other parts of the world. Is being a native speaker mandatory in the US? I think most countries just go by fluency.

  5. Su Lwin says:

    Thanks for sharing this! I’m in my last year of university in Australia and am super keen on doing JET after graduating. Does it help with your application if you are interested in living in Japan permanently?

    • Ouzora says:

      Hey Su!

      I’m currently listed as an alternative for the program, but from what I’ve gathered, JET is a cultural exchange. It was explained to me that they are looking not only for you to bring over your own culture to Japan and share it there, but also how you plan on sharing what you’ve learned about Japanese culture when you return to your home country. One of the interview questions we were told to prepare for was, “How do you intend to share your experiences in Japan upon your return, and how could this foster cultural exchange and benefit the JET Programme in the future?” From that I gather that it’s actually better for you to say you intend to come back.
      Just something that was shared with me :) Good luck in your final year!

      • owwls says:

        Yes. One thing I think they’re a little *worried about* is people using JET to go to Japan long term; in any case, it certainly pays to emphasize what you can do with Japanese cultural experience upon returning from Japan rather than how you want to stay there.

    • Tiffany Trinh says:

      Hi Su! Just wanted to say, I’m an Australian in my last semester looking at applying for JET too :) I myself was wondering this, because I have been considering living in Japan. But it looks like we will have to write about what we can bring back to Australia.

  6. Genelle Locario says:

    Has anyone without a degree ever been accepted to the program?

    • owwls says:

      No, it’s a requirement and part of the program application. I’m not sure if it’s an expectation of the program or Japanese law, but I’d guess you could easily find non-JET after-school tutoring gigs without a degree.

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