The JET Program Application and Interview Guide
I originally wrote this post for my friends at Hobo With a Laptop, but thought you might all enjoy it as well!
So it’s finally happened. The travel bug has taken hold of you. Maybe you contracted it on a recent backpacking trip to Peru. Perhaps you picked it up from a friend or your favorite travel blog (it’s highly infectious, you know). Whatever the reason may be, you’ve got it, and like a wanderlust tapeworm, it has an insatiable appetite for whatever lies just beyond the horizon.
What better way to feed the beast than to leave the comforts of home and throw yourself headfirst into a new culture? While there are many ways to do so, one option that has grown increasingly popular over the years is teaching English abroad. With so many programs and schools to choose from, it’s really just a matter of choosing where you want to live next. If you’re like me, that answer is Japan.
While there are dozens of programs available in Japan for native English speakers, the gold standard amongst the rest is the JET Program. What is it, why is it so great, and what can you do to better your chances of becoming part of it? I’m glad you asked.
For those who aren’t familiar, the JET Program (Japan Exchange & Teaching) was founded in 1987 by the Japanese government as a way to promote cultural outreach on a global scale. While the primary focus of the role is teaching English as a second language to Japanese students, perhaps even more importantly, participants act as ambassadors for their home country while abroad. The goal is not only to introduce your own culture, but to learn as much as possible about Japanese culture as well, which you can then teach others about back home and beyond. Participants are placed all throughout the country on one year terms with the option to continue on for up to five years.
So why JET instead of private company like Aeon? For starters, JET will cover the cost of your roundtrip flight to Tokyo and your return home at the end of the program. With most other programs, you are left to fend for yourself in this regard. On top of that, you’ll receive very competitive pay (¥3,360,000 for first year participants), assistance with everything from finding an apartment to setting up a cellphone plan, fantastic health insurance coverage, and more.
Not sold yet? Well, if you’re from the US, your income will also be tax-free for your first two years in Japan.
Unfortunately, getting chosen for the JET Program is easier said than done. The amount of new applicants grows each year and with limited positions available, the supply of adventure-seeking teachers far outweighs the demand. That being said, there are things you can do to help your application stand out from the crowd.
I’m sure you’re eager to start the application process, but before you fill out a single form, ask yourself, “What have I done to make myself an attractive candidate for the role?”. With thousands of applicants each year, you’re going to need some distinguishing credentials.
The first time I applied to the JET Program, I hadn’t participated in any school organizations or clubs, had traveled outside the United States for a grand total of eight days, and had never taught a class a day in my life, let alone worked with children. Needless to say, it didn’t end well.
Take some time to make yourself a candidate you would want to hire. Volunteer to work at after school programs. Travel outside of your own country as much as possible. Take a course in Japanese culture and history. Do anything you can to not only make your application more interesting, but to show that you have the right mindset for the job.
Also, it’s by no means a requirement for JET, but if possible, get TEFL certified. Many people get into the program without their certification, but it can’t hurt to show that you take the position seriously enough to do so. Furthermore, getting experience teaching in front of an actual class of students is invaluable. Speaking from personal experience, I had my certification the next time I applied to JET, and I was accepted. It could have nothing to do with it, but who am I to argue with my own anecdotal evidence?
Filling Out Your Application
The application itself is pretty straightforward (not counting the Statement of Purpose, which we’ll cover next) and there’s nothing you can really do to fill out a form “better” than anyone else. However, there is one crucial thing you can do to set yourself up for success – LEAVE YOURSELF PLENTY OF TIME.
I can’t stress this enough. The bulk of the application process consists of gathering various documents that will need to be mailed in as part of a packet. You’ll need proof of citizenship, a copy of your diploma, college transcripts, and a medical history form filled out by your doctor to name a few. If you’d like to get a jump on this, you can find the list of required documents here.
I’ve found the most lengthy process of all to be gathering the two required letters of recommendation. These need to come from either academic or professional contacts, so think carefully of who would give the best representation of you. Again, give your contacts plenty of time to get these done. The first time I applied, I didn’t get my second letter back until the day before the submission deadline. Save yourself the anxiety and ask them to start far in advance.
Your Statement of Purpose
This is where you will focus most of your time. The Statement of Purpose carries the most weight of your application and is undoubtedly what will either land you an interview or send you back to the drawing board. Much like a college application essay, exactly which angle you choose to take is up to you, but there are four basic questions that need to be answered throughout. Your job will be to thread them all together in a compelling narrative. Let’s take a look at each of the questions.
1. Why do you want to go to Japan and why are you interested in the role you are applying for?
The JET Program wants to know that you are after more than just a free ride to Japan. They want people who have a genuine interest in Japanese culture and are passionate about the role that they will be undertaking. Use this section to (briefly) tell the story of what sparked your interest in Japan and why it’s important to you.
This isn’t a make or break question, but it’s important to show that your interest runs deeper than, “I think Japan is neat”. If possible, I recommend tying your reason to an emotional connection. For instance, rather than simply saying, “I want to go to Japan because I love sushi”, you could tell how your love of sushi inspired you to take a Japanese cooking course and research Japanese food culture.
2. What effect do you hope to have on the Japanese community and internationally as a result of your participation?
Put quite simply, “What can you do for us?”. As I mentioned earlier, the JET Program is about much more than just teaching English. JET wants to know what else you plan to do to affect a positive cultural exchange both locally, as well as back in your home country and beyond. If you plan to volunteer to run after-school clubs or get involved with a local community organization, this is the place to talk about it. Show JET that they will get their money’s worth with you by being as cultural enriching as possible.
3. What applicable experience, skills, interests and personal qualities do you have that will be useful to your position?
Granted, you will already be listing most of this in your general application, but this is your chance to highlight what you feel are the key selling points that make you an exceptional candidate. Don’t just re-write your resume; explain how your experience and interests will lend themselves well to your new role. This is a great opportunity to humble brag about some of your intangible skills that wouldn’t normally be listed on a resume.
4. What do you hope to gain from the experience and how will it lend itself to your future goals?
JET wants to know about your life after Japan. On a deeper level, they want to know not only how it will affect you, but how it will benefit them as well. No matter what you intend to do after the JET Program, you should discuss how you will take what you have learned in Japan and apply it forward.
Again, the biggest goal for JET is cultural outreach, so they want to see how it will continue beyond your time in the program. For instance, as an aspiring travel writer, I explained in my SoP that there is no better way to share an experience with others than to fully immerse yourself in it first.
If you can provide thoughtful answers to the questions above and tie them together in a way that feels genuine, you should be in good shape. Again, leave yourself plenty of time to write your Statement of Purpose. The most difficult part will be fitting all of this information within the confines of a strict two page limit. After you have written it, get it proofread by as many people as possible. I can’t stress this enough. Take their feedback, write it again, and repeat as many times as necessary.
If you are lucky enough to be chosen for an interview, give yourself a pat on the back. You made it further than I did my first time. Now begins the process of furiously scouring the internet for any and all information on the JET program interview.
You will undoubtedly find horror stories of interview panels playing “good cop, bad cop” or asking applicants to role-play improbable classroom scenarios. Personally, I believe that much like Yelp, people are most often driven to write reviews when they had a bad experience. There have been countless positive JET interview experiences that you will never read about. Don’t let the negative ones freak you out. Just because their voices are the loudest, it doesn’t mean they’re right.
So what can you expect? Every situation is different, but you will most likely first find yourself in a large waiting room with other applicants waiting to be called in for their interview. When I interviewed in Boston, they had several interview panels going on at the same time, so people were called out every five minutes or so.
Once it’s your turn, you will be brought to a private room and sat across from an interview panel typically consisting of three or four people involved with the JET Program (former participants, program administrators, etc.).
The interview itself will last 20-30 minutes and will consists mainly of questions about your application and hypothetical “what ifs”. For instance, “We see that you have listed a preference to live in a big city. What would you do if you were assigned to live out in the country?”. Above all, be genuine in your responses. Remember, these people have been interviewing candidates all day for several days in a row. They don’t want to hear the “right answer”. They want to hear your answer.
Let’s look at a few tips that will help when preparing for your interview.
If you only follow one of my tips, make it this – DO MOCK INTERVIEWS. Interviewing is a skill that gets better with practice and you want to present your best self possible in front of this panel. Ask everyone you know; parents, friends, co-workers, etc. to ask you interview style questions. You can google “JET Program interview questions” and find many results I’m sure, but unless you practice giving well-thought-out answers to these questions, the information is useless. Also, the questions your panel will ask will vary for each person, so start getting yourself into the mindset of thinking of creative answers on your feet.
Since you never know who will be interviewing you, I recommend having a variety of different people do your mock interviews. It’s impossible to prepare for every question your panel may ask, but you’ll do better to cover a wide range of possibilities. Also, get in the habit of recording these little interviews. Nobody likes to see themselves on camera, but it will help you to identify areas of improvement such as body language or bad habits of speech.
Wear a Suit
Don’t forget, this is a job interview. You will be expected to dress formally, and by Japanese standards, this means a suit. If you don’t have a suit, get one. Beyond the JET Program, it’s always good to have one on hand should a formal event arise. Trust me, you don’t want to be the only person in the room not wearing a suit. Remember, it’s your qualifications that should stand out, not your clothing.
Be Personable in the Waiting Room
While waiting to be called, take the time to chat with others in the room. Not only will this help calm your nerves, it will make a good impression as well. There will be a person in the waiting room to check you in and answer any pre-interview questions you may have. More often than not, this individual is a former JET Program participant. While I can’t confirm anything, it’s reasonable to believe that this person would provide feedback to the interview panels afterwards about anyone that stood out. What better way to show that you will be an active member of a community than by actively engaging with strangers in friendly conversation?
Smile, Smile, Smile
Don’t forget, you are going to be working primarily with kids. The interviewers will want to get a glimpse of your personality to ensure they’re not sending an emotionless, monotone, cardboard cut-out of a person off to interact with the children of Japan. Relax, smile, and maybe even crack a joke or two. I can’t even begin to describe the relief I felt when I made my interviewers laugh. It instantly tears down walls and helps you to connect on a basic human level.
Learn Some Japanese
I went into my interview knowing almost zero Japanese and I still was accepted into the JET Program, so learning Japanese is far from necessary. However, my interviewers did ask me if I would like to take a brief spoken Japanese language test for extra points on my interview score. Not being one to turn down extra credit, I said yes. I then proceeded to answer every question with one of my three Japanese phrases; “Wakarimasen”, which translates to, “I do not know”.
This of course was not the answer they were looking for, but it did highlight my willingness to try new things and take on challenges. That being said, if you can actually respond to their questions, you’ll look that much better and earn yourself some sweet, sweet bonus points in the process.
At the end of your interview, you will most likely be given the opportunity to ask questions of the panel. Do so. Trust me, as someone who has run interviews before, a candidate not asking questions is a huge red flag. You mean to tell me you are interviewing for a position that will require you to upend your life and move across the world and now that you have an audience of former JET Program participants, you don’t have any questions? Doesn’t look good, does it?
At the very least, asking questions demonstrates that you have a genuine interest in the program and aren’t simply applying on a whim. Some great questions you can ask after your own interview are:
– “What do you feel are the qualities of a successful candidate?”
– “What is one piece of advice you could give to ease the transition into living in Japan?”
– “What do you feel was your biggest takeaway from participating in the JET Program?”
You did it. You made it through the dreaded interview. Now you’re on to the last and hardest part – the wait. Results are typically sent out a couple months after the interview, so you’ll have plenty of time to try and fail to not think about it. The best thing I can recommend is to stay busy and keep yourself distracted. Worrying about it won’t do anything to speed up the results, and the last thing you want to do is get too far ahead of yourself with planning.
When the day finally comes that results are sent out, you will receive one of three responses; rejected, alternate, or short-listed. Short-listed means you have been accepted into the program, alternate means you didn’t quite make the cut but have been placed on a waitlist in case people begin to drop out, and rejected, well, that one speaks for itself.
To those who receive the result of alternate, DO NOT GIVE UP. I was initially placed on the alternate list before I was ultimately upgraded a few weeks later, so be patient. To those who don’t get accepted, STILL DO NOT GIVE UP. I was rejected my first time applying to the JET Program too. Pick yourself up, do everything you can to make yourself a better candidate, and come back even stronger next year. Your passion and commitment will speak volumes of your character.
Follow the guide above and you will be well on your way to landing a position with the JET Program. Follow along on my own JET adventure starting in August on my blog, The Born Wanderer, and feel free to email me with any questions!