Thursday, 2 June 2011

Being a CIR on the JET Programme, Part II: Advice on the application process

Having lots of mates who have studied Japanese and are interested in working in Japan, I often get asked for advice on applying to the JET Programme. JET operates a policy of not giving feedback on the application process, but knowing a lot of past and present JETs and having worked on the programme myself, assuming the process hasn't changed since 2010, I can offer advice on how to make a successful application to be a CIR from the UK. Most of this information will apply for people from other countries, and even those applying to be an ALT should get something out of it.

The UK JET website offers a recruitment timeline which shows you how the application process works. It all starts with the application form, and there are a lot of things you have to print out and photocopy for that, so if you're still at university a computer room is the ideal place to sort all this. It can seem like a lot of paperwork, but it will all be worth it if you land a job on the programme.

The application form is mostly common sense, but I'd like to emphasise that it really will pay to fill in each section with as much detail as possible. For example, one of the sections when I applied asked about 'International / Intercultural Experience (at home or abroad)', and I think it really would be worth writing down every interaction you've had with other countries and their people. JET are looking for well-rounded applicants who have had lots of different experiences within and outside of their own country and comfort zone. So if you have time, and aren't doing so already, you should definitely get involved in extra-curricular activities of some kind, especially those involving Japan, so you can write about them on your application. I was part of Sheffield University's Japan Society and helped run the football team during my fourth year, as well as helping to plan various society events. I'm sure this helped my application to be a CIR, as it showed experience of international interaction along with leadership qualities.

Another part of the application that is vitally important is the personal statement. I spent a decent amount of time on mine and also got it checked by a past CIR. If you don't have a past CIR to hand, still get it checked by at least one other person you trust to make sure the grammar, spelling and content is spot on. There's a word count, but it won't be strictly enforced as I went over slightly. I opened mine with the cheesy opening line of "I believe my interest and experiences in Japan embody my spirit of adventure and my desire to constantly learn, improve myself and overcome challenges that are outside of my comfort zone." In fact, cheesy lines seemed to work well for me, as I was asked in my interview "What did I learn during my study abroad in Kobe?" and replied that "I learnt wherever you go, humans are humans and you'll always be able to find friends." It still sounds stupid in Japanese, but one of the guys interviewing me, who had been bad cop up until that point, had a quick smirk at this. And whilst there was a grain of truth in there, perhaps more importantly it showed a sense of humour, which is important to doing well on the JET Programme.

Back to the personal statement, in 2010 you had to write it in three sections: (1) General statement: This should set forth your reasons for wishing to participate on the JET Programme. (2) What can you contribute to the Programme? (3) Current affairs: What political or social issues in the UK do you think a Japanese person is most likely to be interested in and why? But in general I think you want to really emphasise how you are an outgoing, confident and flexible person who has had a lot of different experiences, especially international ones. Like I said, if you're not already, get involved in lots of international activities, and especially ones which involve Japan and enable you to take an active/leadership role. A university's Japan Society is an ideal place to find opportunities like this.

Assuming you get past the paper application stage, you'll receive an interview in February in London. Some of this is common sense, but I think you need to present yourself even better than you would in a standard UK job interview. Japan is an extremely conservative society when it comes to appearance, and you should show that you understand this when you turn up for your interview. Get a haircut, and if you're a guy and have a beard, shave it. If you have tattoos and piercings, cover them up. The CIR interview is completely in Japanese, and mine was conducted by two Japanese people (good cop and bad cop) and one British former JET. It worked out well for me, as our teachers at university gave us the opportunity of making our end of year speaking assessment a mock interview for JET. It wasn't exactly like the real thing, but it definitely gave me some practice in answering the kind of questions you get asked and thinking under pressure. If you have either a friend who was a past CIR or a Japanese friend who's just willing to simulate an interview situation, practising for your interview will help.

During the interview there are a stock set of general questions, then you'll be asked about specific things you wrote down on your application. Lastly, there will be a reading comprehension part where you will be asked to read two articles (one easier, one harder) out loud then answer questions and have a bit of discussion on the articles. You should try to do all of this in your most polite Japanese while again expressing that you are an outgoing, confident and flexible person. The way I see it is there is a lot of competition for places, especially in the UK, so JET want someone with a high Japanese ability who will be flexible and able to adapt as much as possible to a new workplace. For example, I was asked whether I would do overtime if requested to. This isn't the time to air your views on the Japanese work/life imbalance or the lifetime employment system; in my interview I remember saying that I'd be choosing to work in a foreign country and learn about their work practices, so I'd be willing to take part and do overtime if asked. I'm pretty sure that's what they wanted to hear.

You should also remember why the JET Programme started. The idea was to provide a foreign presence in Japan, especially of English speakers, as well as give skills to foreigners who would perhaps go back to their country or stay in Japan and work in a Japan-related field. JET don't expect you to be completely fluent in Japanese or have lots of experience in translation and interpreting, but they do expect you to be very competent and willing to learn on the job. They also want you to pursue a Japan-related career once you've finished on the programme.

I remember the interviewers starting right away as soon as I sat down in the chair, so be prepared to jump right into the questions. Here are some of the general questions you might be asked in the first part of the interview: Why did you choose to study Japanese? Did you find studying Japanese hard? What do you see yourself doing after JET? Do you have any ideas for events to plan as a CIR in Japan? Do you have a preference for where to go? What hobbies would you like to pursue in Japan?

In the second part of the interview I was asked about the music society I had joined at Kobe University and my work as part of the Japan Society at Sheffield University. When you're talking don't give one word answers, but also don't ramble on for hours. One interesting piece of information came from the only feedback I have ever heard JET give to an applicant. This was a friend who's a CIR and was rejected one year but accepted the next. JET explained that one of the reasons they had rejected him the first time was because he said "ええと" ("erm") too many times in the interview. It seems bizarre, but you might want to take it into account. One way to combat such a problem is to write out and practise your answers to questions before the interview, or even just write out and practise a few sentences about yourself. This way you'll have some great sound bytes ready to go and you can mix and match them to create good answers on the fly.

I wouldn't worry too much about the third part of the interview, but making sure your kanji reading is in tip-top shape is a good idea. In mine and other CIRs' experience, the first task is doable, and the second is hard. Again, they don't want you to be able to read all the kanji perfectly, but you should have a good go and give them intelligent answers to their questions on the subject. From what I can remember, one of the articles I read was on Japanese people working from home rather than in an office. It wasn't quite as dense as a newspaper article, but was written in that style.

Once the interview is over you face a long wait to find out if you got a place, after which you must submit your health form and police checks. The police check is a standard fee, but the price for a completed health check form varies between doctors. Often the doctor will just make up a price as it's not something they do often. Make sure you don't pay a stupid amount, as I heard of people that did.

After waiting a bit more you'll find out where you'll be placed, then attend an orientation in London, then hear from your predecessor and contracting organisation. After that you'll be ready to go to Japan. Good luck.

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Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Joe, thanks for taking the time to share all this info. Cheers.

03/02/2012, 04:24  
Blogger Jephso said...

No probs. Glad it was of some use. Shoot me an email if you want any more info.

03/02/2012, 13:17  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If he had use あの〜 instead, it might have been more okay. My Japanese chair has been hiring applicants for a tenure-track position, and she said that one of hte applicants kept saying えっと〜〜 and that it made it feel too casual. Though it doesn't hurt to just nail each answer without fumbling too much either!

13/12/2012, 05:44  
Blogger Jephso said...

Interesting point. Might have been an issue of politeness.

I was told by my Japanese teacher that it's better to say えっと or あのー than saying "erm" in English or leaving a big pause.

13/12/2012, 14:53  

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