January 29, 2009

JET Program Part 1: The Application

In a world filled with uncertainty, the one thing that can be universally agreed upon is that the application for the JET Program is one giant headache.

The application itself is a three-part process: the paper application, the interview, the short list.

Paper applications become available usually in September/October and are due in the end of November. The 2008 application in Canada was available Sept 22 and due Nov 18th (just to give you an idea of the time line). This may seem like a significant amount of time to get one little paper application together. Don't fall into the trap of thinking that way! Between writing your Statement of Purpose (and re-writing it a dozen times), getting copies of transcripts or proof of enrollment, the necessary medical documentation (if needed) and obtaining the two reference letters you need to apply, you will be lucky to get your application into the Japanese consulate on time.

I started working on my application the first week of October and was able to submit it a week early, but I know a lot of people were down to the wire and here's why:

Reference Letters.
The biggest threat to your deadline is your reference letters - so take care of those FIRST. And be VIGILANT. One of my references was great - got everything into me well ahead of time. The other I literally had to email half a dozen times and then call to get the letter in time to mail it in. It's different for everyone, of course, but just be conscious of the fact that asking for a reference letter last minute doesn't look all that great on you (it makes you look disorganized) and not everyone can work to your schedule.

Transcripts/ Letter of Enrollment.
With the transcripts and letters of enrollment, it's usually college/university bureaucracy that puts the brakes on this one. Some schools have fees, others won't print transcripts at certain period in the semester, sometimes it takes a few days to get the documents printed... basically they're a huge pain in the ass and will wind up costing you if you don't take care of them early. At least if you tackle them at the start of the application process, they're something you can get out of the way and not have to worry about when it comes to that fast approaching deadline.

The Statement of Purpose.
Oh the Statement of Purpose, how I loathe thee. The SoP is a two page (max) essay detailing all the reasons why you want to participate in the program and why you'd be a good candidate. Writing that thing was one of the hardest compositions I've done to date because you simply don't know what they're looking for.

Are they going to appreciate your quirky sense of humour or your self-professed sushi obsession? Or is that going to be an immediate black mark? Should you focus on your teaching experience or international experience? Should it be formal or informal? Just how strict IS that page limit anyway?

Writing the SoP is no easy task and from what I've heard it can make or break your application so here are some things to consider-

At the end of the day, you're applying for a job - just like you would with any other company. Given that, professionalism seems to be the safest route to take. So if you're trying to decide between a formal or informal approach, go for formal. Treating the application seriously is a good indicator to the review panel that you are serious about the position and they should bring you in for an interview.

(On a side note, you should probably also refrain from mentioning in your SoP that you're an OMG! A DIE-HARD Naruto fan!, or that you have like absolutely EVERY Inuyasha volume ever published because it's like the BEST MANGA EVER! If you're a fan of anime and manga that's cool, but if it comes across that that's your reason for wanting to go to Japan they're going to move on to the next candidate. Save the fanboying/fangirling for once you're there).

Answer the question. I can't emphasize this enough. The JET application lists specific questions they want to see answers to in your SoP so it is a wise idea to use those as a guideline when you're writing. Mainly they want to know what your interest in Japan is, why you think you'd make a good candidate and what YOU can bring to the program. One of the biggest mistakes people make is talking about all the great things the JET Program will do for them. WRONG! This goes back to the whole "think of it like a job interview" thing. Your prospective employer doesn't want to hear how the job is going to make you a ton of money or give you worldly experience, they want to hear what you're bringing to the table and how you're going to improve their bottom line.

Edit. Edit. Edit. You're applying to be an English teacher so your SoP should be near perfect in terms of style, grammar and flow. Don't leave the SoP to the last minute thinking you can just whip something off and hand it in. You're setting yourself up for failure if you do that. Though there may be a gifted few who can write beautiful poignant perfect two page SoPs in an hour no problem, most of us need more time to gather our thoughts, get them to paper and then edit them.

I re-wrote my SoP half a dozen times before I was happy with it - the final version ended up being written the night before I submitted my application. I had at least three different people read over my SoP for spelling, grammar, flow and just a general sense of how well I answered the questions supplied by JET. This is where getting your SoP started early comes in handy!

Having a working SoP is also a great tool to give your references so they have more info on the program and your specific reasons for wanting to be a part of it. I gave a working copy of my SoP to both my references and they not only appreciated it, but were able to make reference in their letters to specific things I'd mentioned in my essay - so being organized works!

The Application
So you've got your letters of reference, transcripts, nicely polished SoP, medical forms etc. You're in the home stretch right? Not quite. Next comes the actual paper application which is an absolute mammoth 60 pages of reading. Some consultes still give out actual paper applications, the UK uses online forms and many others now provide workable PDF documents.

DO NOT (I repeat, DO NOT!) skip over the Application Instructions. It's easy to sit there and say to yourself, "how hard could it possibly be to fill in an application? I can't believe they have instructions for this!" Bad idea.

With the number of applicants the JET Program receives each year, they're looking for ANY reason to cut you. Those application instructions and your ability to follow them ultimately determines whether they consider your application or not. Why would they hire someone who is incapabale of reading and understanding simple instructions?

Right. So if the application instructions say "use paperclips, not staples" - use paperclips. If they say "be sure to answer every question, or write N/A" then answer every question or write N/A. It's not that hard, but you'd be surprised at the number of people who get simple things like that wrong and wind up with their application getting tossed.

I'd recommend reading the application instructions closely and then filling out a "test" copy of the application. I actually had a couple test copies going in case I changed my mind about something or made a mistake in a ceratin spot. The Canadian PDF this year gave a lot of people, including myself, trouble so we wound up having to fill it out by hand which took forever.

The actual application itself is around 14 pages long. Most of it is basic info like name, address, etc. the rest is work experience, international experience and your exposure to Japanese culture. Don't leave these last sections blank. If you have ANY experience, even if its minor, include it. The paper applications are graded on a point system so having nothing in those boxes gives you 0 points as opposed to the few you might get for having minor experience there.

Part of the paper application deals with placement requests. Placements are something that JET applicants seem to think a lot about when they really shouldn't. The application asks you to list up to three placement choices (cities or regions where you would like to be located within Japan). These by no mean determine where you'll actually wind up. It's better to think of them as "suggestions" or something to keep you busy while waiting to hear application results.

Your placement is entirely up to the Japanese BOE who hires you. Most successful JET applicants end up teaching at Junior or Senior High Schools in the rural our semi-rural countryside. The odds of actually being placed in the urban sprawl of Tokyo, Kyoto or Osaka are very slim (Tokyo, for example, only has 2 spots available). If the thought of living amongst rice fields in a town of 2000 makes you cringe, JET may not be the right option for you.

Okay, so now that you've spent countless hours putting together your application, making all the necessary photocopies, etc., triple checking it to make sure you've checked every box and answered every questions, it's time to send it off.

The JET application instructions include a detailed (with a picture) list of exactly HOW they want everything arranged inside your envelope. FOLLOW THIS CAREFULLY. How much would it suck to go through all that effort only to have your application chucked in the bin because you put your reference letters in the wrong spot?

Just a reminder - there is absolutely NO exceptions made for late applications. They will not be read, opened or even looked at. If it was submitted past the deadline it goes straight into the bin - better luck next year!

Now comes the hard part. Waiting.

It is a loooong two and a half months between submitting your application and hearing the results. Each consulate is different, but this year the Canadian consulate mailed out letters to successful applicants. The American consulate provides you with an applicant number and posts a PDF listing the numbers of successful applicants.

I was one of the lucky ones so I will be heading to Toronto on Feb 18th to plead my case. I'll update you then on the interview process, along with some of the questions they asked me.

Wish me luck!

Coming Soon: Part 2: The Interview!

January 28, 2009

Getting to Japan

Japan - the home of sumo, sushi and Assistant Language Teachers from the world over.

If you're interested in exploring Japan, there are about a thousand and one ways you can get there. One of the easiest and most cost effective is to work as an Assistant Language Teacher (ALT). There is no shortage of ALT positions available in Japan, or companies willing to hire genki foreigners to teach them.

If this sounds good to you, there are several of links posted below to various companies and helpful sites that will help you get on your way.

I chose to apply through the JET program - also known as the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Program (http://www.jetprogramme.org/). The JET Program takes applicants primarily from Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom (but I've also seen participants from various parts of Asia, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa).

The only main requirements to get into the program are that you're from an English speaking country (English is your native language) and you have a post-secondary degree from an accepted College or University (or will have acquired one by the time you depart). The program itself is highly competitive. At any one time there are approx 4500 JETs employed in Japan (this includes new applicants and previous applicants who have decided to re-contract for another year). Just to give you some perspective - this past year there were 4500 applicants within the United States alone and less than half of those were offered an interview.

Right. (That was this genki canuck's reaction too...)

If you make it through the interview and are accepted into the program, you're offered a 1 year contract to work as an ALT, usually in a rural area, for 3.6 million yen a year. This is more than enough money for you to live comfortably and have savings (depending on how good you are with your money). The added bonus of the free flight to Japan and home, courtesty of JET, means that JET is one of the better options, financially speaking, for prospective ALTs.

I thought I'd give you guys a chance to follow my own journey through the JET application process. If I'm not successful I've got several other options I'm willing to try, and I hope you will too!

Some Helpful Links:
I Think I'm Lost (http://www.ithinkimlost.com)
Big Daikon (www.bigdaikon.com)
Dave's ESL Cafe (http://www.eslcafe.com/)
Gaijin Pot (http://www.gaijinpot.com/)

Non-Jet Options:
Westgate Corporation (http://www.westgate.co.jp/)
Winbe English School (http://www.tact-net.jp/winbe/english/)
Amity (http://www.amityteachers.com/)
ECC Foreign Language Institute (http://recruiting.ecc.co.jp/)
AEON (http://www.aeonet.com/)