I thought it was about time I posted something useful.
It's September, which means in a month or two the application forms for the JET Programme year 2011-2012 will become available. JET is a potentially life-changing experience, but it's not the easiest thing to get on. True, some are lucky and get through the process with little difficulty. Based on what I know from my own application experience and what I learned from meeting the other JETs in Japan, I'm going to give some tips for the first stage - the application. Some of the advice will only be relevant to those applying to be an ALT, but much of it applies to anyone looking for a place on the JET Programme
1. The Application form
The JET Application form is very long and detailed. Here's a link to one from last year.
Going in order, then.
The form lets you choose three prefectures or designated cities in order of preference. I wouldn't worry about this too much. Very few people get a placement that's anywhere near what they asked for, but you shouldn't worry about that either. Most often, people request to be placed in places they've heard of, or visited before. These tend to be famous towns and cities, and there are so many people who want to go to these places that very few can get their wish. My advice is either to choose where you really want to go, prepared for the possibility that you wont be allowed to go there or - and I think this is the smart option - research lesser-known prefectures and put down a place that sounds interesting. I was placed in Tokushima Prefecture which wasn't among my choices and seemed really out of the way, but it was only two hours on the bus from Kobe and Osaka, and the Prefecture is the home to Japan's biggest dance festival, which I've also heard is the second largest dance festival in the world next to the Rio Carnival.
The form also asks if you'd rather live in an urban, semi-urban or rural environment. Now, rural Japan can be very isolated, and while the scenery can be stunning, you should remember you may be the only foreigner in the local area. It takes a particular kind of person to take on that challenge. Not to say, again, that you will necessarily get the kind of area you requested, but if you choose rural, because of the huge number of rural placements available against the smaller number of inner-city placements, you are more likely to end up in one of them.
I should note that if you have good reasons for wanting a placement - a spouse or dependent in that prefecture, for example, you are far more likely to get it. The only people I know who got their choice of prefecture were married to Japanese women from that prefecture.
ii Teaching Background
A lot of people on the JET Programme are passionate about teaching, want to be full-time teachers, or are already teachers in their home countries. Some have done a TEFL course, but most haven't. What I'd say here is that, as you would expect, any relevant experience or qualifications will be useful, but you shouldn't worry if you don't have a lot. In my case, I took part in a student support scheme where students from my university were placed in local high schools to help in classes. I did it the semester I was applying for JET so I'd have something to put down. Maybe it worked in my favour. If there's something you can do, even at the last minute, so you can put it on your form, it's worth considering.
iii International/Intercultural Experience
I think this is probably at least as, if not more important than teaching experience. One of the purposes of the JET Programme, as written in its charter, is to promote grassroots international understanding. I was a member of the Japan Society at my university. I also visited Japan for two weeks, two years before I applied for JET. That was about the extent of my experience, but it showed that I had a strong interest in Japan and, more importantly, went there for a while and came back wanting to go again. One of the things that concern the people who look over the applications, and who interview you if you pass this first stage, is the possibility that you'll get sent to Japan, find out you can't cope with the climate, the food or whatever, and have to go home. They lose thousands in plane tickets and other fees when this happens. These are the things to bear in mind while applying.
There are plenty of people who go on JET that have zero language experience. It's perfectly fine to say you're a beginner in all areas of the application form, but showing an effort to learn will obviously do no harm. I'd been learning through evening classes and self-study for a couple of years before applying, and when I got to Japan I studied most of the time I was there.
That's about it as far as the application form goes. Just...don't lie, obviously. It may come back to bite you.
2. Personal Statement
I don't have much to say on this subject. Most people who apply for JET come from Arts degrees rather than sciences, so should know how to write an essay, and even if I was qualified to tell you how to write the perfect one, it would probably take a whole book to do so. All I can say is that when you write something like this, it's about selling yourself, making yourself sound better or different than everyone else, and making your education and life experience seem like it was geared from the start towards applying for the JET Programme. Make every paragraph do its job. Make it clear why you think everything you've done would help you if your application was successful. If you have too much experience to fit the space you have, choose the best and most relevant pieces.
Anyone reading this who wants more specific advice on the personal statement can comment or email me.
3. Other Preparation
There are a lot of things you have to get sorted out before you're ready to send your application. Make sure you leave plenty of time to get academic transcripts, proof of degrees etc. and ask for your references well in advance. In my case, I got references from two tutors of courses I was taking that semester. I'd never had these tutors before (and never did again) so they didn't know me so well, but I asked them in advance and they gave me the references after I'd handed in essays to them, as well as my personal statement. When you have everything you need, of course send the thing off early enough so you don't have to worry about it arriving on time. The person I got to write my second reference did so a little late, so I ended up sending by (expensive) next-day guaranteed postage.
So there you have it. A brief but I hope useful guide to the first stage you need to pass to get on the JET Programme. If you pass this stage - and as far as I know, most candidates with at least some relevant experience do - then you'll get an interview in January or February, which is the real challenge. More on that later. Please leave comments or questions, or you can send me an email.