Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Waiting Game, Part 1--The JET Application & Interview

Note: Because I didn’t chronicle my adventures in applying/interviewing for ESL jobs as they were happening, I’m going to jump back to spring 2012. Please bear with me :)

In the spring of 2012, I decided that I wanted to teach ESL after graduation in a couple months. One Google search later, I was officially overwhelmed. After many afternoons ignoring my final papers to research jobs, I decided I wanted to go to Japan. The main reason for this was the JET Programme.

The JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) Programme is coordinated by the Japanese government for the purpose of importing native English speakers to serve as ALTs (assistant language teachers) in the public schools (there are also a couple other jobs for which they import foreigners, but they mainly traffic in ALTs). Successful applicants are actually employed by their school’s board of education, and a quick Google will tell you ESID (every situation is different); however, the fact that this is a country-wide program that utilizes applications and interviews through Japanese consulates worldwide lends it a certain air of credibility. That was good enough for me, and I happily joined the Facebook group of hopeful 2013 JETs.

As any JET applicant will tell you, the journey from ‘hopeful ALT’ to ‘actual ALT’ involves a lot of paperwork and A LOT of waiting. The first part of this is waiting for the application to be released. For two solid months, the Facebook group was approximately 1% Hi, I’m so-and-so, 1% What drew you guys to Japan?, and 98% desperate based on this data I’ve compiled from the last 20 years, the application has an average release date of between X and Y-

The application and all its components were released on October 3, and we peed ourselves like excited dogs.

This kid gets it

An interesting side effect of filling out the JET application is that you become Monica Gellar. Deciding who will write your reference letters is suddenly more important than paying bills, bathing, or breathing. The best chance to sell yourself—the essay-esque statement of purpose—proves to be a monumental, Sisyphean battle between showcasing your winning personality and maintaining a professional, grownup voice. Your excitement turns to terrified questions voiced in the Facebook group to no one with actual authority to answer: ‘Have I ever been arrested, charged, and/or convicted of any crime other than a minor traffic offense?’ What counts as a minor traffic offense? WHY IS THIS ONLY A YES OR NO QUESTION?!

This growing mania is only intensified by the simple way the application is submitted:
1. Fill out application form and submit online.
2. Print application form. Sign and submit hard copy.
3. Collect and collate three copies of all 14 application components. Reference letters stay in their official signed and sealed envelopes, but transcripts do not stay in their official sealed envelopes, even if they say valid only in sealed envelope. Each set of documents should be in XYZ order, with items ABC in the first set only. Multipage documents are to be stapled in the upper left corner, and each set of documents is to be paperclipped together.


Personally, the application process didn’t stress me out too much, as a lot of it is busywork. I already had my references lined up—my boss of three years and a favorite professor with whom I had taken five classes—both of whom I was confident would give me quality letters (point of order—this assumption can never be verified, as the letters have to be submitted in sealed envelopes with the reference’s signature across the seal. There’s a rumor that interviewers ask questions about things the references said, just to test if an applicant cheated and read the letters). The statement of purpose also didn’t worry me, as writing has always been my strong suit. I got my application mailed in a week before the deadline.

I had 24 hours of peace and tranquility. Then it happened. I’m confident I did a good job became I wish I’d included that, which quickly deteriorated into I FAILED IT ALL, which in turn became:

And so the waiting game began again. The holiday season helped this time pass remarkably quickly. In the U.S., the applications were due November 21st, and the congratulatory emails—sent to candidates who had made it through to the interview stage—were sent out on January 29th. I was at work when I found I out I had an interview, so I had to hold in my screams of triumph.

I had three weeks to prepare for my interview. I spent some time looking over the lists of old JET interview questions floating around the internet, and I asked my boss if I had interviewed well for my current job. I found a hotel that seemed nice enough that the chances of getting mugged were minimal. Honestly, finding a suit I liked proved the hardest part of my preparations (my shopping buddies—AKA my mom and sister—will vouch for this).

Due to the song of the city, I didn’t get much sleep the night before my interview.

Just kidding--we only came moderately close to death

This made getting ready kind of stressful, because no matter how pretty my hair was and how professional my suit looked, I knew my face and eyes just looked tired. It was hard to swallow that down and be positive.

I arrived at the Renaissance Center an hour early, found the right tower, went through two sets of security (getting into a consulate is hard!), and sat down to wait with the other interviewees. I only knew one other person who was applying and, as luck would have, her interview was in the timeslot right before mine! Getting to talk with Trish while I waited really helped keep my nerves settled.

What I didn’t realize going in was that there was more than one panel of interviewers; I had imagined I’d sit there by myself after Trish got called back, twiddling my thumbs and trying not to be nervous. In actuality, there were three panels interviewing simultaneously, meaning there were four or five applicants sitting there waiting at all times. There was also a very funny former JET taking paperwork and telling us stories about her experiences on the program. She had actually gotten lost on the way to her interview and run in late in yoga pants, which I think made us all feel like our interviews couldn’t possibly be worse than hers. My positive bubble got deflated a little when I found out that the other three girls I was waiting with had all studied abroad in Japan AND they all spoke Japanese. It was so intimidating! Just before I got called back, another candidate (the first boy!) arrived. He had never been to Japan either, which made me feel a little better, but his parents were Japanese, which gave him a solid connection to Japan that I didn’t have.

My actual interview went pretty well. My panel consisted of a Japanese man who worked at the consulate and two women who had been ALTs with the program years before and now taught Japanese in the area. There are some horror stories on the internet about interviewers who purposefully try to upset candidates or make them uncomfortable, but mine were very nice. I thought it would feel rushed since I only had a 25 minute time block, but it felt pretty comfortable.

I can’t go into detail about the questions I was asked because I signed a confidentiality agreement, but I wasn’t blindsided by anything. There was one question that caught me off guard because I had prepared a general answer, but blanked on something more in-depth when they asked for it. For the most part, though, I felt very prepared.

When I got back to the consulate lobby, the former JET who had been entertaining us said, “She’s smiling” and asked how it went. Looking back, I think everyone I saw came out of their interview smiling. Whether that’s a testament to the caliber of Detroit applicants or a reflection on how at ease the interviewers made us feel, I don’t know. In any event, I got hung up on that one question for a couple days and berated myself about stammering something stupid instead of taking a moment to compose myself. After a few days, though, I got some perspective, decided I did okay, and relaxed.

Click here for the interview results.