Welcome back to the next instalment in the JET application series. Today, we’re going to discuss a major part of your application that many tend to overlook—your reference letters.
Disclaimer: I am by no means an expert on the JET Program or how its application process is done. All the advice and situations discussed in this series will be primarily based off my own experiences, as well as those of my friends and colleagues that are or were a part of the program.
Whether you’re applying to JET, a different job, scholarship or grant, or a school application, will be asked to provide references at some point in your life. The concept of having references might seem like a daunting or annoying task. You must reach out to people, some who you may not have spoken to recently, and not only ask them to assist you, but also trust them to give you an accurate and supportive reference. Instead of being judged solely on your own achievements and skills, you’re also being assessed by how others view you and your [work] ethics.
Whenever I have to ask for references, my Imposter Syndrome kicks in even more and I question if I’m truly good enough for whatever I’m applying for—if my references will hype me up and back up my own statements or if they will take me apart piece by piece.
Get rid of this mindset. Take control of your achievements and own them. You are your own biggest fan.
References in a Nutshell
When selecting references, you should make a list. Lists are your best friends in life, especially when it comes to applications. They help you get organised and stay as such. Create a pool of refences. Divide them up between professional, academic, and character/personal references. You’ll primarily be pulling from the first two categories. Rarely are you asked to provide character/personal references for most job and academic applications. Former Employers, professors, colleagues, advisors, and supervisors are all perfect examples of references. Never submit a reference from someone related to you unless the application explicitly asks of it.
Ideally, you want to list references from different jobs or school. However, this is an ESID situation. Sometimes the application will state you must submit references from different places other times it leaves it up to you. It is better to show diversity but it all depends on your needs.
When selecting references, think about your relationship with each person. Look at how you met/worked with them and how recent this was. The more recently you worked with them, the more your interactions will be in their mind. They won’t have to dig deep into their memories and files to remember who you are or what you achieved.
Think about your personal relationship with them as well. The last thing you want to do is have someone as a reference who you skipped work/classes with all the time or barely spoke with. Make sure you select someone who you are on good terms with—common sense and all, yet I know plenty of people who seem to forget this.
Also, you should think of how your references relate to what you’re applying for. You want someone who knows you well but it’s even better if they are somehow related to the industry you’re applying for. If you’re applying to a grad program or grant and one of your professors is an alumnus of that very program, you should seriously consider making them your top choice. They’ve already got that rapport with the program you’re applying for and they know you well enough to emphasise your skills. Killing two birds with one stone. The same can be said for someone who is a well-known figure in that field—or simply well-known in general.
Ultimately, to dwindles down to do they know you and your work ethics well enough to provide a strong representation of you?
When asking for a reference, make sure you actually ask them before you put their names down on the application. Please, never put someone down for something without their approval. In some jurisdictions, it is illegal for you to do so. You don’t want to put someone down and then have them not submit their letter or submit one that is either half-assed or negative. Email them in advance and ask them if they are OK with being put down. Most will say yes, but sometimes they will have to say no.
In the case of the JET Program, if you know someone professionally/academically that was/is a JET, focus on them. The same can be said about those involved in Japan somehow—whether it’s your Japanese professor, an academic specialising in Japan/Asia, diplomacy, or education, or someone who used to work with/for JET (not as an ALT/CIR/SEA).
JET asks you to provide two references on your initial application. You will input their contact information and they will be sent a link to their own online portal to submit their letters of recommendation for you. You can track the status of your reference letters in your online portal and see if they have submitted anything yet. You can only submit two references in total and at a time—if you end up changing your mind for some reason on a reference, you will have to delete them before you can add in another.
I put down 1 professional work reference and 1 professional/academic reference.
My professional reference was someone directly involved in U.S.-Japan relations and diplomacy, a former JET, and currently works alongside JET from time to time in their current job. They are considered an expert in their field.
Reason for selection: They know JET, its mission, and its needs. They also know about Japan and its culture. They know my work ethics very well, as they were one of my supervisors while I worked in Japan. They know how I deal with certain situations in English and Japanese and with different cultures. They know how I handle working in a high-paced environment with high-profile stakes. I also figured it wouldn’t hurt to have someone who is still involved in JET from time to time as a reference.
My second reference was my academic/professional advisor in my grad program. They are a former ambassador for the U.S. and an expert in diplomacy and foreign relations. They are not directly related to Japan or Asia, but they have decades of international and diplomatic experience.
Reason for selection: They know how I work both inside and outside of the classroom/office and how I handle stress. They know my expertise in Japanese Affairs and my dedication to international affairs and diplomacy. They know of my background in teaching and in working in Japan.
While one reference was strongly involved in Japan and JET, the other was not. However, they both balanced each other out and covered all my bases in expressing my character and supporting my application. I knew that I could count on them to deliver high quality references that would emphasise my strengths and skills in relation to the JET Programme.
The due date for reference letters is the same as your application deadline. They can submit it earlier than you, but it must be received by the closing deadline or your application will be thrown out. No exceptions. Keep this in mind when requesting your references and give them plenty of time to write and submit them.
You should ask your references well in advance to give them time to plan out their reference. They are busy people with their own careers and lives. You need to be considerate of this when you give them a timeline for your own deadlines. You don’t want some half-assed letter that could have been the deciding factor in you getting in.
One of my references thought the deadline was a month sooner and submitted nearly immediately after I reached out to him. The other one had me sweating for a while, but we made it fam.
Some references ask you to write up a list/summary of your achievements with them or to even write up a mock letter for them to edit and submit. Luckily, I haven’t had to experience the latter in the past 3 years, but had it come up quite a bit when I was applying to grad school.
Personally, I hate the latter and find it annoying. 1. I prefer to hear how you think of me without me needing to talk myself up to you. I hope that you have a solid impression of me if I am asking you to be a reference. 2. I’m lazy. 3. Imposter Syndrome is no joke. General applications are no problem. Personal Statements and Cover Letters? Hell no. Talking about myself and my achievements is horrid for me—whether or not I have experience or good things to say, it always feels awkward and wrong when I have to write it out or talk about it. This makes the idea of having to essentially write my own reference letter painful.
When emailing your references or asking in-person if you can, be polite and understanding. You are asking them for a big favour, and it affects you more so than it does them. Give them clear deadlines and follow-up if needed. If following up, please do not pester them every week. If you asked in advance, once a month is fine. If the deadline if approaching, follow up every other week or so.
Be sure to thank your references for their time and effort. Send them an email after they submit their references thanking them. You can give them a timeline of the selection process for JET and you can even offer to keep them posted along the way.
Real Talk: For some people, your references are what could save your ass from being rejected.
The JET Programme is extremely competitive. There are hundreds of thousands of applicants every year and very limited spots open each year for each country. Most people do not get in in their first try. JET takes in a lot of applicants without any directly relevant experience, language skills, or experience with Japan every year. However, these all do help you and give you more points to be selected for an interview. Most JET applicants are still in Uni or new graduates; which means that many of you will not have a plethora of experience under your belts when you apply. A lot of applicants have either travelled, studied, or lived in Japan before. Some have teaching experience (ALT applicants) or have government/public sector experience (CIR applicants). Some have both. A lot of applicants have Japanese language skills, others don’t.
Remember, the first impression JET has of you is entirely from your online/paper application. You need to make your application shine through to them and your references might end up being the deciding factor. When they are going over thousands of applications, they only take a couple of minutes to decide if you are rejected immediately, put into a consideration pile, or go to the next stage. Your references will typically come into play when you are in the middle category. Your application is good but there is also someone who has the exact same qualifications as you. Why should they choose you over them? They’ll look at your references and see what they have to say about you. Your references play a key role in deciding if you move on or not in such cases.
I was paranoid about jinxing myself and did not want to discuss the application process too often with people until things were more concrete. I thanked my references immediately after and then contacted them upon interview selection and short-listed status. They all enthusiastically responded back to me.
All in all, think carefully about your references and who will be able to boost your application to give that extra flare. Give them plenty of time to get their letters in. Don’t be a douche and ignore them after they took time out of their lives to assist you—thank them.