Important: I have posted an update to this article for the 2018 Embassy-Recommended MEXT Scholarship, including revised advice on how to contact universities and professors. Check it out here!
Passing the Primary Screening for the Embassy MEXT scholarship is the most important step, but now you need to find a university to accept you in order to ensure you receive the scholarship. And, of course, you want to find the best university for your studies.
Despite all the work you’ve done so far, you’re basically starting over on a whole new application, but I will walk you through the process in simple steps to help you avoid common problems and get your letter of acceptance fast.
What This Guide Covers:
- Guidelines for choosing your three universities and professors
- What the different student types are and how that affects your studies
- Mistakes that will guarantee rejection
- How to approach and communicate with universities
- Getting the Letter of Acceptance
Why I Can Help with your MEXT Scholarship Application
My primary job for three years at a large, private Japanese university was processing MEXT scholarship applications. I was the first point of contact for all applicants and personally examined every application that came through. On average, I handled about 40 Embassy MEXT scholarship applications per year and nearly 200 University MEXT applications. I want to use that experience to help you get your scholarship.
I learned two important things about the Embassy MEXT, in particular:
1. The University wants to accept MEXT scholars.
It makes sense for the university to accept Embassy MEXT scholars. MEXT pays for everything, so it’s guaranteed money for them, and more MEXT scholars means more clout for the university. So long as you clear all of the minimum requirements, they want you in. But most applicants did not get letters of acceptance at my university because:
2. Applicants get themselves rejected by making lazy, avoidable mistakes.
Let’s be clear. The university wants MEXT scholars and MEXT money. That doesn’t mean that they want you enough to put up with mistakes or laziness. Most applicants that I saw get rejected basically killed their own chances because they made it hard for the university to accept them, or they made themselves more trouble than they were worth. If you’re a pain during a month-long application process, the university really doesn’t want you on campus for 2-6 years causing problems.
How can you avoid doing that? That’s what I’m here to explain.
Choosing a University for your Embassy MEXT Scholarship
When choosing where to apply for your MEXT scholarship studies, you need to evaluate three things: The university, the graduate school, and the specific professor. You only have three chances to get this right. If you don’t get into one of the three universities on your “Application for Japanese Government (Monbukagakusho:MEXT) Application (Attachment)” then you lose the scholarship. Here’s how to make each one count.
National, Public, or Private
It’s right there in the application guidelines:
“If a candidate wants to enter a public or private university other than a national university, the grantee’s preference specified in the Placement Preference Form may not be met due to budgetary reasons concerning the school fees, etc.”
This means you should target at least one, preferably two to three national universities in your list.
You can certainly still apply to public and private universities, but have at least one national in your list, and preferably one that is not “formerly xxxxxx Imperial University” on the page above and is not in Tokyo, for reasons that I will explain below.
Location: Competition and “Safety Schools”As much as universities want MEXT scholars, each professor can only accept a certain number of graduate advisees at a time and they want to have space for Japanese applicants as well (who are less work to advise, anyway). This means that you’ll have a harder time getting that letter of acceptance at universities with high competition.
I wrote above that you should have at least one non-“Imperial University” and at least one not-in-Tokyo university on your list. That’s because those have the highest level of competition. The former Imperial Universities are the heart of Japan’s university network. They are the largest and most well-known, which makes them the most popular. Tokyo, obviously, is the most well-known city and universities there attract more applications, especially from international students who might find living in smaller cities or rural areas to be intimidating. (It’s not. In fact, Japan’s small cities and rural areas are the best parts of the country!)
I’m not saying don’t apply to the University of Tokyo, if your heart is set on it. By all means, shoot for the best, but have a backup. It’s only prudent.
Pro Tip: Do not send multiple applications to the same university, even if it’s to separate professors or graduate schools. You’re not impressing them with your passion for the school, you’re proving that you’re unfocused and lazy.
Degree Program Language
You’re reading this page in English, so I’m going to make the assumption that you are not an N2- or N1-level Japanese speaker. That means you need a university that offers degree programs in English. Regardless of how well you did on that Japanese proficiency test during the Embassy interview, you are not going to get in to a Japanese-language program unless you have an N1 or N2 certificate from the JLPT. Even with an N2, you’re going to be a long shot for a lot of programs.
Stick to universities that offer graduate degrees in your field in English. At the very least, they’re going to be the places that are more open to international students and have better international services. You can find lists of programs below:
- Global 30: These 13 universities set up English-language graduate degree programs with MEXT sponsorship, so they are solid bets, but they’re not the only English-language programs. They’re also going to be among the best known and therefore most competitive.
- JASSO’s list of universities with English-language programs: Current as of March 2016 (thanks to commenter “Indojin” for the update!), this document lists non-Global 30 programs available in English. These are universities that established English-language programs on their own, not just to get a government grant, so you may find more openness to international students here.
- JPSS Information for Foreign Students: This site lists the graduate programs in English under each university name, helping you drill down further to find a program.
- Check University Homepages: The lists above are not comprehensive or up-to-date. If you’ve come across research by Japanese professors during your studies, check their university homepages directly to see if they offer degree programs in English. Having an English homepage is a huge hint!
But what about that language program mentioned in the MEXT scholarship guidelines?
That program is designed to teach you enough Japanese to navigate the local buses, hold a basic conversation with your classmates, and deal with your landlord or cell phone carrier. It is not designed to teach you academic Japanese. If you aren’t already at the JLPT N1 level, then no 6-month program will get you there.
If you want to take a Japanese-language degree program and you haven’t been studying intensely on your own for several years, you’re out of luck.
Once you’ve found a few potential universities (more than three for now), it’s time to drill down further:
Choosing a Graduate School
Identifying a university that offers degree programs in English is not the end. You need to make sure that your specific degree is offered in English. If you find a university that offers Computer Engineering in English, but you’re interested in Sports Science, that isn’t going to help you very much. The JASSO pdf linked above drills down to exactly which fields of study are offered in English.
Pro tip: Find the name of the specific graduate school and department at your first-choice university and write that for the “Field of Study in Japan” in your Application for Japanese Government (Monbukagakusho:MEXT) Application (Attachment).
The most Important Step: Identify a Specific Professor who can Supervise your Research.
Next, you’ll want to review that graduate school’s professors to find the one whose research is most similar to your own. This is the single-most important point of getting acceptance. The most common reason by far I saw for Embassy MEXT scholarship applicants to get rejected at my university was that there was no professor who could supervise that research topic.
Most universities will have a database or at least a list of their professors and their research topics online. Read this carefully and look for similarities. If you cannot find a researcher database on the university’s site, google the name of the the university and keywords from your “Field of Study and Research Program Plan” document and see if any names come up in scholarly articles. If you can find articles in English, that’s even better, because it indicates the professor might be able and willing to supervise you even if you speak no Japanese.
Pro Tip: Write your “Field of Study” on your application form to sound as similar to this professor as possible and write the name of the professor in the chart.
Do not worry about being rude or forward by listing a professor’s name in the chart without talking to them first. It is far more rude (and hurtful to your chances of acceptance) to leave the professor section blank. That shows that you haven’t done the research and just don’t care. You don’t need to contact the professor now or later, as we’ll get to later.
Student Categories and How They Affect Your Studies
The MEXT scholarship paperwork uses some confusing terms, because they were originally written in Japanese and inconsistently translated into English. For example, the term “Research Student” refers both to “graduate student” in the overall name of the scholarship program and to “non-degree-seeking student” when you’re filling out the Application (Attachment). Here’s what the terms mean on that form, and how they will affect your studies:
Research Student means that you are not enrolled in the actual degree program, but you take courses in the graduate school and receive guidance. It is possible to move up from research student status into the degree program, so this status usually serves as “conditional admission,” if the graduate school thinks you need a little more work before you enroll, or as a holding pattern if you arrive in Japan at the wrong time of year. For instance, if the degree program only takes in new students in April, and you arrive in September, then you’ll be a Research Student for your first semester.
Some students will stay research students for their whole time in Japan. For example, if you’re enrolled in a degree-seeking graduate program in your home country and just want to come to Japan for, well, research.
You can stay a research student for up to three semesters. After that, you have to move into the degree program or go home.
Even if you select “Research Student” the university, at its discretion, may place you directly into the degree program if you indicate that you want to progress to the degree eventually.
Master’s Degree Course/Doctoral Course
Select this option for direct admission into the degree program. Once you’re in the degree program, you have 2 years to complete your master’s or 3 years to complete your doctoral program. If you bust that time limit, your scholarship goes away. Moreover, as soon as it becomes apparent that you will not complete your program on time, the university is obligated to revoke your scholarship immediately.
If you are concerned that you won’t be able to adjust to the degree program quickly enough, go for the Research Student status to start.
As with the research student status, this is a preference only. The university may place you in a research student status first. This is most common if you arrive in a semester when they don’t take in new students.
Professional Graduate Course
This refers to non-academic degrees, such as MBA, JD, medical degrees, etc.
About the Language Training Program
Typically, you have no control over whether or not you are assigned to the semester of Japanese language training. Assignments are at the discretion of the graduate school you apply to. Typically, if you haven’t studied Japanese, you’ll be sent to the program, even if your degree program is all in English. As I mentioned above, the purpose of this language training is day-to-day functional Japanese, so it’ll be helpful even if you don’t need it for class and research.
If you are assigned to the language program, you will be a “Research Student” for that semester, so it will not count against your degree time. You may even be at a different university for that semester.
OK, now that we’ve covered how to select a university and the student types, let’s review your application so far:
Review: Have You Committed an Instant-Rejection Mistake?
Once you’ve thoroughly researched three target universities for your MEXT scholarship, double-check the list below to make sure you’re not committing one of the common instant-rejection mistakes.
- Applying for a Japanese program when you don’t have the language ability
I cannot stress this enough: I never once saw an applicant accepted who did not meet the minimum language requirement. In most cases, the professors wouldn’t even bother reviewing the application, even if the applicant had “alternate” credentials.
- There’s no professor with your research field
You might meet all the requirements, but if there’s nobody that can advise you, you’re not getting the letter of acceptance. This is especially true in the hard sciences. I got dozens of applications sent back from faculty review committees with the simple note: “No advisor.”
Of course finding an appropriate professor in the researcher’s database doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get in. The professor might not be able to take on more advisees that year or might even be retiring. That’s why you have three schools on your list.
- Being Late: Hard Deadlines and De Facto Deadlines
Your application papers have to reach the university by August 31 — that’s the hard deadline established by MEXT. Universities are required to reject any applications that arrive after that. But the de facto deadline may be much earlier. I’ll cover deadlines more below, but try to get your complete application to your universities by the first week of August, at the latest.
- Sending an Incomplete Application
If you do not send everything the university asks for (we’ll cover contacting the university below), they your application will be stuck in the administrative office until the rest of the materials arrive and may never make it to the professors for review. Even if the missing document is something relatively inconsequential, universities will insist on the minimum requirement for completeness. Get used to this.
Got all that? Good. Now we’re going to talk about how to approach the universities for the best chance of success.
How to Approach the University
Step 1: Don’t approach them yet. Do a little research, first to find out how to submit your application. You’re applying for graduate studies, after all, if you open up your communication with the university by contacting the wrong person (for example contacting professors directly), you’re immediately showing them that you’re too lazy or incompetent to do basic research.
To find the right office to send your application, go to the university’s website and search for “MEXT” or “Monbukagakusho.” Look for the result that shows application guidelines or the word “Embassy.” If the website doesn’t have English guidelines, you can search for:
国費外国人留学生 or 大使館推薦
Copy/paste either of those terms into the university’s search bar and then use google translate to look at the resulting page.
Note: Google translate is horrible for Japanese to English translation, but all you need is the email address for the office. Even Google can’t screw up the translation of an email address, I think.
If the university search doesn’t work, then go to big Google and search for the university’s name as well as the terms listed above.
Who to Contact
The Embassy is going to tell you that you need a Letter of Acceptance from a professor, but that’s not accurate. You need a Letter of Acceptance from the university that is signed by the professor. That means that you need to go through the administrative office that handles applications.
If you’ve done the search above, the chances are good that you’ve found the administrative office responsible for MEXT applications. If not, then you need to find the contact information for the university’s International Office or the Administrative Office of the graduate school where your professor teaches. Do not contact the professor directly at this point.
Let me say that again, because it can mean the difference between success and failure: Do NOT send your MEXT scholarship application directly to the professor.
Professors do not handle applications. Most don’t know what to do with them, so they bounce around in email for a while until, maybe, they find their way to the right office. Sadly, I saw a few cases where it took over a month for an application sent to a professor to reach my office, and by then the deadline had passed.
If the University has MEXT Scholarship Application Guidelines
Follow them to the letter. Remember what I said above about incomplete applications? Make sure you have everything together and send it the way the university wants. For bonus points, stack the documents in the right order in the envelope and use dividers labeled with the form name. (If you’re emailing the application, scan each file as a separate pdf and name if according to the university’s terms).
Some universities will accept emailed applications, but others will only accept them by post. Sometimes it will depend on whether or not your embassy stamped each page of your application (like they are supposed to) or just the top page. If it’s not clear, email the university to ask.
Send all of the items in the university’s guidelines and only the items listed in the guidelines. Extras will be disposed of. When I processed applications, we left out everything that was not in our list of mandatory documents.
How to Contact the University
Open with a short, professional message, formatted like an email ,not an SMS, and including proper greetings and your name at the end. Tell them what program you’d like to apply for and which professor, indicate that you’ve read the guidelines, and ask if they accept applications by email (if it was not specified online).
Even if you know that the university accepts applications by email, you do not want to attach your application to the first email. If the attachment is too large or if the destination mailbox is full (a high possibility with so many other students emailing in their applications at the same time), your message won’t get through and you won’t know it, so you’ll be sitting there waiting for a reply to an email that never reached the university! So, email them first to tell them that you will follow up with your attached application in the next message.
Never, never, send your university a one-line email with no signature that says “sent from my iphone.”
Pro Tip: Does your email address sound professional? If your address is borderline inappropriate, overly cute, or easily mistaken (e.g. uses the number 0 in place of letter O), consider getting a new one like firstname.lastname@example.org.
If the university accepts applications by email, scan each document into a single pdf file and send it. If you send each page as separate jpeg files (or worse, tif) or even as individual pdf files, you 1) Risk that the email will be so large that the university’s server will reject it and 2) show the university that you’re too lazy, incompetent, or self-centered to learn to use a scanner correctly.
If your scanner does not scan to pdf or does not scan multiple pages into a single file, use software to combine the individual scans and convert the final product to a pdf.
What to Expect from the University
I wrote above that universities want to accept Embassy MEXT scholars, but that doesn’t mean that they are going to roll out the red carpet for you. At this point in the application process, there’s a low possibility that you’re going to end up at the university you’re talking to, and they know it. For example, where I worked, out of the 40 or so annual Embassy MEXT scholarship applications I handled, only 4-5 ended up at my university each year. At this point, the university knows that 80-90% of the applicants won’t end up going there, so they are not that enthusiastic.
In many cases, Japanese universities will only contact you when something is wrong. They won’t go out of their way to acknowledge receipt if everything is complete or to send you status updates. If something is missing, though, you will hear from them. So, no news is typically good news, but it’s also a good idea to follow up with an email asking if everything was complete.
If you send your application by post, most universities will not email you to let you know it has arrived. They assume you will check the tracking information yourself.
Once your application reaches the university, here’s what happens:
- The administrative office responsible for your application will make sure everything is complete, log it in to their processing system, and forward the necessary parts on to the graduate school administrative office.
- The graduate school administrative office will include your application in the next regular faculty meeting.
- The faculty council will review your application and make a decision during the meeting. Your acceptance or rejection often depends on the result of about a 2-minute review.
- The professor that accepts you will complete the letter of acceptance and send it to the graduate school office.
- The graduate school office will pass the letter to the original administrative office, who will log the result and send it to you.
The important thing to note is that waiting for item 3, above, takes the most time. Your application will spend a lot of time “waiting for review,” especially if you send it in August, school vacation. Your application will sit and wait for the next faculty meeting for approval. That can be over a month if the timing is bad and during that time the university won’t have any status update for you, as frustrating as that will be.
Getting the Letter of Acceptance (Naidakusho)
Where I worked, we emailed a copy of the letter of acceptance to the applicants then send the original by regular airmail. Not express, not registered, just regular mail.
It happened several times that the Letter of Acceptance was late, thanks to the time it took to make the decision and the time for the airmail to arrive. In those cases, almost every applicant we talked to was able to take a printout of the emailed Letter of Acceptance to their embassy and use that to move forward with their application process while waiting for the original to arrive. If your Letter has not reached you and the deadline is approaching, check with your embassy/consulate to see if that’s an option.
And that’s it! Once you have the Letter of Acceptance turned in to the Embassy/Consulate, the rest of the scholarship process is in MEXT’s hands. You should have your final decision and placement by December/January, if the old timeline still holds up.
What are my chances of getting the MEXT Scholarship at this point?Well, in the world of government budgets, nothing is certain, but from my understanding, your chances are good. The number of Embassy MEXT scholarship nominations should be equal to the number of total scholarships available. So, everyone that passes the primary screening and gets a Letter of Acceptance from one of their top three universities should get the scholarship.
MEXT conducts a final screening of all applicants, but the purpose of this screening is not competitive, it is to make sure that you meet all of their eligibility requirements. Yes, the embassy and university should have checked these during your application, but MEXT won’t let a scholarship grant go through without double-checking.
Your final university placement, though? A lot of that is going to be related to internal budgeting and politics (e.g. preference for national universities, etc.) and balancing the number of applicants among universities as much as possible. There is no way to predict where you might end up.
But at the end of the day, you’re getting the MEXT scholarship, which can mean up to 6 years of paid graduate education, so it’s a great place to be, no matter what. Congratulations!
I will update this with your questions from the comments below, so please send them in!
- My Embassy/Consulate says I need to submit my Letters of Acceptance by mid August, but the university says they can’t send them until September, at the earliest. What should I do?
This is often a misunderstanding, so double-check with the embassy/consulate to see exactly what they need. In most cases that I saw, students only needed to submit the list of universities and professors they were applying to by mid-August. You can do that without waiting for the university’s reply, so long as you’ve done your research above. If your embassy/consulate really needs the Letter of Acceptance that early, talk to the university and ask if there is any way to accelerate it. Also, check to see if the embassy will accept emailed letters of acceptance, since the post takes a while.
Before asking any questions in the comments below, please read through the MEXT Scholarship Application FAQ top page and specific FAQ pages to see what I’ve answered already and to find tips about how to get your questions answered faster.
You can ask your questions in the comments here, on the FAQ page, or by email and I will answer them by updating the FAQ and letting you know when the answers are available.
I’d also recommend signing up for my mailing list to get notified whenever I have updates to any of the FAQs or new articles about the MEXT scholarship!