“How can I improve my chances to earn the MEXT Scholarship?”
“Will [insert experience] help my chances to earn the MEXT Scholarship?”
“Do I have a good chance of earning the MEXT Scholarship?”
I’m willing to bet that at least one of these questions has crossed your mind. If not, they probably should have. After all, the MEXT scholarship is highly competitive. You have to be prepared to be better than all of the other applicants to succeed.
The best way to strengthen your application and stand out is to create a rock-solid application strategy and base your application around it.
Being an Excellent Student is Not Enough
You cannot rely just on your academic background.
Even if you have a perfect GPA, that is not a guarantee of success. Chances are good that there are more applicants with perfect or near-perfect GPAs than there are spots available. An applicant with a weaker GPA can still beat you out with an outstanding Field of Study and Research Program Plan and interview performance based on a solid application strategy too.
If you don’t have a perfect GPA, then your strategy and nailing the other parts of your application are especially important!
Approach the MEXT Scholarship Application Like a Contest
As I write this, it is just over a week before the 2018 World Cup starts. Do you think any of the teams in the Cup just go out there thinking “We’ll just kick the ball toward the other goal and that should be good enough to win”?
No. They have coaches who have been training them to work together, to maximize their individual and team strengths. They have a plan to control the game and flow from start to finish. Some teams might prefer a defensive strategy, some will choose complex attacking plays, others will rely on getting the ball to a star striker, others might focus on making the most out of set pieces.
Each team, each player on the team, doesn’t just want to win, they have a clear vision of how they will win.
That’s what you need. That is your application strategy.
What is a MEXT Scholarship Application Strategy?
You’re not going to be kicking anything around, and you don’t have teammates in this competition, just a coach (me), but we still need a strategy. So, what will yours look like?
Crafting your strategy consists of four steps:
- Determining your application theme.
- Determining your application goal
- Identifying your unfair advantages
- Assessing your opposition
We will go through these steps in more detail below, as well as how and where to apply your strategy to your application.
Determining Your Application Theme
Did anyone ever ask you as a kid, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
I hate that question. It led me down the wrong path for years. The better question is “What do you want to do when you grow up?” To determine your MEXT scholarship application theme, we need to change this question slightly:
How do you want to serve when you finish your scholarship?
Your application theme is a statement of the difference you want to make in the world. For example, you might want to contribute to world peace, ending hunger, improving access to education, reducing poverty, etc.
While we will get into specifics a little later, try to narrow down your theme a little more from the examples above. For example, you might want to contribute to world peace through promoting intercultural interaction, or reduce poverty by tackling corruption in your home country’s government.
Determining Your Application Goal
Your goal is not to earn the MEXT scholarship, even though I know that’s what you want. Your goal for your application is strategy is what you will accomplish because you earned the MEXT scholarship.
Your goal will be a specific action you can take that will contribute to your application theme. I recommend that you focus on an action that you think you can reasonably accomplish within 5 years of finishing your MEXT scholarship. It should also be something that requires further research before you can start work. After all, if you could start now, you wouldn’t need to earn the MEXT scholarship. You could just get to work.
I recommend that you set a SMART goal. A SMART goal is:
- Specific: It includes details such as who, what, where, why, when, and how.
- Measurable: It is quantifiable so that you know if your progress is sufficient and know exactly when you have achieved it.
- Achievable: It is something you have the ability to accomplish.
- Relevant: It matters to you so much that you would pursue it even if nobody else supported you.
- Time-Bound: It has a deadline.
Once you have your application theme and goal, you will know exactly what you are working toward. You can choose your research question based on what will best serve your goal. Your goal will help you determine which graduate school in Japan is best for you. It will help you decide what you want to present during the interview. It will help you choose which of your strengths to emphasize during your application.
Speaking of strengths. . .
Identifying Your Unfair Advantages
You have an unfair advantage over other applicants, you just have to figure out what it is.
Make a list of your strengths – whether obviously related to your goal or not – your experience to and relationship with your application theme, your environment and background, and any challenges you have overcome. Think about what your friends and family come to you for help with and ask those closest to you what they think your strengths are.
Next, try to link each one with your application theme and goal. How can you use your strengths – or the underlying skills or aptitudes – to pursue your application theme?
Also consider how the challenges you have overcome have made you a stronger person or given you more dedication to pursuing your goals.
If you can, also list specific ways that you have demonstrated your strengths. If you have demonstrated them in an academic context, in practical work toward your goal, or in community service, that is an added bonus.
In addition to strengths and connection to your theme, you are almost certain to be asked about your ability to adjust to other countries (particularly Japan), so list any intercultural experience you have, (even if it is just moving from a rural area to a city to attend university and adjusting to that cultural difference). Try to link that that experience with your strengths. If you can present your intercultural preparedness with a strength during your application process, especially during the interview, you can kill two birds with one stone.
Consider Your Opposition
Who is your opposition?
I used the analogy of the World Cup earlier, but perhaps a more appropriate comparison would be figure skating. In the MEXT scholarship application, you never go head-to-head with another applicant in direct competition. You compete by how well each of you are able to impress the judges.
So, your “opposition” is the judges themselves.
As you think about your application strategy, consider what the judges want. What do the Japanese Embassy staff want from scholarship winners? How about your local government (who might be involved in the selection process)? What does your prospective advisor want from an advisee? What do the university admin staff expect from an applicant?
To the Japanese Embassy staff, the MEXT scholarship is a form of “soft power” for increasing Japan’s international profile. The purpose of the MEXT scholarship is to train future leaders (in government, education, business, communities, and culture) from around the world and to instill in them a sense of gratitude and connection to Japan. In developing countries, the emphasis on training future government and education leaders appears to be stronger, based on past reports, while in developed countries, the goal of creating community, movement, and cultural leaders seems to be a stronger outcome.
Your own government staff will most likely be looking to know how you will serve your country or its future connection with Japan.
Professors in Japan want to develop strong deshi (students/advisees) who will make contributions to the field and thereby raise their advisors’ profiles.
Of course, these are just general overviews. You should dig deeper – know what the Japanese government’s priorities are for your country, what your own country’s priorities are, and know as much as you can about your prospective advisors before contacting them.
How to Use Your Application Strategy
Now that you have committed to an application theme and goal, you have listed your unfair advantages, and you have studied your opposition, it is time to leverage your strategy to make a strong impression on the reviewers.
You have three primary tools at your disposal:
- Your Field of Study and Research Program Plan: Your application theme and goal should be clear when you discuss the outcomes of your research. Reference your strengths and what you think your reviewers’ needs are whenever possible and relevant to tha subject.
- The interview: When you prepare your personal statement and in every answer to every question, you should seek to highlight your strengths by example and in the context of your application theme and goal. This will give you focus in your interview and make you appear to be better prepared and a strong candidate.
- Your Letter or Recommendation: Never leave the contents of a letter of recommendation solely to the recommender’s discretion. You should always offer a list of your accomplishments or strengths (with examples) as a “reference” to your recommender when writing the letter.
Interested in a More Detailed Walk-through?This article is based on a summary of Chapter 4 of How to Apply for the MEXT Scholarship, which goes into much more detail with examples and exercises to help you better develop your strategy over nearly 50 pages. If you want a more in-depth look at developing an application strategy, you can purchase the book from the link above, wherever fine ebooks are sold.
Let me know in the comments below!
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