Whether you apply for the Embassy-Recommended MEXT Scholarship or University-Recommended MEXT Scholarship, you will need to submit a Letter of Recommendation as part of your application. There are different requirements for the letter for each type of application, but in this article, I will explain each of those requirements and what the body of the letter should say. Here’s what the article will cover:
- How important is the Letter of Recommendation in the MEXT Scholarship Application?
- Who can sign* your Letter of Recommendation
- What are the requirements for the MEXT Scholarship Letter of Recommendation
- What should the MEXT Scholarship Letter of Recommendation say?
- Sample MEXT Scholarship Letter of Recommendation
How important is the Letter of Recommendation in the MEXT Scholarship Application?
The Letter of Recommendation is important to submit, since your application is incomplete without it. But for research students, the contents are less important than the position of the person who signs it.
For Research Students, the contents/quality of your Field of Study and Research Program Plan and your past GPA are going to me much more important factors. The Letter of Recommendation, if used well, can give you a small boost, but it isn’t likely to make or break your application compared to those other factors.
For Undergraduate Scholarship applicants, it could be more valuable–again, if you use it right–since you have fewer factors distinguishing you from your competition at the document screening phase.
What are the Reviewers Looking For?
Mostly, they will be looking for who signed it and whether or not it meets all of the requirements below, including recommending you for the scholarship.
Frankly speaking, almost everyone will submit a glowing letter of recommendation that makes it sound like the applicant is the best student in the world, so there is very little chance of standing out.
There are exceptions, though. I once received a “Letter of Recommendation” from a professor who said the applicant was lazy, difficult to work with, and obviously ignorant of their own shortcomings, as evidenced by the fact that they had asked that particular professor for a Letter of Recommendation when they should have know the professor had a low opinion of them.
. . . That student did not pass the document screening!
That said, there are some chances to make a positive impression with the contents of the Letter of Recommendation. I will cover those below.
Letters of Recommendation in the Japanese Context
It’s important to understand how Letters of Recommendation work in the Japanese application process. Most of the MEXT Scholarship application is based on what the normal expectations would be within the Japanese education system, with no consideration given for other countries’ systems, and the Letter of Recommendation is no different.
In a Japanese school or university, there is generally going to be a set threshold for who can receive a Letter of Recommendation from the President, Dean, or Principle. Applicants who meet a certain level of achievement can get one if they request it. Usually, there is a specific office at the high school or university that helps students apply for the next level of education and that office will help students get the letters. So, the assumption is that if your academic performance is good enough, you can get one of these letters. In Japan, at least, it doesn’t matter if the recommender knows you or not!
Example of Letter of Recommendation use in University Admissions
To give you an example, my university has a separate admission process only for students who have received a letter of recommendation from their high school principle. Students can apply for this admissions process if they meet one of the two sets of criteria below:
- The students’ high school principal principal recommends them as having sufficient academic ability and passion to pursue studies at [university name]
- The student’s high school GPA is at least 4.0 (Note: Japanese high schools use a 5.0 GPA system)
- The student meets the university’s English language proficiency test score requirement
- The students’ high school principal principal recommends them as having sufficient academic ability and passion to pursue studies at [university name]
- The student showed exceptional individual achievement in academics, sports, or cultural activities at national-level competition or was selected to compete in an international-level competition.
In the case of my school, a student who met the criteria, would be able to approach their guidance counselor to request a Letter of Recommendation from their high school principle. There would probably be an application process for it, including checking their grades and an interview. But if the student receives that letter from the principal, the university knows that the high school has already pre-screened them.
So, the thing to understand here is that, for a Japanese university, obtaining the Letter of Recommendation can be considered a “pre-screening” for your academic capacity. Of course, we all know, that’s not generally how it works in other countries, where Letters of Recommendation are much more personal.
Who Can Sign* Your Letter of Recommendation
Notice that I said “sign”, not “write”! This is an important distinction.
Many applicants have asked me over the years: “How do I get the Dean to write me a letter of recommendation when he doesn’t know me?”
The answer: You don’t get the Dean to write it, you get the Dean to sign it! Important difference.
But before we get into that, let’s look at the requirements for who can sign the letter.
University-Recommended MEXT Scholarship Letter of Recommendation: Who Can Sign?
The guidelines say, “所属大学等の研究科長レベル以上の推薦状（受入れ予定大学長あてのもの）”. That translates to “Recommendation letter from the Dean of the faculty or person of equivalent or higher position at the current or last university attended (addressed to the president of the university that is nominating the applicant).” For now, I am going to focus on the first part. We’ll cover the parenthetical requirement later.
Titles may be different in your country, so what is the “研究科長” (kenkyūkachō, Dean of the faculty)? This is the person with overall management, oversight, and responsibility for an academic unit that encompasses an entire field of study. For example, the “Dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering” would be the one person at the top of the entire Science and Engineering Program and the “Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences” would be the person who overseas that entire Faculty, School, College, etc. Usually, they report directly to the Provost or the President.
Look at the administrative division of your university into schools/ faculties/ colleges/ etc. The person at the top of each of these units is the Dean.
Who does not count as a Dean?
The following titles are not equivalent to a Dean and a Recommendation letter from them would not be sufficient: Program Head, Program Director, Head of the Graduate Program, Vice Dean, Assistant Dean, Deputy Dean, Program Coordinator, Department Head, Department Chair, etc.
An “Acting Dean” would be allowed.
Embassy-Recommended MEXT Scholarship Letter of Recommendation: Who Can Sign
The guidelines say, “Recommendation letter from the president/dean or the academic advisor at the current or last university attended”. So, let’s break that down.
We already went through the role of a Dean in the section above, so I am going to focus on the others here.
The “president” is fairly obvious. It’s the person in charge of the whole university. The term in Japanese literally translates to “Chief of University”. Similar roles might be “Vice Chancellor”, “Rector”, or “Principal” in other countries.
(Note: In most situations I have seen, the “Chancellor” is a figurehead, like a member of royalty or other aristocratic figurehead, who has nothing to do with running the university. But if your Chancellor is actually in charge of university operations, they would be the equivalent of the “President”.)
Your Academic Advisor is the faculty member assigned to you as a supervisor of your studies. In Japan, this person helps you select your classes to make sure that you stay on track for graduation and they oversee your progress throughout your degree. I know that not all countries have a similar system. But the idea is that it should be someone who oversaw you throughout your degree program and is in a position to comment on your academic ability.
Another alternative for your “Academic Advisor” would be your graduation thesis advisor, if you had one.
Can your letter come from someone who no longer works at the university?
Yes. If your academic advisor from your time at the university has since retired or moved to a new university, they can still sign your Letter of Recommendation. They should just mention in the letter that they were your supervisor at the time. You could also request a former Dean to sign your Letter of Recommendation if, for example, you knew them and worked with them as a student, but they have since moved positions or returned to the faculty. As with the advisor, they would have to write that they were the Dean during your studies.
Of course, if it has been several years since your studies and the staff has changed at your university, you do not need to get a Letter of Recommendation from the former Dean. You can get one from the current Dean, too.
So, Who Writes the Letter of Recommendation?
I made a point earlier of emphasizing that writing and signing your Letter of Recommendation are two separate things. In the section above, we covered who should sign it. But who should write the letter?
Or, you should at least write a draft or outline. This is my advice, not only for the MEXT Scholarship, but for any Letter of Recommendation you ever request in your life. If you approach someone to ask them for a Letter of Recommendation, you should always prepare (in advance) and offer to provide the following three things:
- A draft of the letter for them to sign or edit as they see fit, and
- An outline of the points that you would like them to cover in the letter, should they choose to write it themselves from scratch.
- The portion of the scholarship guidelines that describes what characteristics the scholarship is looking for in applicants.
In the case of the outline, you should provide the recommender with a list of what the letter needs to cover (see the section below for information on what the MEXT Scholarship Letter of Recommendation should include) and specific, precise examples of your achievements. For example, the MEXT Scholarship letter template asks recommenders to “describe the applicant’s leadership skills”. So you should mention that bullet point and give examples of you exercising leadership, such as leading a student club/organization to a particular achievement, taking charge or a research or project team and what you accomplished, etc.
Remember, the person writing your Letter of Recommendation is busier than you. There is less personal value to them in writing it than there is to you. So, you need to make it as easy as possible for them to complete with a minimum of effort. (And, of course, give them plenty of time to finish it!)
How to Get the Dean to Sign Your Letter of Recommendation
Remember what I said above: You don’t need the Dean to write your letter of recommendation. You need him/her to sign it.
But the Dean is busy. What if the Dean doesn’t know you? What it the Dean refuses?
There are two ways you can go about this. In both cases, I recommend having the draft letter and outline of specific points/accomplishments prepared in advance. Remember, you want to make it as easy as possible for the Dean to say “yes” and to sign the letter.
- The direct approach: Request a meeting with the Dean. Bring your prepared letter and list, as well as your transcript. Explain the scholarship you are applying for, that the letter is a requirement, and how important it is to you. You can also mention how it could benefit the university to have a graduate earn this scholarship and how you plan to contribute to the university during/after your studies in Japan.
Show your academic performance in the program as proof that he/she should be comfortable recommending you. Show the draft letter, outline, and list of specific requirements that he/she can use to write the letter, but also suggest that since you don’t have a personal relationship, the letter could be a lot simpler, just showing your academic performance and indicating that the Dean recommends you. (In the worst case, that would be enough!)
Then politely request the letter.
- The indirect approach: Talk to your academic advisor or a trusted faculty member in the department, first. Explain the situation to them and ask them if they would be willing to talk to the Dean on your behalf (with or without you there, depending on their preference). You might also ask that professor if they would be willing to help you revise the Letter of Recommendation to make the format more appealing to the Dean.
- The double-team: You could put two signature lines in the Letter of Recommendation so that both your advisor and the Dean can sign. The Dean might be more willing if he/she sees that a professor has already signed off on it.
Letter of Recommendation from an Employer
If you are working full time at the time of application, they you will need a Letter of Recommendation from your employer in addition to your most recent university. In most cases, there are no particular requirements for the rank of the person that can write that letter, but it should be a direct supervisor or a second-level supervisor (your boss’ boss).
Yes, this letter is required. I know some applicants who did not want to submit it because they don’t want their boss to know that they’re thinking of leaving, in case the application is unsuccessful. But part of the reason MEXT requires it is to make sure that your employer knows about your application and that you will be able to leave your job to accept your scholarship if they select you. (I have seen a case where an applicant’s employer refused to allow them to quit in time to start the scholarship. That particular applicant was a government employee in a dictatorship.)
Requirements for the Employer Letter of Recommendation?
The only time I have seen a specific requirement for who can write the letter was for applicants who were trying to replace the Letter of Recommendation from their university with a Letter of Recommendation from their work. Usually, that isn’t possible, but I did see it approved in a few cases for the University-Recommended MEXT Scholarship, when applicants had more than 8 years of working experience after graduation. (8 is not a rule that exists in the MEXT Guidelines, it was a judgement call on the part of the university.)
If you have been out of university and a working professional for a long time, you might be able to explain your situation to the embassy or university and ask if a letter from your employer could be accepted. They don’t have to grant your request, though, so don’t put all of your hopes in it.
If you do submit a Letter of Recommendation from an employer instead of from your university, then the letter would have to come from someone with a similar rank in your company. For example the “Dean or higher” for the University-Recommended MEXT Scholarship or the “Advisor/Dean/President” for the Embassy-Recommended MEXT Scholarship. For the embassy, an immediate supervisor would be the equivalent of your “advisor”, so that one is easy. For the university, the “Dean” would be the chief of your division. (i.e. the Vice-President for Marketing, the head of your branch/location, etc.)
What are the requirements for the MEXT Scholarship Letter of Recommendation
We have already covered who has to sign the Letter of Recommendation, but what other requirements are there? Fortunately, nothing too difficult.
- The letter must clearly state that the person “strongly recommends you for the MEXT Scholarship.”
- The letter must show the title of the person recommending you.
- The letter must be original (and should be on university letterhead, if you are not using the sample format for the Embassy)
While it is not a specific requirement, the letter should also be recent, within a few months of your application. If you submit a letter from a year or more earlier, that looks suspicious.
Finally, make sure that you check any specific requirements from the embassy or university that you are applying to. If the embassy/university has specific requirements, you must always follow those!
Aside from that, here are the requirements for each type of application:
University-Recommended MEXT Scholarship Recommendation Letter
It must be addressed “To the President of [University you are applying to]”. The address should follow this pattern exactly! Do not try to get clever and look up the name of the president of the university and write that instead. Address the letter by title, not by name. This is the common practice in Japan and is not rude.
The letter may not be addressed “To Whom It May Concern:” or in any other way that does not mention the addressee’s title.
Embassy-Recommended MEXT Scholarship Recommendation Letter
The only requirement for the Embassy is that you must submit one original and two copies of the letter.
It is not necessary to submit the Letter of Recommendation in a sealed envelope. (Unless your embassy tells you otherwise!) Many applicants get confused about this, because the sample template given for the Embassy-Recommended MEXT Scholarship says that it should be submitted in a sealed envelope. But the application guidelines do not have this requirement. It used to be mandatory to submit the letter in a sealed envelope back when that “template” was the required format, but that is no longer the case.
Sometimes, your recommender will give you the Letter of Recommendation in a sealed envelope. If it is sealed, and they have only included the original letter, not the copies, then ask your Embassy for instructions. Sometimes, they will tell you to submit only the sealed original, but in other cases, they will tell you to open it and make the required two copies before submitting. This is up to each embassy to decide.
If your recommender writes a freeform letter, instead of (or in addition to) the sample template offered by MEXT, then it should be on university letterhead.
What should the MEXT Scholarship Letter of Recommendation say?
OK, I think this is what you were most interested in, right?
At its most basic, the Letter of Recommendation should at least state that the person “strongly recommends you as a candidate for the MEXT Scholarship”. If you are seeking a Letter of Recommendation from the Dean or President who does not know you well and is not willing to go into detail, make sure this phrase, at least, is included.
But that’s only going to meet the minimum requirement. To help your application, your Letter of Recommendation should answer as many of the questions below as possible. If you can, use specific details to highlight each point!
The items below are from the Sample Letter of Recommendation Form provided by MEXT for the Embassy-Recommended MEXT Scholarship. If you apply for the Embassy-Recommended MEXT Scholarship, you can use the sample form directly, if you want. If you apply for the University-Recommended MEXT Scholarship, you cannot use the form, since there is no place to address it to the President, as required. But even in that case, this template still shows you what MEXT is looking for.
- During which period of time have you had the most frequent contact with the applicant?
- This goes with the following question. If writing in a sentence form, it makes sense to reverse the two. E.g. “I was her academic advisor from September 2018 to May 2022 and she was a student in my class in the Fall 2019, Spring 2020, and Spring 2022 semesters.”
- What was the nature of your relationship?
- See note above. In the case of a Dean or President, it is fine to say something like, “I am Dean of the Faculty of Humanities where she was a student from September 2018 to May 2022.”
- In what areas does the applicant need improvement or growth?
- If writing a free-form letter, it’s fine to skip this one. But if you do include it, think of it as an opportunity to show an area where you are actively trying to improve. For example, if you started off weak in your academic writing, you could describe the steps you are taking to get stronger.
- Please comment on the applicant’s interpersonal skills. How well does he or she work within a team?
- The ability to work harmoniously in a team is critical in the Japanese context. No professor wants to invite in a new student to his/her lab that is going to disrupt the balance.
- Using specific examples of how you took leadership of a team (combined with the point below) to coordinate the others’ efforts and bring them all together would be ideal. Other examples could be how you volunteered to take on tasks related to the professor’s research, or how you worked with another student in your lab to produce joint results.
- How would you describe the applicant’s leadership skills?
- As mentioned above, team leadership is a good example to use here. Another option could be using an example of how you took responsibility for a new member of your research lab or a new student and helped them get acclimated to the environment. Leadership of a student club or organization (with examples of your group’s accomplishments) or leading a presentation or competition team would also be good examples.
- Please comment on the applicant’s degree of self-confidence.
- Confident is good, but overconfident is not. A good example here could be describing how you develop and propose your own ideas, then take initiative to see them through. Or how you carry out assigned tasks with confidence and do not need constant supervision.
- It could be possible to combine this comment with the leadership or teamwork comments above
- Please comment on the applicant’s personal character.
- You probably do not need a specific example for this one. If your reviewer opens with a comment saying that you are “hard-working, reliable, and active in your classes and research” that should be sufficient. The teamwork and leadership examples should also show your character.
- Please indicate your overall evaluation of the applicant for a Japanese Government (MEXT) Scholarship.
- Strongly recommend
- Recommend with reservation
- Try to have this in the opening sentence. Something like “As the Dean of the Faculty of X at Y university, I strongly recommend [your name] for the MEXT Scholarship.” would be a good opener. It would also be good to close with an offer to answer any follow-up questions that the reviewers may have. (Nobody ever contacts the reviewers for more comments, unless the letter looks like a fake and they want to check its veracity–yes, I have seen fake letters in the past–so this is just a courtesy comment that strengthens the reference.)
- Please write whatever additional comments you would like to make about the applicant’s potential for graduate study in Japan and potential for becoming a responsible, effective person for your country.
- If using the template, this is where your reviewer can list any other specific accomplishments that didn’t fit into the section above. In a freeform letter, the “additional comments” would already be included throughout the body.
- Additional items to include, if not already mentioned, would be conference presentations, scholarships, academic or other awards, community volunteering/leadership, study abroad experience, intercultural experience, professional experience related to the field of study.
If you try to include examples for every single item above, the Letter of Recommendation will probably be too long, so try to keep it down to a few significant, representative examples that hit multiple criteria. (See the sample below for ideas).
Sample MEXT Scholarship Letter of Recommendation
This is an example of a Letter of Recommendation that could be signed by a Dean or even university President. As you can see, there are no references to a personal relationship. All of the critical points are supported by specific details from the applicant’s achievements.
Unless you have also destroyed the One Ring in the fires of Mount Doom, I do not recommend that you contact any section of this letter word-for-word!
In addition to providing a complete sample letter like the one above, you should also prepare and offer to provide an list of your accomplishments that you would like the reviewer to highlight.
Dear Professor Smith,
I am applying for the MEXT Scholarship for graduate studies in Japan, and it is mandatory to submit a Letter of Recommendation from my Dean or person of higher authority at the university, so I would appreciate it very much if you would be willing to write a letter for me. Please see below for the formatting requirements from the scholarship guidelines and a list of my accomplishments as a student for reference in writing the letter. I have also attached an excerpt from the scholarship guidelines that shows what they are looking for in applicants for your reference.
Thank you in advance for your consideration,
Your name, degree, graduation year.
- Written on university letterhead
- Addressed “To the President of [University Name]” (University-Recommended MEXT Scholarship)
- Must show your title and whether you “strongly recommend”, “recommend”, or “recommend with reservations”
- If provided in a sealed envelope, please include one original and two photocopies (Embassy-Recommended MEXT Scholarship)
Reference: My Achievements
- 3.90 GPA
- Dean’s list award in all 7 semesters of enrollment so far
- Awarded Honors Scholarship (half tuition waiver) for undergraduate degree
- Best Paper award at 2022 Student History Conference for “Title”
- “Title” selected for publication in journal
- One-semester language study abroad program in Japan, where I earned a perfect 4.0 GPA
- As section leader in marching band, won regional championship in 2021
- Treasurer for table tennis team
- Processed over fifty asylum applications as weekend volunteer at local refugee center
- As member of International Buddies Program, personally worked with over 50 exchange students, including 10 from Japan, to orient them to campus, answer questions about administrative processes, and show them around the city
Let me know in the comments below!
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