How to apply to the Vulcanus in Japan program

Is it this season again? It seems to happen earlier every year… People end up on my blog after googling « vulcanus in Japan ». Hello! Would you like to read about my Japanese adventure? It’s all archived, starting in September 2007. Would you like to read my thoughts on the application process? Well here we go. I applied twice, in 2006 and in 2007, got in the second time. Keep in mind that this is based on my personal experience – refer to the official website for the actual procedure.

Tell me about the application process

Applying to Vulcanus in Japan is very much like applying for a job. Figure out what the goals of the program are, see if you answer some of these goals and make it very explicit in your file. Inversely, know what your goals are, see if the program answers them (I hope it does, or why would you be applying in the first place?!) and make it clear. Don’t be ashamed of your reasons to want to join, or even assume that they’re obvious. You’d be amazed at the diversity of motivations behind each application. (Personally, I was in it to marry a rich engineer, duh. I failed, though – I did find a man but I’m his sugar mama now).

Minutiae changes yearly, so read the website instructions carefully.
Don’t forget that you are, of course, allowed to add extra documents that might be relevant. In my case, I added 2 unrequested recommendation letters: one from my Japanese professor, and one from a former boss, at a job that involved heavy international duties. This way I had all 4 important aspects of my application covered: academics, language skills, corporate skills and international experience.

But OMG, what should I put in my application letter??

It's good that you're asking this question, as the application letter is probably the keystone to your file. It's also the document for which you have the greatest flexibility, so take advantage of that! Do it just the way you would for a job application! Ah, right, you’re a student and maybe you haven’t done too many of those yet. There is plenty of advice on the web and at your local library, but here are my personal tips. Your application letter, your whole file actually, should reflect three things:
- You fit the program requirements;
- You stand out from all the other applicants that fit the program requirements;
- It shows who you are in a truthful yet flattering manner. Don’t lie, invent or copy-paste some ideal letter – there is no such thing. If an application is not about you, it will show. If it’s all you, it will be coherent.

For me, the big thing was the international aspect – if you’ve read my blog a bit further this should be no surprise! This is what I was skilled at and this is what I wanted more of. And I showed it with all the tools I had. I got a recommendation letter from a previous job I held in Asia. I got a transcript from my semester in an American university. I demonstrated over and over in my application letter how it fitted my five year plan (disclaimer: I don’t have a five year plan.) When it came to listing my previous trips, I had to add extra pages.

Whatever you do, proofread! If you are not a native English speaker, have an English professor read it for you. I’ve seen some shameful application letters – how credible will you be if you can’t even be bothered to get an external opinion on your one and only chance to get in? More importantly, how will you ever get around in Japanese if English is hard for you?

Yeah, ok, but what did your file look like? Like, can you put your application letter online?

Honey, I won’t show it to you because I don’t want to break your heart. My application file was a little jewel. My transcripts were straight As and from prestigious schools. I had more international experience at 21 than many engineers ever will get. My resume was perfectly cut for the program, with all the right key words after all the right bullet points. When I put the final dot to my application letter, the earth shook, the angels wept, marketers worldwide cheered. Who ever said a double major in business was useless?

What kind of people are selected?

All kinds of people, actually. This is why there is no jackpot application letter. I was surprised by the diversity of profiles. I imagined meeting many more like-minded people – seasoned travelers who highly value international cooperation and adventure. This was true of some, but in fact, other participants had never left their country before. Some were Japan fanatics, others had no special affinities with the country. Some are total geeks and gurus of their field, others are total dilettantes (yeah ok that's mostly just me). Ages ranged from barely 21 (me) to late 20s. Level of studies ranged from bachelor to PhD. I believe that being too young and too low in your studies will work against you. For one thing, if you are under 20 when you start the program, you are a minor by Japanese law… The center and the host company have enough to worry about without having to check that you won’t drink alcohol or whether you’ll need parental authorizations in case of medical emergency.

What will happen once I send my file?

The selection process happens in two steps. First, you send your big file to Brussels, where it is reviewed, along with its 999 competitors, by the EU Japan Center staff and an independent consulting firm. They select both on absolute criteria (we want students who have good academic backgrounds, who can adapt to a foreign environment…) and relative ones (we want applicants that can fulfill the positions we have this year!) An average of 4 files are kept for each position, and if you are among the lucky few, you receive an e-mail. You have a few days to write another cover letter for your target company, and then a few months to wait in anguish. The second step is left entirely to the host companies. They receive all preselected files and their cover letters, and decide to keep one (or sometimes, zero). How they decide is a complete mystery. Maybe they compare the candidates’ skills with what their position requires them to do. Maybe they play darts on the applicants’ pictures. As I was really intrigued with this selection process that sounded a bit like a giant lottery, I asked my boss when I had the chance to meet him. His answer: “we were not impressed by your skills in mechanics, but we thought you looked friendly”. Gee, thanks…

Where can I read more about the whole thing?

Every year, the geekier applicants open a forum to gather the troops. These boards tend to die within days of their arrival in Japan, though. But they are still online and full with information.
Check out the 2007 boards and the 2009 ones. Check out the former participants' blogs - plenty of them are still up and runnin. Good luck!

Related posts:
Vulcanus in Japan, the blogroll
Japan for beginners
Funky adventures of the VinJ acceptance process[fr]
Back from the pre-departure meeting[fr]

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