Here you are, you started your JET Program journey half a year ago, you sent off your application last fall, waited six weeks, made it through the first round of cuts, another month went by, had your interview, and have now waited patiently 2+ months for results.
You finally get the email, it starts off “You have successfully passed the 2nd stage of the screening process”. You want to run around the room and shout “I’m going to Japan!” until you read the next sentence. “You have been selected as an alternate.”
I got this email, and I knew I was supposed to be grateful that I was an alternate. It meant I wasn’t rejected outright, and there was still a real chance of going to Japan. But in some ways it was worse than just being rejected. Being rejected would have meant that it’s over and done with, and it’s time to move on. As an alternate, all that laid ahead was weeks – possibly months – of uncertainty. When will I get the call? How much time will I have to prepare for Japan? What I can’t go? What if I’m never upgraded at all?!
Being an alternate kinda blows. It’s the ultimate limbo, you’re not in JET, but you’re not out. You’re sort of treated like a short-lister (you get some of the same paperwork, get invited to a few events), but at the same time you’re very much not a short-lister. You get asked if you’re going to Japan, and all you can say is “I don’t really know yet.” While short-listers get all sorts of checklists and guides to pre-departure, there is no “Official JET Alternate Guide”.
So here is the Unofficial JET Program Alternate Guide from someone who went through it.
Here’s the good news
A lot of people are made alternates on JET. This isn’t an accident or some kind of consolation prize; it’s because a lot of positions open up between now and departure day. There are so many upgraded alternates that JET even holds a separate orientation: the “Group C” orientation in late August is entirely made up of former alternate who were upgraded too late to depart with A and B groups.
Different job, grad school, family, simple change of heart, there are countless reasons why people forgo their JET placement. So as of right now, in April, your chances of being upgraded are pretty good. I’ve often heard stories of people being upgraded within days of learning they’re alternates.
There’s still paper work to be done
Even though you’re not *officially* going to Japan with JET yet, there are some things you need to do, and other things you should consider doing. (This mostly applies to US participants, apologies to non-US readers).
Required: Shortlisters and alternates receive a form where they check off whether or not they want to participate in this year’s JET program. It’s due about 3-4 weeks after the interview results are announced, so keep an eye out for that letter.
Also get a passport, probably a no brainer, but still, do it.
FBI Record Report: US JET requires all participants to get this. It’s $18 plus whatever your local police department charges for fingerprints, and since it can take up to 3 months to get, it’s recommended to apply for it now.
U.S. residency certificate: You need to file form 8802 to receive form 6166, which exempts you from paying Japanese taxes. It takes about 4-6 weeks to get, but that’s only if everything on the form is correctly filled out, otherwise you get a letter stating that the IRS needs more information and have to wait 4-6 more weeks. It costs
$35 $85, which really sucks, but it is something you should consider doing now in case you’re only given a few week’s notice that you’re going to Japan (also make sure your taxes from the last few years are in order before you apply). You can get up to 20 copies for the $35 fee, so might as well get a few (though the only person that really needs it is your eventual supervisor in Japan).
*Note: when I was an alternate, there wasn’t any push to get the FBI check or tax certificate before I knew I was upgraded, but now many consulates are asking their alternates to complete these things to assure their place on the alternate list. Find out from your coordinator what is and isn’t requested.
*Another Note: I just learned, starting in 2012, the fee for the residency certificate is now $85(!). It is still in your best interest to get done sooner rather than later, but if your consulate is *requiring* this form from alternates before a certain date, you may want to inform them of the cost and ask if it is really necessary to get it to them by that date (again, the only person who really needs this form is your Japanese supervisor).
Hold off on: The physical and lung x-ray. The X-ray alone is $80 (yay, US health care!) plus whatever the exam costs, but since this can be done on fairly short notice, I’d wait until you know for sure you’re going.
The Mysterious “Upgrade List”
Every consulate has a list of their alternates, so when an open position comes to them, someone on that list is offered an upgrade. Now there’s a lot of rumors flying around about this list, so here what’s probably true, and probably not true based on my experience and what I’ve read/been told.
#1: You need to watch your phone because if you miss the upgrade call, they automatically go to the next person. I’m declaring this “Probably False,” because I did miss my upgrade call, but the coordinator left me a message, and then called the 2nd number I listed, so they do make an effort to get a hold of you. It’s only after several attempts that they would probably go to the next person. The thing is they can’t wait forever for your reply, so think about that before you go on a two week backpacking trip through the Yukon or some other place where phone or internet access is limited.
#2: You can find out where you are on the upgrade list. This is tricky, and it entirely depends your particular coordinator. No, you won’t be told specifically “There’s 20 people on the upgrade list and you’re number 8”, but some coordinators will tell you your general position on the list (high, or low) or reveal other vague information. Then there’s other coordinators who will say they can’t reveal any of that information, which stems to rumor #3 . .
#3: If you bother your JET coordinator too much, they will drop you down on the upgrade list: I’m going to say “Probably False” because I certainly hope a JET coordinator would be more professional than that. Still, the moral of this cautionary tale is don’t call constantly and ask for updates, and that’s definitely good advice. If you’re gonna call to try to gauge your place on the list, one time is enough.
#4: The list isn’t really a list at all, more like a pool: This is somewhat true. At the beginning of the upgrade process (before placements are revealed), it seems that generally when someone drops out and the next person on the list is called up. But as time goes by, the requests for the upgraded JET may get more specific. The CO may want someone who has to drive, or something who’s willing to work with younger kids. Or it’s two weeks before the Group A departure, and the consulate wants to find someone who can leave that quickly. The list is no longer much of a list, but a pool from which the JET coordinators try to find the best alternate for the position.
Upgrades tend to happen in waves
* Late April/Early May: All short-listers have to send in a reply form saying whether or not they accept their JET position, and this form is due a few weeks after interview results are announced. For one reason or another, there are many people who initially turn it down, so shortly after this form deadline is the first “wave” of upgrades.
* End of May: Placements are doled out at this time, and for any short-lister on the fence about going, their placement will often make them decide one way or the other, and 2nd big “wave” of upgrades begins.
* Early~Mid July: Though not as big as the previous two waves, there are a noticeable number of upgrades a few weeks before departure, most likely due to cold feet as the departure date approaches.
Upgrades start to get few and far between after this point, but they do still happen. JET says you can be upgraded as late as the fall, and my first year there was someone in my prefecture who arrived in mid-October. I have even seen people on message boards being upgraded in December! The main thing about these late upgrades is they want the JET to get to Japan ASAP so the upgraded JET may only have 2 weeks or so to get ready. If you’re still an alternate at this point, you may want to consider if you are willing to drop everything and go to Japan on short notice, or just remove your name from the list and try again next year.
Also, don’t forget that positions are opening up on the Japan side as well. JETs in Japan have to decide if they’re contracting for another year at the beginning of February, and plenty will back out between February and August. My placement opened up when my predecessor decided in May he wasn’t going to stay another year.
Being upgraded doesn’t means getting someone’s scraps
If you’re upgraded after the placements are handed out, you may think, “I’m just getting a crappy placement that someone else didn’t want.” Now when someone at your consulate turns down their position, it doesn’t just go to the next person on the alternate list. I had a good friend who was shortlisted through my consulate turn down his placement because a) he got a better paying job and b) his placement was nowhere near his requested prefectures. I was upgraded the next business day, but I didn’t get his placement. In fact it was nearly a month before I knew where I was going. This tells me they do try to match the newly opened placement with the newly upgraded JETs. A fair amount of upgraded JETs actually get a placement near their requests.
And as I just mentioned, my placement opened up when my pred decided to not stay a 2nd year. This might raise alarms that maybe there was a problem with the schools or coworkers or the town, but whatever the reason, I loved my placement, never had a major problem, and stayed for three years.
Time to look into a different program?
Hey, if you’re determined to be in Japan by the end of the summer, there are plenty of private companies to apply to. The good news is the time between application and arrival in Japan with these companies is significantly shorter than JET. The bad news? Less pay, less benefits, less job-security, and well, I’ll just leave the googling of horror stories up to you. Not that JET doesn’t have it’s fair share of horror stories, but the private ALTs I knew in Japan encountered far more problems than most any JET I knew.
What I’m trying to say is do your homework, get on message boards and websites and find out what common problems a particular company has, and what you can do. Since the school year starts in April, there will be a better variety of job listings in February/March if you can hold off that long (maybe try to get a TESL certificate or some ESL teaching in during that time).
Try to put it out of your mind
I know, easier said that done, but constantly thinking about JET and “why wasn’t I short-listed” or “will I ever be upgraded?” is not going to make the upgrade call come any faster. Avoid message boards; seeing other alternates be upgraded before you will only bum you out. If you have a friend who was shortlisted, don’t talk about JET with them too much. When it got to be mid-June and I still wasn’t upgraded, I pretty much accepted I wasn’t going on JET and it’s time to look into other things. I decided this on a Saturday and the following Monday, I got a call from the consulate. So yeah, try to mentally get over JET, but don’t be surprised if that’s when you get your upgrade notice.