Once you pass the Document Screening and the MEXT exams conducted by the Embassy of Japan in your country, you already have your foot in the door. Not so long ago I was also in your position, looking for more information about how to prepare for the MEXT scholarship application process. As a MEXT scholar myself, here are three tips to ace another crucial part of the process: your interview! I also included an unconventional tip that you maybe haven’t heard of but is a highly effective strategy when preparing for any kind of interview!

Tip #1: Be familiar with Japanese interview culture and etiquette

You will surely leave a good impression if you take some time to practice Japanese etiquette during interviews. Since your interview will be conducted in the Embassy of Japan in your own country, there’s also no need to worry too much about what is appropriate to wear. The panel will be composed of experts and consultants from your own country and Japanese nationals who work under the Japanese Embassy in your country. Dress neatly: smart casual or business casual is good. Wear something that you would wear in a job interview or a school interview in your country. Simple etiquette would be to bow upon entering the room and then close the door behind you. Walk towards the chair provided for you. Wait for the interviewer’s go signal before taking a seat. Remember to thank them before sitting. Japanese interviews will typically begin with a “jikoshoukai” or self introduction. Aside from your name, you should include information about your academic and professional background. After the interview, stand up and move to the side of the chair. Say thank you once again then bow. Make sure that you close the door quietly as you exit the room.

Tip #2: Review your own application documents

The best way to prepare yourself for the interview is to review all of the documents that you submitted. If you are applying for a research scholarship, make sure you know your research proposal like the back of your hand. Make sure you know how to explain why it’s important for you to study what you want to study in Japan. Since you are applying for a scholarship, you must also be able to explain how you plan to “pay forward” this opportunity if you are awarded the scholarship: how do you plan to contribute to the good relationship of Japan and your country? Aside from yourself, who are the communities that will benefit from your research or from your studies?

Tip #3: Rehearse for the interview by taking a video of yourself

Yes, you read that right! This is a tip that you probably don’t come across often, but it’s certainly worth a try! Athletes do this all the time. They watch video recordings of their own games, matches, and even training sessions so they can study the footage and see where they can improve. Taking a video of yourself in a “mock interview” is a good way to assess your own skills. If you have a friend who is willing to help you, they can also act as the interviewer. However, if like me you’re more comfortable doing this on your own, that will also work just fine.

I actually did this to prepare for my own MEXT scholarship interview and it did a lot of difference!  So, after I did all the things that I mentioned above–reviewing all the documents that I submitted, rereading my own research proposal, reviewing the sources that I mentioned, brushing up on my knowledge about the universities, the departments, and the prospective advisers that I have chosen–I wrote down the interview questions that the panelists will ask me. I found some quiet time alone and used my laptop to record myself. I pretended that I was in an interview. I introduced myself and my background and I began to “answer” all the questions (in English) without looking at any notes.

I learned so many things after doing this “rehearsal,” even before watching the footage! First, I found out that I had to practice speaking in English more. I realized that although I’m really comfortable writing in English (my second language), explaining myself while talking only in English, without using words from my mother tongue or without taking too many pauses, was a bit tricky because I don’t often find myself in situations where I have to explain myself only in English. I also noticed that I had trouble remembering specific details like the full name of the graduate school departments or the Japanese names of the universities I have chosen.

I also realized that I should put myself in the position of the interviewer and look for the “loopholes” and ask about the specific weaknesses of my application. For example, one weakness of my application was that as an artist, I had a lot of experience as a professional, but I don’t have a lot of experience in academic research. Given this, how am I going to pursue a research-oriented thesis in top universities under programs which specialize in “social science” type of research. When I did another round of “interview rehearsal,” I added these kinds of questions so I practice answering difficult questions that are specific to my application.

Then, I watched my own interview. Yes, it’s a bit weird to watch yourself onscreen but you will learn so much from it if you stick to it! One of the biggest realizations that I had when I watched my interview was so simple, but it made such a huge impact: I noticed that I did not smile the whole time. I never would have noticed this if I did not record myself! I was trying so hard to look smart and confident, that I became too serious! I was over-explaining a lot of points, when actually those things are already in the application and the panelists already know those things. I was trying to impress them with my knowledge that I forgot to connect to them (of course I was talking to imaginary people, but still). My interview was very very boring! I can barely focus on what I was explaining in the video because I was becoming sleepy from watching myself!

While watching the interview, I realized how I should use the interview as an opportunity to show them what my documents can’t show. My grades and my proposal already includes information about how I think or how “smart” I am. Then I made a challenge to myself, when I do the interview and I will show them what they don’t know yet from reading my papers: I will convey through my demeanor and my tone how excited I am to conduct this research. My voice will show how determined I am to pursue further studies and how passionate I am about giving back to my country if I receive this support from the government of Japan. I made it my mission to let my personality shine through so they will be on my side, so they will want to support and recommend me for the scholarship. I needed to smile more and be more relaxed so that I will enjoy the interview, like how I enjoy a good conversation. And of course, I should enjoy the interview because I’m actually talking about something that I like.

So again, I listed down all the questions I will answer, hit the record button again, and pretended I was in the interview. This time, while I was doing the interview I could already feel that the words were flowing more easily. Unlike the first time, I wasn’t struggling to find the words. When I watched the footage, I was happy because it was such a huge difference from the first one. After watching this second round of recording, I felt that I was now truly prepared for the interview.

Now this was only my experience. If you record yourself, you will surely discover something else. Maybe there’s a different issue with your interview that you need to address and you will try a different approach to improve your strategy. That’s the best thing about this method, you will find out something for yourself!

If you already got this far into the application process, it means that you really have a shot at getting this scholarship. More often than not, the most important thing in an interview is to be well prepared so your nerves won’t get to you. But I’ll add one more thing to that conventional wisdom: Enjoy yourself in an interview so your personality shines through!

Finally, whatever the result of your application is, at least you were able to learn a lot from the process while also not stressing yourself out too much.

Now you are ready to continue your MEXT journey!