Last Thursday I had to go to the Japanese Embassy. Why would I go there, you ask? Because I'm trying to get a scholarship. The Japanese Government (Monbukagakusho) Scholarship for research students to be exact. Monbukagakusho is the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science, and Technology, commonly abbreviated as MEXT. This scholarship is for going to Japan for two years as a research student, and is for pretty much any field, not just computer science. At most three scholarships are awarded each year in the Netherlands.
So last Thursday I had to go to the Japanese Embassy for the preliminary selection process. I had to be there at 9:00, so I had to get up at 6:30 - which is really early, for me anyway. I got up, had a quick breakfast, put on my best (and only) suit, and set off for The Hague using public transportation, furiously hoping there wouldn't be any delays, and that it wouldn't rain (since that'd be hell on my suit).
Fortunately, all went exactly as planned, and at 8:45 I arrived at the Embassy, where they told me to wait outside because they weren't open yet. Too bad arriving exactly on time is nearly impossible when using public transportation. I was also first, but soon a few others showed up. In total, there were six applicants, which since there are at most three scholarships meant I had to killoutperform three of them.
At 9:15 sharp we started. First up were exams. Our knowledge of both English and Japanese would be tested in a total of four exams: one English, three Japanese with increasing difficulty. The English exam was easy. The only difficult thing about it was that some of it was really weird English (the most difficult questions were of the type "which of the following four sentences is wrong?" They were all wrong!) but it was still not much of a challenge.
Then came Japanese. Note that it's not actually required to speak Japanese to get this scholarship, so the exams were just to check my current proficiency. The three exams were labelled simply Japanese A, B and C but as far as I gathered they were equivalent of sankyuu, nikyuu and ikkyuu (third, second and first level Japanese, with first being the highest), which are standard Japanese Language Proficiency Tests. The first one went pretty well. The first part was downright easy, although the last text was slightly more difficult. But, I could understand nearly all of it, and didn't have to guess any of the questions.
The second one was a lot more difficult. The number of words and kanji that I didn't know increased drastically, which made answering some of the questions really hard. I think the ratio of knowing to guessing was about 40 to 60. Which may seem bad, but it was along my expectations. After a brief lunch came the third exam, which was extremely difficult. If it really was ikkyuu that's not surprising though. Overall I feel I could have answered this one just as good if they hadn't given me the questions, just the answer sheet. So I guessed pretty much all of it. Again, bad, but as expected. Being thoroughly exhausted by now didn't help either.
Then, the six of us were brought down to the Embassy's library and told to wait until 15:00, and then we'd be called up one by one for an interview which would last 15-20 minutes.
Exactly how they determined the order of interviewing us I didn't know. It wasn't by first name, by last name, by birthdate or any other discernable pattern, so I guess it was random. In any case, I was third to go. I can't recall ever being more nervous in my entire life. The nerves combined with the mental exhaustion from four hours of exams meant that I suddely felt I would have less difficulty competing in the winter olympics than doing this interview. Unfortunately, there weren't any skating rings available, but there was a really big table with a lot of chairs around it, and four people on one side - two from the Embassy, one professor from Leiden (not from the CompSci department of course) who was on the committee, and one from Nuffic (the foundation that coordinates these scholarships in the Netherlands), and me on the other side.
After brief introductions, they started asking questions. You could say the questions fell into two categories: the first bit was about my research proposal, the second about my motivation and my other plans (in Japan and for the future in general). The part about my proposal went really well. They seemed to think my proposal was pretty good (the professor from Leiden called it "enthousiastic") and I could answer their questions without much problems. I do, after all, know what I'm talking about (although the American style of job interviews where you have to have an air of "I'm the best person for this job that exists" doesn't work in Japan, a degree of modesty is better, or so I'm told). The other part went, well, less good. I had anticipated the sort of questions they would ask, and had prepared answers. Unfortunately, I couldn't remember any of them. So I winged it, best as I could. I can't remember half of what I said, it must have made some sense though (see below).
After what felt like 30 seconds but what was more like 20 minutes I went back to the library. I could leave at this point if I wanted, but we had decided we would wait for each other. Finally, around 17:00, all of us had been interviewed, after which we left.
All in all, I was reasonably satisfied. Sure, there's a ton of things I could've said but didn't, but no point in worrying about that now. Whether it would be good enough, I had no idea whatsoever. I didn't know how the rest had done on the interviews, and I didn't know what their criteria would be. In any case, I was exhausted, and spent the evening doing exactly nothing and slept better than I have in a long time.
Although final approval for the scholarship depends on a number of things (such as admission to the University in Japan, in my case Tokyo University) and wouldn't be known until around January, we would be told if we had been tentatively selected the next week. Tentative selection means we passed the interview and exam portion, and would be able to apply for admission and the rest.
Naturally, next week last Thursday is this week, and I just received a call. I made it through! So now comes the real work, getting admission etc. (not to mention, graduating :P ). It's not final (I'm not even sure if we're already narrowed down to three candidates or if that comes later, since we said we'd keep in touch I suppose I'll find out), but it's a big step in the right direction.
So yeah, I'm pretty pleased right now. :)
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