April 25, 2014, ELTnews

By Mike Guest

Years ago I was an idealistic father. I told myself that I would never succumb to the educational rat race, that I would eschew campaigning long and hard to get my children into the best universities. My kids, I told myself, would follow the educational paths that they had forged by themselves, one that was built on their own true passions and interests in learning. But then, last year, my son entered his third year of high school in Japan– university prep time—and all my idealism spiraled out our study room window.

To be fair, I had to some extent, misjudged entrance exam hell in my younger, more naïve days, in Japan. I had mentally reduced the university entry process in Japan to something akin to the following:
1. High school teachers cram a bunch of facts into your head for memorization.
2. You take the national center exam and regurgitate this stuff.
3. You enter the highest rank of university your score allows you to.
4. You join a company.

The real process, especially these days, is much more complex and nuanced than that (and the tests are also usually more skills-based too). Since I know that many readers have children approaching the same milestone age, I thought this would be an opportune time, as a now-test-experienced father, to identify some of the signposts and alternative pathways along Japan’s university entrance route.

1. There are many ways to enter a given Japanese university

It’s not just a Center exam + University Exam = total score formula. It can vary incredibly, and once your spawn has identified a university he or she is targeting, it is absolutely indispensible to collect all information on potential means of entry.

The cleanest, smoothest, least taxing way is via recommendation. This avoids all the drawn out testing business (and might also mean that your child does little or nothing during their last 4 or 5 months of high school because they’re already ‘in’ university). Almost all universities have some recommendation allotment. The process starts early, often soon after summer. Recommendations will typically involve an interview on the campus, a number of high school documents attesting to the special skill or circumstance of the student (prepped by the home room teacher), and perhaps, a short one-or-two subject test. Many private universities in particular will have more than one recommendation session.

Many private unis also are connected to feeder high schools. Students graduating from such high schools (Nihon Univ.—or Nichidai as it is commonly known– is the largest example) are often prioritized for uni entry in those schools’ recommendation systems (but not on the so-called ‘ippan’, or general, exam-based entry).

2. Get detailed information from the prospective unis and study them thoroughly!

All universities have glossy brochures espousing their virtues, but also containing a fair bit of helpful data regarding entrance processes. Obviously, online websites will provide even more. Commercial books explaining how to get into this or that university, including previous entrance exams and test-taking tips for any and all unis, are readily available. This stuff is pretty much indispensable for knowing procedures, dates, and entry protocols. If you’re not a proficient Japanese readers you’ll need help (your spouse?). Your kid can read it, sure, but 17 year olds have the habit of glossing over important details…

Many universities hold open campus sessions during the year. If it is a potential choice for your little one, pay a visit, if only to find out whether it lives up to glossy, brochure standards or not. Check out the neighborhood too for transport, apartment/dorm, and shopping options. A pretty, spic and span university building plonked down in the middle of Podunk, Shimane Prefecture (sorry, Shimane-ites) might not look so appealing when you realize that its ten kilometers from anything resembling a restaurant or supermarket….

3. It’s not the university, it’s the faculty that matters!

Entrance standards and examinations differ by faculty. There is rarely a unified procedure for entering X university as a whole. It all depends upon which faculty your young-uns are applying for.

It generally works like this– Masaki-kun wants to enter the Education Faculty at City University (unwisely, Masaki hopes to become a teacher). The requirements for entry will likely look something like:
A. 2 or 3 subjects from the Center Exam. For education faculties, typically 1 must be English, 1 must be Japanese. The third subject choice is optional (my boy chose World History). Engineering will be very, very different.

B. The faculty’s own, second-stage entrance exam, typically including both a ‘zenki’-first- and ‘kouki’- second exam, the latter allowing for candidates who couldn’t attend the first exam due to scheduling conflicts.

C. A personal interview (sometimes in English).

But in fact some faculties may require NO Center Exam results, or only one (core) subject. It may specify exactly which Center subjects will be considered. This allows, for example, math-phobics, to apply to a place where math is not part of the entry criteria.

This affects the content of the second-stage (local) exams too. Most will test candidates in only a few subjects (education will typically go for English and Japanese) so candidates should choose targets that match their strengths. Finding out which faculties require test results on which subjects is, again, absolutely indispensible in your child’s planning.

4. Utilize your kid’s home room teacher

High school teachers are not so much concerned with cramming data into students’ heads as they are making sure that the student enters the best university possible. Yes, it is a huge feather in a HS teacher’s cap (especially the home room teacher) if little Taku or Saya get into a name institution. This means that home room teachers regularly try to uncover students’ post-graduate goals. Based on the student’s aptitude and abilities, they will make suggestions regarding which schools the child has a legitimate shot at– occasionally over-reaching in order to push their charges into preparing for the best possible outcome.

Other subject teachers will often be drafted in to give special, focused tuition to students who need to brush up on chosen test subjects. English teachers often help prepare individual students for English interviews. (My kid didn’t go to a cram school, so I can’t comment more on that aspect of uni preparation).

How do HS teachers and students know what unis they are likely to have a good shot of entering? Standardized mock tests are regularly given. Scores arising from these will indicate the student’s chances of making it into Prestigious University A or Less Prestigious University B based on these exam results (students will submit the names of the universities they are interested in entering in advance). If Saya-chan has a 60% chance of making into Waseda based on this mock exam, she can look at what her weak points were to raise her score in the future or she can settle her sights on a lower, but surer, target.

Typically, students will take 2 or 3 mock tests. The home room teacher will know the results and make recommendations for both application targets and study suggestions based upon these (again, other subject teachers will be drafted in to help students upgrade whatever subject needs a boost).

The home room teacher will generally be happy to discuss the likelihood of getting into a particular school with the parents. Most will be quite knowledgeable about entrance methods and means. Juku or yobiko (cram school) teachers will be absolute founts of knowledge on the same.

5. Public vs. private universities (aka ‘money’)

Public unis (especially national) are generally considered more prestigious in Japan, with a few notable exceptions. The big issue behind this is price. Typically, national unis cost about half of what private universities do (private are typically about 1,200,000 a year plus, public about 600,000 plus for the same). This makes competition for national schools fiercer and further bolsters reputations.

National unis engage in far fewer ‘sales campaigns’ and tend to have stricter, more limited entrance procedures (besides recommendations, the center exam plus second stage exam total is the norm). National unis will have a set, limited number of seats available. Private unis don’t. Private unis will often recruit by offering entrance exams in various parts of the country, and may accept numbers over the limit they advertise.

Parents should be on close lookout for scholarships from each prospective university. Being from X prefecture may garner a candidate 100,000 yen, hardship cases (single-parent households etc.) might get up to 50% reduction on tuition, certain special recommendations achieved might merit other monetary awards. Check scholarship pages (online) very closely!

6. The second (and third) choice factor

Early on (summer in the 3rd year of High School) your offspring should have three or four potential uni targets prioritized. They should never put all their entry eggs into one acceptance basket!

Timing the recommendation test/personal interviews and second-stage tests so that Johnny Jukensei can attend all four can be a difficult to achieve, but worthy, task. Many unis will held exams or interviews at the same time so staggering one’s choices to meet these schedules is essential (see zenki and kouki exams above).

Here’s where I can use my son’s experience as an example.

When university choices started becoming a factor in his teenaged brain he listed five universities and two faculties (English studies, International studies) he wanted to aim for.
These included:
A. Prestigious University with a lower chance of entry
B. HS affiliated, but lesser, university with an almost certain chance of entry
C. Two good, but lesser-than-A, universities
D. A local university (as a final fail-safe resort)
All were private (‘ouch’ comes a voice from deep in my pocket) universities.

Unfortunately, the preferred recommendation interviews and small ‘tests’ for both A and B occurred on the same day. My son, bless him, chose to take the difficult-to-enter A route instead of almost-certain B. He didn’t get selected (the success rate was about 10%). This meant that any eventual fall back onto choice B would have to come from the so-called ‘ippan’ (regular) process (center test plus 2nd stage exam). Instead, my son set his sights on the two C choices.

He took the Center Exam (English, Japanese, and World History only, as it was these scores that would be the factors for entry here on in).

He then took the entrance exams for both C schools, including separate tests for two different faculties at one of them. These exams were held in Kyushu, even though the universities themselves are located elsewhere. (*Note that taking all these tests and interviews costs money. It is a revenue generator for thee universities.)

He passed all three (*the examinee numbers of the candidate are posted on the university website about 3 to 5 days post-test). This now meant choosing which one to accept. You have only about 7-10 days to send in a confirmation paper and make a small non-refundable down payment. My son chose the International Studies at one of the C schools. But wait…

He then found out from his HS home-room teacher that Prestigious University A was also offering some further, second stage, recommendation entries into their English studies faculty, based on the Center exam score and an extended English interview—but these were to be held (with only a small percentage of candidates succeeding again) after the closing date for papers and down payment had to be sent to university C.

So, we sent the papers and the $ to university C while still deciding to have him try for a last-ditch spot in Prestigious U. (yes, the travel expenses to attend these things do start to add up). Taking the Prestigious U’s final interview also meant he had to forego some scholarship applications for university C, which contained the caveat that the student must not be applying to any other university.

In the end…

My son didn’t make it into Prestigious U. (He wants to try again as a transfer student next year or, perhaps, the year after that). He entered university C, in the faculty of international studies. He was a bit downcast at first, not having hit the uni jackpot, but seems to have since adjusted well to his lot.

This long, arduous process took a bit of an emotional, as well as a financial, toll on both his mother and I. We were cheering with him in his efforts to go to his first choice school and keenly felt his sorrow when he missed. There was tension at times, but we all learned a lot in the process. I’ll be sure to utilize this experience when my daughter gets there in another twelve years.

Questions and comments regarding your own experience with your children in the Japanese entrance exam system are welcome.

I’ll be taking a break from posting entries on this website for awhile hereafter. Thanks to all readers and supporters who have followed the Uni-files thus far.