How I Got into University of Tokyo, Japan’s Number One University, with Zero Japanese Background

Some of us might be looking into universities right now be it local or overseas. One path worth considering is Japan!

In 2012, the MEXT program launched the Global 30 Project, where thirty of Japan’s most prestigious universities opened up degree programs taught entirely in English. So while this article is on how to get into the University of Tokyo, note that there are 29 other Japanese universities that offer different English degree programs that might be of your exact interest! On top of these 30 schools, there are also schools that have been offering programs in English for quite some time – including Sophia University (a Christian university) and Waseda University. You can search for the full list of English courses taught throughout Japan here.

While this introduction outlines the various schools you can apply to, this article will use Tokyo University as an example on how to apply. I was accepted into Tokyo University’s PEAK program for Environmental Science for the Class of 2021.

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Note: If you’re someone who wants to enter the Japanese track, each school has their own entrance exam and/or interview. You can go to each of their individual websites to see their requirements and how international students can apply. Some other schools might require you to take the JEU examinations.

Process In Applying

Tokyo University’s English program is called PEAK – they offer 2 undergraduate programs taught in English: Environmental Science and Japan in East Asian Studies. The process of applying and requirements are all listed online. There are also seniors who have commented on what the application experience is like.

To give a brief overview of what the application process is like, it consists of 2 parts: a paper application and interview. The application forms are similar to those of other schools – one is on your personal details, accomplishments and test scores. The second part asks for two short mini essays of around 350 words each. Lastly, there are three teacher recommendation forms that need to be completed. What’s good about this sort of application is that they accept test scores that are equivalent to the completion of high school, so you don’t have to take any extra examinations. In my case, I took Singapore A Levels and submitted those scores.

For the interview, I was a nervous wreck! The interview is segmented into two sections – one on yourself and your interests, and then your academic ability. I didn’t manage to answer many questions that I would normally would have been able to, but luckily the professors really do want to look at how you think, how you explain yourself and your thoughts as well as how you work under pressure.

Life As A Japanese Student

If you want to know how life and the education systems are like in Japan, its really dependent on the school. For Todai’s case, its a liberal arts education system – for the first two years you will have course requirements across all sorts of subjects – from Physical Education to Japanese Literature to Mathematics. Note that even though you will have probably declared your major when entering UTokyo, you will still be required to take up these course requirements on top of your major requirements in the first two years. You can view what kind of classes you’ll be taking as a freshman – senior here.

In the first year, all students enrolled in PEAK will take intensive Japanese classes – this is meant for you to quickly acclimatise to the new country. It also serves as a huge advantage – if you manage to learn sufficient Japanese, all PEAK students are allowed to take classes at Tokyo University that are taught in Japanese, opening up the variety of courses you are allowed to take. Hence, the school does structure their program to help you integrate into the Japanese society.

When it comes to academic rigour, I asked a senior who has already been enrolled for a semester (and is also from Singapore!) He states that what is great about this programme is its flexibility – there are students that go right into research and difficult courses, and there are others who decide to take a lighter load and explore other things, interests and hobbies in Japan.

For more information of life of a Tokyo University student: University of Tokyo PEAK program has an English website called Komaba Times that can help you more on what life is truly like as a student as well as a Quora answer from a senior. And for those who are wondering: despite a very low percentage of females attending UTokyo, the PEAK program is around 50/50.

Cost of Living

A lot of us might want to go overseas for university to explore the world but have cost as a major issue. Now while living in Tokyo might be expensive, it’s good to know that university tuition fees in Japan are extremely affordable – in fact, international students pay the same rate as local students. University of Tokyo’s tuition fees are around $7000 SGD a year, comparable to local universities such as NUS or NTU.

For living expenses, staying at the dorm is around 500 SGD/month. And considering the dorms at are Komaba campus dorms, which is just two stops away from Shibuya, it’s a really good deal. (Shibuya is like a really busy Bugis-CBD-Orchard road street).

Also: If you can’t get a scholarship in Singapore, the Japan government and individual schools offer a lot of different kinds of scholarships. The government offers MEXT scholarships that you can apply to regardless of which school you enrol in. Others are given by the university directly. Most are bond-free. I was offered a scholarship from Subaru that helped pay for my living expenses – 100 000 yen a month.

Should I apply?

I think someone who is highly independent and self-driven is suitable for this program – you have to take ownership of what you learn, when you learn it and to find the opportunities for yourself. If you’re someone who also enjoys smaller classroom sizes, that’s great! Each PEAK batch is around 30 students a year, so you can expect to have a very close-knit community. Lastly, someone who has an interest in working or living in Japan in the future would greatly benefit from gaining a Japanese education.

I think there are a lot of considerations about university applications. But if after looking through and seeing it as an interesting option for you, I would recommend that you just apply. The application isn’t too difficult to fill out – in the sense that it isn’t tedious or laborious. In fact, its very straightforward and probably was one of the more enjoyable university applications I had. Japan universities are really interested in diversifying and globalizing their schools – so take this as a great opportunity for a different kind of adventure. And then once all the universities come back with their decision, you can put into further consideration if its right for you.

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