Is Waseda Worth It?

So you're thinking about coming to Waseda, huh? It sounds pretty good on paper; it's the best private school in the country (and school ranking means a lot here), you'll get an "international education" (do you know what that means?), and you'll learn Japanese (kind of…more on that later). If you're entertaining the thought of applying to SILS for either a 1- or 4-year study abroad, read on.

DISCLAIMER: The opinions in this piece are entirely my own, built from my own experience and conversations with international, Japanese, one-year, and four-year students (and a few professors). In any school of 40,000+ students, YMMV.

The Best Private School in the Country?

    Academic standards here range from city college-level to roughly average American private school level. You'll have to do some research for your thesis and the upper-division courses, but the workload is a joke compared to my fairly average home institution of Lewis and Clark. It's not a question of student or professor competence- all of the professors are highly ranked in their fields, and you have to be a pretty motivated student to commit to four years in Japan- but of expectations. You are not expected to write well, and your professors will not challenge the ideas you express (except for a few of them; more on that later). This sucks for your writing and critical thinking faculties. Also, don't expect the whole prestigious name thing to follow you overseas. Some employers may have heard of Waseda, but it's not like coming to Tokyo with a degree from Harvard.

An International Education?

    Yeah, it's a sexy phrase. James Bond is international. Sounds like you're going to graduate here and go work for the UN, right? Wrong. "International" is Japanese for "nobody can speak English very well." You will have classmates that can't put an English sentence together to save their life, and if you're not careful, teachers so poor at it that you want them to just do the lecture in Japanese and try to figure out what they said later.

A Liberal Arts Education?

    It's a very liberal education. Very, very liberal. Not liberal in the sense of accepting a wide variety of viewpoints, or broadening your perspective on the world, or looking at the problems facing society through a myriad of different philosophical lenses, but liberal in the sense that you can do whatever the heck you want and come through just fine. For most people, "whatever the heck you want" will be drinking and chasing the opposite sex. Rest assured, Waseda facilitates this very well. You'll find that your classes will double in size on exam days- many of your classmates spend the whole semester at Izakayas, and only come to class to grab a barely-passing score on the big tests.
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A Path to Japanese Fluency?
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    If you come to Waseda for a year, you'll take some Japanese courses, and learn some Japanese, just like any other college. The Japanese classes here probably better than most, but on the other hand, the international school is so big that if you don't watch out, you'll spend every moment out of Japanese class speaking English.
    There are four (soon to be five) levels of the JLPT, or Japanese Language Proficiency Test. If you study here for four years, you will pass level two. If you're expecting to pass level one by the time you graduate, you're going to want to either study a few years before you get here, or work your ass off doing extra kanji study and test prep along with your regular work. It's definitely doable, though — several of my four-year friends passed JLPT1 by graduation, and went on to work in entirely Japanese-speaking workplaces.

Ok, I've painted a kind of bitter picture of the place, right? Don't despair- even if it's not the idyllic hub of bilingual, international exchange the Waseda administration would like it to be, SILS has a lot going for it, and especially if you've got a heavy interest in Japan or Japanese, it may suit you very well. Let's look at what this place offers:

It's in frickin' Tokyo:

    Tokyo! This is a city of twelve million people, home of some of the biggest companies and organizations on earth, and full of energy and opportunity. Whether you're into cuisine, nightlife, shopping, live music, or any one of hundreds of subcultures, Tokyo can slate your thirst. In addition, everything you've heard about Japan's famous safety is true. You can leave an iPhone on the train and there's a good chance you'll find it waiting for you with the station agent the next day. Bikes are locked, sometimes to nothing more than themselves, with locks that would be cut in five seconds in an American city. Tiny, foot-and-a-half high Japanese schoolchildren ride the subways alone into the heart of the city, their mothers sending them off with no worries in the world. You will be the biggest, baddest thing around in any given situation, which will continually go from weird to wonderful and back to weird.

The name, baby, the name:

    Saying "Waseda" when you meet a Japanese person for the first time is a golden ticket. School hierarchy here is written in stone, and Waseda is at the top of the private-school heap, right below Todai. All sorts of famous, successful people graduate from this institution, and by entering SILS, you get the chance to use the name "Waseda" for the rest of your life. Whether you're making friends at a party or interviewing for a job, that name will open doors.
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There are smart, ambitious people here, if you look:
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    The operative words here are if you look. You can go through four years here lazy and drunk, come out speaking some Japanese and with a sweet college on your resume, and probably turn out fine in life, but if you're a little more motivated, and search for the good professors and serious students, you can get an academic and peer atmosphere approximating a real college education. Sure, there are slackers, but there are also plenty of students there to learn, share across cultural boundaries, and push themselves.

There are 2000 clubs at this school.

    No matter what sport you play or what hobby you do, there is a club here for it. Like professors and friends, the good ones take some legwork to find- you might have to (gasp!) do a little research in Japanese to find them- but they exist, for every niche activity or interest you can think of. Need help finding the right club? Ask someone.

Gaijin power!

    You will not fit in here. You'll fit into the international school fine, but outside of that, you are a foreigner and this is Japan. If you're uncomfortable being looked at funny, this country is not for you. It doesn't matter whether you speak Japanese; if you look the slightest bit different, you are an outsider.
    Why is this a plus? The mere fact of having differently-colored skin will bring you friends, status, and free drinks :) Also, speaking English will make you good money (Tutoring students pays around $20/hour; running a professional English conversation class can bring in $30/hr and up). Being a Japanese-speaking foreigner functions like a random little life cheat code, opening up .
    I'm not trying to say that your relationships will be nothing but leveraging your gaijin power; I have plenty of good friends here, Japanese and foreign alike, who don't give a rat's ass what race I am. I don't act like an asshole, I never go into a situation expecting favors because I'm foreign, and I speak in Japanese as much as I can. It's one thing to recognize the power you have as a gaijin; it's another to abuse it. Don't be that guy.

You end up with a college degree, probably for less than you'd pay in the states.

    Let's face it, for a lot of people, a college degree isn't too much more than a rubber stamp. Unless you went to an incredibly prestigious school, or ended up valedictorian, your future employers just want to see that you were able to fund and commit to something for four years, and come out of it alive and with a satisfactory GPA in your major. You will not be challenged as much by Waseda's education as you would by an average American college's, but who cares?
    (Actually, you should- writing and critical thinking are two of the most important skills developed in college, and Waseda falls pretty short here. My point is just that if you're not going into a field that makes heavy use of these skills, or if you're looking at your education from an employer's perspective, Waseda is little different from any other school).

Conclusion Time:

If you're thinking about a one-year exchange here, go for it!
Especially if you've never seen Tokyo before, Waseda is at least as good as any of the other schools here, plus has the prestige factor. The exchange student community is great, you get a choice of host family or dorms, and you've got access to a huge range of classes and clubs. Plus, you can probably keep earning credits towards your major at home, which just sweetens the deal.

For potential four-year students:
    If you are interested in any sort of mathematic, scientific, or technical major, forget it. Right now. There is nothing approaching a respectable science, math, or engineering path here. Lewis and Clark, my home institution, is a fairly middle-of-the-road liberal arts school with all of 1800 students, and it has math and science programs far above anything in SILS. For potential engineers, you can do three years at Lewis and Clark, then two at an Engineering school, and come out with two majors. Nothing lik that at Waseda. If you're really into a technical field, Waseda is out as an option.
    If you want to be an English major, I'd also steer clear. The level of discourse and writing in your average class with be painful, and very few of your professors will challenge you enough to improve your writing.
    For everyone else, it depends. You'll be trading academic quality for four years in Tokyo and a prestigious name, but that very well could be a great trade. If you're already ambitious and motivated, a pretty good writer, and know that you have a future in Japan, I'd go for the full program. Otherwise, I'd probably skip it and try to do a one-year instead. You don't need to know what you want to do in life when you enter SILS (no one does), but to get the most out of the program, you should be the kind of person that reaches for opportunities and aims for success. If you just want to party your way through college, it will be unfortunately easy for you to do that, and you'll graduate with very little in the way of direction or marketable skills.

So there you have it. That's Waseda. Hope I didn't squash your dreams. Let me reiterate that I love this school, and would probably go for the four-year program if I had the chance to do the college admissions thing again, but it's not for everyone. If you're thinking of coming here (especially for four years), I highly encourage you to get in contact with other students here and grill them about the areas in which you're interested. You can find students in the SILS facebook group, or drop me a line and I'll track some down for you.