Edited on December 2018
This article about JLPT is a bit different from most other things you might read on the topic. I’m not going to give you a recipe for success. In fact, I’m going to tell you what I did – and recommend you not to follow my path.
I did pass the N1 level while working full time, so one would say it is a pretty good achievement. Don’t get me wrong, I was so happy about myself when I got the results. The problem is I studied so hard, without a break, and ended up burning out. After the test, I couldn’t bring myself to study any Japanese for more than a year, and of course, my level dropped down a lot.
Below is what I did and the resources I used (and I would still recommend). At the end I’ll go through the things I would do differently today, without time hacks and avoiding burnouts.
But first… a little introduction about the test.
JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test) is an exam that certifies proficiency in Japanese of non-native speakers. It has five levels going from N5, the easiest, to N1, the most difficult. You can take the test in Japan twice a year, at the beginning of July and December. In the rest of the world, you can take the test only once a year, usually in December. On the official website, you can find the updated dates and the deadlines for registration.
It is a test with multiple choice questions and a very rigid structure. It’s not necessarily an accurate indicator of your level of Japanese as it doesn’t include any writing or speaking sections. However, the companies in Japan and abroad widely recognise it. So if your goal is to work with the language by any means go for it.
After living for two years in Kyoto I got the N1 level certification in December 2015, while working full time in London.
I highly recommend to start preparing well in advance and to dedicate a few months of studies to this test. Don’t underestimate it.
What did I use?
First of all, if you’re serious about studying Japanese, I would recommend an electronic dictionary (電子辞書
My everyday companion was Anki, an app based on the spaced repetition system that I used to study in every spare minute. I studied while commuting to work, queuing at the post office, cooking dinner. I used it to memorize kanji by creating cards showing the reading on one side and the characters on the other. It is also great to repeat vocabulary, expressions, grammar. I found it useful to create my own decks in order to learn faster, but you can find ready-made ones online for every JLPT level.
While Anki is a good tool and I would still use it and recommend it, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to fill their every moment with kanji repetitions. Instead, it would be better to have a set time a day when you work through your decks. Also, try to write the kanji by hand. I know some people consider it a waste of time, but for me, it has always been an immensely soothing activity. Sure, it might take you a bit longer to prepare, but you’ll turn your studies into a self-care activity.
Two skills to focus on
I also tried to make the most of my lunch break: I brought a book and read at least a little bit every day. It did expand my vocabulary and it was a great exercise for the reading comprehension part.
For many students, this is the hardest bit of the test, especially because the time is tight. It’s vital to train yourself to skim read and to learn how to read fast. It’s important for you to choose the right material according to your level. It doesn’t have to be so difficult you don’t understand most words, but also not so easy you don’t get a change to improve your vocabulary.
One more skill you could train when you have just a little time is listening. Search for podcasts on topics of your interest. If you are a beginner or intermediate level student, then the material for foreign students might be good for you. If you’re at an advanced level do your research in Japanese and listen to shows aimed at natives. When you are tired and you want to take a break don’t forget that music can be very useful for studies. Listening to a song many times will make sentences stuck in your head without making an effort.
Once again, remember to take a break. It’s great to listen to a podcast or a playlist in Japanese on your commute, but don’t feel guilty if you need some rest. Immersion is as helpful as it can be draining.
JLPT is a rigid exam that tests a specific set of skills, not just a general knowledge of the language. Get some textbooks specifically created as a preparation for this test, for example, the Kanzen Master series. For kanji, I used the books printed by the language school I used to study at, Arc Academy. Take the time to go through a couple of mock tests: check if you can make it within the time and find out what you still need to work on.
Give yourself plenty of time to prepare – ideally 6 months to a year for the highest levels. Study consistently, make the time for it through your week and leave off some moments to relax and do nothing.
We’ve been brainwashed to use every second in a productive way, possibly doing more than one thing at once – despite having evidence that multitasking is bad for our mental and physical health. To stay in love with Japanese even after JLPT, do yourself a favour: don’t push yourself too hard.
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Do you have any suggestions, secrets or tools you used to study Japanese?