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Preparing for the December JLPT

We are inching closer to the big test day on December 4th. I’m getting regular emails from everyone about what they can do to increase their score this late in the game. You’ve studied as much as you were motivated to, you hopefully went through all those JLPT prep books you bought to get ready for test day. So, you might think you have done everything you can to get ready. But, there are some things you should keep in mind before you head to the test.
Test-taking is an imperfect way of measuring your skills. Even though it is the best current way to do so, it has its faults. Take the JLPT tests your Japanese ability, but it also inadvertently tests your test-taking ability. And this is a skill you to need to learn to maximize your points. How to manage your time, familiarity with test questions, what kind of test questions will be asked are all things you should know if you want the best score.
Another aspect of test-taking is the mental game. It’s not enough to simply know the material, you need to be able to endure the mental endurance of the test itself. Simple things like losing focus during a critical moment of the listening or going blank in the middle of a reading passage can obviously cost you points. The JLPT will stress your focus more than real life because there is no going back in some sections like listening. And for the higher levels, you only get one, sometimes relatively quick break. That might not be enough to recoup your mental strength. So, what can you do to be prepared?

Decide on a Plan

Hopefully by now you have taken at least one practice or mock exam. This is helpful for any level of the test, but especially important if you are at the N2 or higher level. N2 and N1 require some different skills and generally better time management because there are only two testing sessions for these tests. The first session is quite long, almost 2 hours. So, you need to get a feel for how best to use that time.
So, first things first, if you haven’t done a mock/practice test, you can check out some of the free ones from the JLPT organization. They call them workbooks, but they are basically full mock tests, made up of questions from previous tests. I’ve added notes to the first three levels:
JLPT N3 Workbook
JLPT N4 Workbook
JLPT N5 Workbook

The Workbooks for N2 and N1 are only available on JLPT.jp due to copyright restrictions.
If you have exhausted all those mock tests, there are some great options at White Rabbit Press. The best ones are available from Unicom, like this N5 mock test. There are also some great mock tests from JResearch with good explanations, like this one for N4.
If you have the time, and you haven’t done so already, you should take one of these mock tests and mark down the times when you finish each section of the test. Be sure to limit yourself to the actual time limit of each section for your level. If one the real test you only have 70 minutes to complete section, time it out and only give yourself that much time. But while you are taking the test write down (on the actual test or the answer sheet), the time that you complete each section. Later, you can calculate how much time you need for each part. You can these times to form a set plan or “time budget”. Try to make it as specific as possible without going overboard.
During the test, stick to your plan. If you start to go “over budget” in a section, more on as quickly as possible. This will keep you from drowning in a section if you find yourself dwelling on a particular question or group of questions. There might be questions later in the test that you can answer more easily for more points.
If you are worried about leaving some questions unanswered, you might want to factor in some extra time into your budget that you can use to go back and check the questions you felt you needed more time with. For more details on how to formulate a test taking strategy, premium users can check that particular section of the JLPT guide.
And of course, to make use of any of this strategy, you are going to need a watch. Be sure to pack a basic, nothing fancy watch with you. You can usually find one at a Y100 store in Japan. You will not have access to your smartphone obviously. In some cases, you will have to put it inside a bag that can not be opened during the test. In other cases, they might provide a clock in the room where you are taking the test or they might even announce that you have 5 minutes left. Unfortunately, they not required to do either, so prepare for the worst and pack a watch.

Don’t Fear Failing

In my final quarter of college, I had already earned enough credits to graduate, but I was taking a few classes as a victory lap before moving on to better things. Being that I really did not care that much about passing the finals, I caved into temptation when one of my buddies asked me to go drinking with him. I thought I would just have a few drinks and head back to my place. The night lasted a lot longer, and by the time I made it back I was pretty drunk, and had a final the next day.
I got up at 9am still a little intoxicated, drank some water and a shot for the hair of the dog, and shuffled off to the test, fully expecting to fail. When I got the results back later, I had passed with flying colors. I actually managed to exceed my expectations of taking sober.
Now, I’m not advocating heavy alcohol use before test day. That’s probably the last thing you should do. I’m confident when I say that my alcohol use had little to no positive effect on my test score. What helped me pass the test that day was a feeling of simply trying my best and seeing how I did. I really had nothing to lose by just trying. I had no fear of getting questions wrong, because I really didn’t have anything at stake except for maybe pride. I figured I would just do my best and see where the chips laid at the end of the day. I wasn’t afraid to fail. In some ways, I was expecting to fail, and didn’t care that much about it.
the failure rates for the JLPT can be quite high. Ranging from 40% at N5 to 70% at N1. Somewhere along the line you will probably fail the test. If you don’t, you really aren’t pushing yourself that hard. So don’t fear it. The more you fail, the more you learn.
I recently re-watched the entire Rocky series of movies, the good and the bad. It was on Hulu Japan, and I just couldn’t help myself. Some of the quotes from the movies have a surprising amount of power to them. One that I felt is especially relevant comes from Rocky 6/Rocky Balboa/Rocky Final:

…it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.

Yeah okay, you aren’t going to boxing match. It’s just a test, but try to remember that. For most people taking the JLPT, a fail isn’t going to instantly ruin your life. Victory is only sweet if hard fought for. Good luck in two weeks everyone!

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Brandon November 25, 2016, 12:57 pm

    This post is a much needed reminder to relax (and also buy a watch). I’ve been stressing a little during the last couple of weeks. This will be my first year to take the JLPT. When I was about to sign up earlier this year I took a short N4 practice test and it seemed like passing that level would be pretty easy, so I signed up to take the N3 with plans to study hard. Then work got extra busy and my studying was sporadic. I just did the N3 workbook/practice test from the JLPT website and my unscaled scores were
    -Vocabulary: 13/33. I think Kanji was the killer here.
    -Grammar/Reading: 25/39. I was about to run out of time while on the second to last section, so I jumped to the last section, skimmed and answered those quickly, then bubbled in a few guesses on the questions I had skipped before the timer went off.
    -Listening 21/27. I figured this would be my strength and perhaps the only section I’d pass. Hopefully that’s still true on the real exam.

    Unscaled (if I’m doing the math right) these numbers have me barely passing. But I’m guessing these wouldn’t pass after scaling. I’m spending some time with Anki and Memrise when I can, but the rest of life isn’t going to slow up before the exam. I wish I knew a quicker way to get kanji into my brain! Thanks for this website. I’ve listened to some of your podcast too and have enjoyed it.

    • Clayton MacKnight November 28, 2016, 1:59 pm

      Yeah, those are pretty good scores, but might not be enough to pass. Looks like you need to pump up your vocabulary. There are not a lot of good resources for N3 unfortunately. I took it while I was studying for N2 as a stepping stone. In that sense, it was pretty easy.

      Have you tried the memrise course?

      • Brandon November 29, 2016, 3:27 am

        Memrise is great! I downloaded it after you recommended it on a podcast episode. I’ve been going through the “JLPT N3 Vocab (with audio)” course and am retaining words better than I used to with flashcards. Not sure if that’s the course you are talking about. It is slow to introduce new words but long term it is probably just the right speed.

  • Alain November 29, 2016, 12:15 pm

    First time for me too, but it’s the N5 for me. I feel the same as Brandon. I took the sample test and the results were not what I expected:
    – Vocabulary: 27/33
    – Grammar / reading: 19/32
    – Listening: 13/24
    I thought I’d do the grammar / reading part a bit better so I’m a bit disapointed. And then the listening part … Well, I know it’s my weak spot so I wasn’t expecting to make a perfect score, but still, that’s hard :/

    I was pretty confident before taking the sample test but now it’s a different story. I still hope I’ll do good next sunday!

  • Erica November 29, 2016, 4:18 pm

    N2 has loomed over my head for about as long as I can remember having even studied Japanese, at this point, and as I approach the point where I’ll be taking it, I must say, I’m painfully lacking in confidence. Truthfully, I think I won’t do terribly, but I am extremely hesitant towards the entire Listening portion, simply because it’s my weakest point. I’ve done all I can to improve that skill–which is difficult with no native speakers anywhere near me!–but I still feel that’s what will ultimately cost me the test.
    Regardless, this was a much-needed post. I won’t be able to study much between school, work, and recovery, but I sincerely hope I remember that failing isn’t the end of the world by the time I take the real thing.

  • Lars December 3, 2016, 9:05 am

    I’m gonna take the N1 tomorrow. The mock exam went not so bad – I had 95% correct at the listening part and between 60-70% at the kanji, vocabulary, reading part. This looks quite good but as you mentioned above test-taking skills are also important. And I’m actually not so great at that. Under pressure I can never show my full potential unfortunately.

  • Irene December 3, 2016, 12:58 pm

    Thank you for this post and especially the quote! Taking N1 (and JLPT at all for that matter) for the first time tomorrow and getting more and more stressed out, ha-ha.
    Good luck to all fellow test-takers!

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