N3 is right in the middle of all the tests. It really has no equivalent to the old tests. The best way to look at it is that it tests the easier 50% of what was originally on the level 2 or ２級 test. It requires about 450 hours of classroom study in order to pass, which is about 3 years of college study. If you majored in Japanese in college you should be able to pass this test.
The N3 was mostly created because students were having a difficult time moving up from level 3 to level 2 of the old tests. The N3 was designed to bridge that gap between those two tests. I have to agree that the test really helps focus on some nuances that are not covered in N4, but are required for higher level speaking.
There are actually three sets of practice tests available for each level of the JLPT. The first set are called ‘sample questions’. These just have two questions for each section. Basically, it is a good way to get a feel for what the test is like and how difficult it is before taking a full practice test. There are also two full practice tests you can download for free as well. The JLPT website refers to these as ‘workbooks’.
JLPT N3 – Basic Info
The N3 covers intermediate Japanese. You should be able to, of course, understand and use basic Japanese with ease. Also at this level, you should be able to get the general idea of more complicated materials like advertisements and newspaper headlines. You are also able to listen and comprehend the general idea of conversations spoken at near-native speed about daily topics.
In my highly unofficial opinion, the aim of N3 is to test your ability to work in a mainly English-speaking environment where Japanese might be spoken from time to time. If you pass N3, you should be able to live fairly comfortably in Japan. You will be able to have more complex conversations and be able to make plans and express your (simple) opinions easily.
JLPT N3 – Grammar
Most of the grammar lists are pure guesses for N3. Chances are you are going to see a lot more conjunctions at this level. I have been using grammar books that children use in junior high school to prepare for this level. There are also some other lists available on the web that are based on corpus data that might be more accurate, but it is anybody’s guess. Jonathan Waller has a good estimate of the grammar for N3 on his site here.
In general though, look for a lot of different kinds of discourse markers like つまり、そのために、etc… Also, more nuanced grammar points like ~おかげで– thanks to ~ and ~せいで– because of ~ something negative happened. In terms of advanced conjunctions look out for terms like ~に
JLPT N3 – Kanji
The amount of kanji that will be tested on in N3 is approximately 650. This includes the 300 kanji from N5 and N4. So, for N3 you will need to learn an additional 350 or so kanji. The question is, what kanji will be on the test? Again there are a few estimates to go by.
One rule of thumb to go by is the grade levels for kanji, also referred to as kyoiku kanji or 教育漢字. If you are not familiar with the system, certain kanji are taught at certain grades in elementary school. The exact kanji that are studied are set by the Ministry of Education in Japan. They are arranged into 6 grades that correspond to the 6 years of elementary school. For more information on the exact kanji for each level, check out Wikipedia’s list.
The general consensus is that the kanji for N3 correspond to the first 4 levels of this system. If you add the first 4 grade levels together, you get a total of 648 kanji, which is about the same number of kanji that is on the test (650). I would recommend doing drills on these first 4 grade levels in preparation for the exam. Most kanji practicing software has drill decks already set up this way, so it shouldn’t be that difficult.
I do recommend supplementing that with occasionally looking over the higher grades (5 and 6) as well. Even if these higher grades aren’t on the test, you’ll be even more prepared for N2. Also, at this phase of your Japanese study, you should really start doing some more reading. There are a few graded readers available for you to practice your reading skills and these will have kanji in them so you can study kanji at the same time.
JLPT N3 – Vocabulary
There are a approximately 3500 words that you need to know for the N3. Again, there are a lot of estimates out there on the web that are trying to predict what this word list looks like. There are also a few handy books that focus just on the vocabulary for the N3. I personally recommend ASK’s vocabulary book for N3. I’m a big fan of their series of books, but it only has 1200 words in it.
Keep in mind that even if you study every list and you master it, there will still be words on the test that you have never encountered before. You will usually encounter these in the paraphrases and usage sections of the vocabulary test. In my experience, they tend to throw in at least one word that is not on any list. The test is truly designed to measure your proficiency not your ability memorize lists.
The best study strategy is to split your time between studying flashcards or a vocabulary book specifically designed for N3 and doing some reading that doesn’t have anything to do with lists. Like I said earlier you can find some graded readers that will have different vocabulary in them. If you are in Japan, you can visit a used bookstore and grab some books that are aimed at elementary students. These should be your grammar and vocabulary level, and will most likely have furigana (the hiragana above the kanji) to help you read any kanji you can’t recognize.
So, What is this Thing Good for Anyway?
The JLPT N3 is a serious step up. You have at least entered the minor leagues at this point. This is something that you could put on your resume and probably get more interviews because of it. This doesn’t quite give you the ability to work in an all-Japanese environment unless you can backup your test results with some pretty good fluency.
The N3 shows that you are dedicated to learning Japanese and could potentially become fluent with some more practice. If you have other qualifications, this might help you land a job at a Japanese company if you can show that you can communicate with Japanese on a business level. Note however that some companies may automatically turn you away if you don’t have a certain level on the test no matter how qualified or fluent you are.
At this level it will become increasingly more difficult to pass if you live outside of Japan. It’s difficult, but by no means impossible. If you are living outside of Japan, you will need to at least find a Japanese penpal or friend that can help you with the nuances of the test. There are several grammar points that are very similar, but have shades of meaning. The best way to learn about these is to ask native speakers as well as try out the grammar as much as possible and make lots of mistakes until you learn it.
The JLPT N3 is the midway point to complete fluency. This stage of learning the language can be very frustrating because you will be able to understand at least 50% of every conversation, but you won’t be able to completely understand. I personally find this to be frustrating because you may want to enter a conversation, but aren’t completely sure that you are understanding what is being talked about. Never fear though, you are making solid progress!
Now it’s your turn to take action. In the comments below, let me know any resources you are using to study for the JLPT N3. Did they help? What would you recommend to someone that is studying for the N3? Don’t be afraid, help your fellow man (and woman) pass the test!