Take the JLPTs in Succession or Go for the Gold?

JLPT N2 Go For GoldThere are 5 different levels of the JLPT. From N5 all the way up to the big daddy N1.  I recently got an email from a reader asking about whether to head straight for N2 or to take the tests in succession.  This is an awfully good question, because it’s hard to know where to start. Especially when it seems like the N2 and N1 are the only two that mean something to potential employers and it is also where you are able to really use Japanese well enough to read books or manga and watch Japanese dramas.

It’s important to know where to start because some of these tests take a lot of effort to pass, and that effort could be wasted if you go for the wrong test. For those outside of Asia, you probably only get to take the test once a year. Even inside Asia, twice a year isn’t very much. If you fail a test, you have to wait another 6 months or more before you can take it again.

So, should you take each test one by one? N5 the first year, then N4 the next and so on? Or just go straight for the prize of N2 or even N1. Well, it all depends on your motivation and why you are taking the test.

Taking the Tests in Succession (N5, N4, N3…)

The tests are divided out into 5 levels. Each of these levels targets specific grammar points, vocabulary, and kanji. The tests will assume you already now the previous level’s grammar points, vocabulary, and kanji. So it won’t test you on the previous level’s grammar, only the current level of grammar.

You might think big deal right? But, previous level grammar might not actually appear on the test anywhere, so if your goal is to be able to understand Japanese fairly perfectly, this might not be the best option. I’d say to be fluent in any language you have to have a pretty good understanding of the grammar. After all, there will always be new vocabulary and idioms in any language.

So, if you are looking to use Japanese heavily, say for example, you need to do a lot of business in Japanese, or you have family that only speak Japanese or you want to teach Japanese, or you just want to sound smart and correct, it is important to over-learn the grammar, so it always sticks in your head.

Also, Japanese has the added disadvantage or challenge depending on how look at it, of having a different writing system. Actually 3 different writing systems, kanji, hiragana, and katakana. It’s important to know these as well, and the tests go over these in slices so you are not so overwhelmed.

Taking the tests in succession really helps to permanently embed grammar and kanji into your head because you will be focusing on each level or ‘slice’ of the language at a time. It is crucial to learn how to use a grammar point the right way from the very beginning.

I have met several (English) students that have high fluency, but still mess up do/be verb sometimes. They know it is a weakness, but they learned it wrong from the beginning and so consistently make the mistake.  So, I can definitely say that if Japanese is important to you, it’s important to over-learn the grammar and fully understand it.

Going Straight for N2 or N1

This is a great strategy if you are already living and working in Japan, and just want to get the qualification for a job or personal achievement. I know a lot of people that went to school in Japan (took classes in Japanese) and took the test as a final achievement to prove their language ability.

I would recommend this strategy if you are already comfortable with Japanese and are quite conversational, but want to study up and learn about all the possible grammar points as well as some key vocabulary that you might be missing.

However, there are a few people that recommend skipping N5 through N3 and going straight to N2 because it is the only test that ‘means’ something to employers. The reasoning behind this is why waste your time taking a test that you can’t use anywhere.

Well, there is some truth to this, and it really depends on what kind of a learner you are. If you are someone who is easily distracted and needs something to stay focused and motivated on (like me). It might be difficult to spend 2 or 3 years studying intensively every day to pass the N2. Especially if you are outside of Japan.

Another common complaint I’ve heard is that the $50 or so fee to take the test is a lot to spend on something just to measure your level. In all fairness though, $50 is a small price to pay to measure your level. Even inside Japan, your average lesson with a good teacher is going to run you about Y2500 ($30) per lesson. And some people will take up to 5 lessons a week to pass N2 and N1.


I think if you are a self-learner, then taking the tests in succession is probably the best way to go. This way you are getting feedback every step of the way. On the other hand, if you are enrolled in a Japanese school and already have a set curriculum you are following, it might be better to go for the N2 straight away.

What are your thoughts? Are you planning to take the tests in succession or are you going straight for N2? Let me know in the comments below.

Image by dalberia, available under the Creative Commons 2.0 Generic License

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • amy April 26, 2011, 6:56 pm

    Hi thank you for your insight. I’m Nikkei japanese American, went to Japanese school on Saturdays and my parents only speak Japanese. However as I got older it was much harder to keep my Japanese and sadly when I got to college I only placed 2nd semester Japanese at Berkeley! 🙁 I’m 26 and decided I really want to apply for the JET program next year as a CIR which requires that I am at level n2 of the JLPT and the since I’m applying this fall I only get one shot at it this December.

    Levels 5 and 4 are pretty basic to me and 3 are kanji I should know but I need I brush up.

    Do you have any suggestions on what the best way to study for level 2 if I haven’t taken levels 5-3? I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed in how much and what I should study from levels 5-3 and when I should start studying for level 2. There are lists over the internet of which single kanji are on each level tests, is this actually accurate? And do you know any places that list combined kanji words that are on the test? When they are combined, they only use other kanji in that level right?

    Also is the test hand written

  • amy April 26, 2011, 7:04 pm

    Oops sorry that published before I was done.

    I was going to ask if the test is electronic or hand written? Do you think Its worth getting a test prep book? There are quite a few brands out there which one do you suggest? Or since, thanks to the internet, many previous tests are at our fingertips- do you think that is enough?

    Thank you so much for your site! I will definitely be reading through your sight in he next couple of months

    • Mac April 27, 2011, 12:35 am

      First, I would suggest taking a practice test or a mock test to check your level. If you take an old test, i.e. pre-2010, be aware that level 2 will actually be easier and the format is a little different. Having said that though, the reading section, which is easily the most difficult at that level, will be similar, not the same, but close enough. The listening section has completely changed from the old test, so just be aware that there are those differences out there.

      You can take the semi-legal previous tests that are available on the net, but these have been known to have mistakes in them. (I’m guessing it is because they have been OCR’d (read in by computer) and some of the characters have been misread, and nobody has bothered to correct them.)

      As for lists of words to use in Anki or the like, Jonathan Waller’s site probably has the most reliable decks for vocab and grammar. You can get Anki (for free) and start studying on those. I would also suggest picking up so-matome’s series of books for the N2. They are available at White Rabbit Press, which is the cheapest way to get JLPT stuff in the states. For a full article on the grammar book check out this article on so matome N2 Grammar.

      The reading is going to be the most difficult for you I think. Having grown up with Japanese around you, your listening should be okay (but I’d still take a new N2 mock test if I were you). And the test is scantron/electronic, so no writing on the test.

      If you have anymore questions let me know Amy. Thanks for commenting!

  • Totty October 1, 2011, 8:58 am

    I have not taken any of the JLPT exams; however, I am currently working as an ALT through the JET program. I plan to stay in Japan for 2 or 3 years and I want to work my proficiency up to level 2 eventually. I wouldn’t say my Japanese is bad (I studied it for a couple years in college) but I am still learning a lot of basics. I have decided not to take the exam until I feel I am ready for level 2 (hopefully sometime next year). I am getting some practice books for the levels 4 and 3 though to work my way up and have a good basis for my skills. I eventually want to teach Japanese in the states and will need this certification. Since I have to use Japanese in my daily life (speaking, listening, and reading!) I feel like I will easily stay motivated and make little progress by studying on my own. Amy good luck on becoming a CIR but just know that there are many ALTs here who are loving life on JET and still get the chance to use their Japanese. There should be an option that says you would be willing to take an ALT position, you should check it!

    • Mac October 2, 2011, 6:39 am

      So do you work in an all Japanese environment? That would definitely be a boost to your learning. You should be able to pass the N2 in short order.

      I also agree that if you are living in Japan, it is fairly easy to keep up your motivation to keep studying because everything you study can be easily put to work. I guess I originally took the old 三級 just to see what my level was, and after passing it on the first try I set my sights on the 二級 which then morphed into the N2.

      Again all depends on your end goal. Good luck on the N2!

  • Mary October 9, 2011, 11:11 am

    Are the tests comprehensive? If I find a list of N1 grammar/vocab/kanji, are those the only grammar points/vocab/kanji that will show up on the test?

    I want to jump into N1 because I have been studying Japanese for a while and since I have a year, why not? But how much of the lower level material should I know?

    Thanks for the advice! 🙂

    • Mac October 10, 2011, 3:22 am

      They are comprehensive in the sense that you have to understand grammar from earlier levels, but they won’t be testing you on it specifically. So, in the listening and reading sections of the test, you will see grammar from other levels that you will have to be able to understand clearly, but in the grammar section they will be testing you on N1 grammar only. Now, some of that ‘new’ grammar will actually be nuances of grammar that is used at lower levels, so it would be helpful to know and study that before attempting N1.

      How long have you been studying Japanese? Do you have a lot of experience with the language?

      To be successful on N2 and N1 you will need speed reading skills and quick response in listening, these come with either a lot of practice or being in a Japanese-only environment. They don’t usually come from just studying and chatting with Japanese friends now and then. So, you might need to practice those skills before taking the test.

      • Mary October 12, 2011, 10:19 am

        Thanks! I suppose it’s the same for the vocab and kanji too, then.

        I’ve been studying since high school, I’ve now graduated from college. I am living in Japan right now and am about a month into my job.

        I guess I should actually make an effort to listen to whole office meeting announcements 😛

        • Mac October 14, 2011, 3:02 pm

          Yeah, sometimes I slip away in meetings when they are all in Japanese. It’s hard to focus for an extended period of time, need to drink some coffee before I head for the meeting room I guess.

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