I often get a lot of questions as to what to study or do when. Over the next year I’ll be walking through a rough game plan you can use to guide you through what you should be doing every month as you gear up for the test. Keep in mind that you can speed this schedule up or slow it down to fit your lifestyle.
This first month is going to involve some planning and taking a good look at what you can realistically do in a year before the exam. You want to lay in some broad healthy habits that will strengthen you overall for the test as well, basically vocabulary practice and reading. Essentially, there are 3 steps you need to take:
If you took the December 2013 JLPT you probably have a good idea of where you stand. If you scored below 30 in a particular category, consider it a weakness even if you passed the section. If you scored above 30 on all the sections of the test, then the section you scored the lowest in is your weakness. Keep this in mind as you go to lay out your general plan for this year.
If you passed the level you were going for, then you should probably move on to the next level. Some people like to repeat to get a better score, but I say a pass is a pass. Keep going. If you need the grammar or vocabulary it will come up and you’ll be practicing the reading and listening skills on the next level.
If you didn’t pass you should take a good hard look at what held you back. Was it lack of vocabulary? Reading speed? You’ll need to focus on those weaknesses over the next few months.
If you didn’t take the December 2013 JLPT, there are plenty of free practice tests available for you. The tests below are not full-sized tests, but they should give you a general idea of what to expect:
There are some other materials that are called official workbooks, but in reality they are full-sized practice tests:
JLPT N1 Official Workbook (on JLPT.jp)
JLPT N2 Official Workbook (on JLPT.jp)
There are also paid options. You might be wondering why you should pay for something when there are free alternatives, but the paid options include feedback and detailed explanations of why certain answers are wrong. These are great for the more complicated levels of the test N3+:
Take note that scores from N1 and N2 practice tests can sometimes be wildly off. At this higher level, there are simply too many topics and too much stuff to cover, so if for example you don’t read very many nature articles and there happen to be a few on the reading section, your score could suffer as a result. It’s best to try to do 2 practice tests if you can. That will hopefully average things out for you.
You should also try your best to emulate real test conditions as much as possible when you take a practice test. For example, don’t take longs breaks between the sections, stay in your seat, and don’t eat or drink anything. Try to do it in a fairly quiet room with little distractions (ie no TV, music etc…).
This can be a little difficult at times especially if you have a tough schedule. If this is the case for you and you can’t squeeze in the whole test, just try to do a section at a time.
2. New Study Habits to Start
One of the first things you’ll want to get started on is vocabulary. It takes a lot of time to digest the words you’ll need to be fluent for a particular level. It’s the one thing that I personally practice all the time. At the lower levels this means a lot of SRS. At the higher levels it means a lot of reading coupled with some SRS backup.
SRS, or Spaced Repetition Systems, are systems that help you retain vocabulary by reminding you of the item right when you are about to forget it. The most popular mostly-offline app that does this is Anki. It has a desktop, iPhone, and android app and you can sync progress across platforms.
The alternative is the mostly-online Memrise.com. The advantage of Memrise is that users contribute mnemonics to help you remember the words. The system is still not as mature as Anki but it is getting there.
The reason I bring up the differences between these two systems is that once you choose a system it will be difficult to switch. So, if you are just starting out, you might want to put some thought into which you want to use. There are also numerous alternatives to these two systems, for example paper flash cards or mobile apps like StickyStudy.
This vocabulary drilling will form the base of your studies. Try to do it before any other studying. And because you are doing it every day, make sure to keep it tame. If you are drilling for more than 30 minutes a day, you should probably think about changing it up a bit, either take a break from adding new words or try using more mnemonics. Or you can even delete words that you are pretty confident with or see often.
You may also want to have another list or set of flashcards of words that you picked up somewhere else and want to keep reviewing.
Increasing Reading Speed
One of the biggest complaints about the test is that you have to read really fast to finish in time. Having a good reading speed can help you get thorough the test quickly and allow you some time to stop and think as well as check your answers.
Up until N3 reading speed isn’t that much of a problem. Just be sure to practice kanji well enough to read it quickly and smoothly. Pay attention to radicals and focus on the differences between kanji. It will help you to speed read to get a general idea of what an essay is about.
After N3, you will really need to pick up the pace. It is incredibly easy to run out of time on the N2 if you are not careful. You’ll have to force yourself to read faster. Be sure to time yourself reading often and keep pushing your limits. You will have to get out of your comfort zone and read fast to pass this level.
I recommend picking up a few fun books to read just to get used to reading and comfortable with seeing a lot of Japanese. You will need to read some of the hard stuff eventually though. The reading drill books for the Kanzen Master series (N2, N1) and So-Matome series (N2, N1) are a good start, but you can also use the past tests (一級[N1]) to help you, too.
It can be painful to get started on the habit of reading, but once you get started and in a rhythm you’ll find yourself working through material pretty quick and learning and recognizing kanji, vocabulary, and grammar will be just that much more easier for you.
3. Plan out your path
Now that you have a good idea of what to study, it’s time to think about how you want to split up your studying time. The test requires a decent balance between your skills. And your sanity requires a balance of what to study.
I personally believe the test should be a yardstick to measure yourself by and to force you into good reading and listening habits, because at the higher levels you will need them to pass due to time constraints. The skills you will pick up on your path to the top will be invaluable to you. But, you still need to have fun and enjoy the language. Keep this in mind when you start to plan out what and how you are studying.
I try to pick out and buy the books I’m going to work through when I start studying for a certain level. The advantage to this is that I can physically see how much I need to do in order to prepare for the exam. Also, once I’ve paid for something, I feel obligated to do something with it, which is extrinsic motivation, but still motivating. Lastly, if you are outside of Japan it can cut down on the shipping and waiting around for the books, if you are getting your books from Japan, and a lot of the good books are only available here.
The first book you’ll want to start with is probably grammar. Some people like to work through vocabulary and kanji books at first. I’ve never gone through any vocabulary or kanji books because I have had pretty good luck with Anki and Memrise so far, but I’ve heard that they can be useful, especially for pointing out nuances of certain words. I would highly recommend reviewing them on a regular basis though either with an SRS (better) or simply re-reading them (good).
As for recommendations, generally speaking the Tanki Master series is highly regarded as good prep books for the lower levels (N5, N4, N3) while Kanzen Master and So-Matome are better for the higher levels (N3+). White Rabbit Press tends to be the best place to pick up books and also has reasonable shipping costs to outside of Japan.
If you are at a lower level (N5 or N4) you are probably not that familiar with Japanese grammar. Also, a lot of the grammar you learn at this level is very foundational. You’ll be using it on a daily basis if you are speaking Japanese regularly. Because of this, you’ll most likely be taking it pretty slow with learning grammar.
This first month of study is all about getting into the swing of things and creating a habit of studying. You might be eager to pile on the drilling and to get through the books for the test as fast as you can, but keep it tame this month. Over time, you can add more and more as you get used to it and find more time in your schedule.
What will you do this first month?
How is your study plan coming along? Is it similar? What would you change? Let me know in the comments.
This is just an excerpt from the JLPT Study Kit. Inside the kit, you’ll also find:
- complete details on how to schedule out your studying
- how to get more out of your practice tests
- step by step how to make effective Anki decks and flashcards
- a PDF checklist of what to do your first month
- what to do when you failed a level and need to retake it
- and more…
If you haven’t picked up the kit, why not give it a try? It has a 90 day money back guarantee, so you have nothing to lose!