This is a continuing series going over a sample JLPT study guide. If you are just joining the discussion, you might want to check out month 1, month 2, month 3, month 4, month 5, month 6, month 7, month 8, month 9 and month 10 before continuing.
In college, I never used to cram for tests. My general philosophy was that if I hadn’t gotten at this point I probably wasn’t going to get it by reviewing some notes last minute. I was better off doing some studying, some example questions from previous exams, and simply taking care off myself by eating right and getting enough sleep before the test day.
I learned to do this after my first couple of quarters overworking myself before major tests and not really seeing the results. I figured what was the point of using all that extra energy for no benefits. And I scoffed at those that stayed up trying to cram in the last few terms they could in hopes gaining a few extra points on the test.
So, was wrong to think that cramming had no effect? Is everyone that crams before a test crazy to do so? After all, you have probably heard from a couple of different sources that cramming is a bad idea. So, should you just avoid it like the plague?
Well, of course the proper way to study for a test is the slow and steady method. This allows your brain to reinforce the proper neural pathways in your brain. This over learning will allow what you learned to permanently stick in your head.
But, we are, after all, all human. Things can come up. Plans change. And just stuff happens that you didn’t plan for. So, you don’t get all that study time in like you wanted to. And now you are just a week a way from the test and really want to know what you could do to improve your score with what little time you have left.
And it makes sense to push in this final stretch because if you fail the test you might have to wait another 6 Months or a year to take the test again. You don’t want all that studying you have been doing over the last few months or year to go to waste.
So is there such a thing as cramming in a healthy way? Is there a right way and a wrong way to cram?
Top 10 Things to do to Cram
1) Eat Right
In my free booklet when you sign up for my mailing list, I go over what to eat before the big test day. But, even before test day, you should stick to a healthy diet. Obviously, it’s beyond the scope of this blog post to fill you in on everything you need to consider for crafting a perfect well-balanced diet, but there are a few basic principles you can keep in mind.
Eating lots of fatty foods can slow you down and make you feel tired, not to mention eating a regular high fat diet has been shown to possibly cause brain damage, so obviously something to avoid. Instead, try to eat protein-rich foods like nuts. If you like to munch while you are studying, consider making a trail mix of nuts, some dried fruit (without too much added sugar) and a high fiber cereal like genmai (玄米, brown rice) flakes in Japan. Don’t go overboard on the fiber, but it can fill you up and keep you from thinking about food and more about studying.
And of course always start with a big breakfast and a smaller dinner to keep you from feeling sluggish in the morning. I personally go with the traditional Japanese breakfast of natto and rice. It has protein and lots of carbohydrates for the day, but try out a few combinations and see what works for you.
2) 90/20 Studying
One common mistake is starting to study without really breaking down how, what or how long you are going to study for. You might schedule tasks as to-dos. First, I have to review all this grammar. Then, do some reading practice. And finally, finish with some test questions.
This can lead to the whole day dragging on and your concentration starting to fade away as you beat yourself up working through drill after drill. In Month 6, I talked about how to study all day and still keep your focus. We are going to take that one step further and introduce a slightly different variant to what we had before. This is to help us sync up a little better with our mental cycles.
As Leo Widich of Buffer writes:
One of the things most of us easily forget is that as humans, we are distinctly different from machines. At the core, this means that machines move linearly and humans move cyclically.
So, we need to start planning things in cycles. To be more specific, it seems like 90 minutes cycles are the perfect amount of time to focus on a specific task, and then take a break. After concentrating on the task at hand for 90 minutes, it is good to take a 20 minute or so break to allow your mind to gather up some more energy to go back into another cycle. These naturally occurring cycles are called ultradian rhythms.
It all kind of looks like this:
In order for these to work the best and for you to stay the most focused, it is good to plan out what you are going to be studying during each cycle and what exactly you will be doing for the breaks. Are you going to have a little snack? Get some exercise? Take a nap?
Whatever you decide to do during the breaks, make sure you get up and go somewhere else. Changing your environment will help make a clear mental change that will allow you to refresh so that you can start again.
3) Don’t just Look at, Reprocess it
It is very easy to lull yourself into a feeling that you are getting some real cramming done by reading through your grammar books and the numerous example sentences that each one provides. I know this is something that I used to do a couple of days before the test. But this doesn’t really reinforce anything. It just kind of skims off the top of your brain and skips off into nowhere.
To learn it, you need to redigest it. This could mean writing out new sentences using the grammar or vocabulary. This could mean trying to write down grammar rules from memory. It could meaning doing some dictation practice with some listening passages that you have already gone through a few times. Or reading a passage and then trying to summarize it in Japanese.
Whatever you do, don’t take the lazy approach of just skimming over it. I know that you are saying to yourself that you only have a few precious days before the exam and that you need to really pack in as much as you can before the big day, but try to take some time to digest the material as much as possible. Especially for grammar, and reading and listening skills. For vocabulary and kanji, I’ll go over a different technique later.
4) Think like a Test Writer
When you are combing through all your notes and reference materials, be on the look out for things that a test writer might want to ask you about. Is there particle used a little differently than the English translation of it would lead you to believe? Are these two grammar points interchangeable or is there a difference between them? What is the difference? Try to look at how the points are related to each other.
Grammar is often times a lot more complex than just the translation. Especially at N3 and above, expressions have different connotations. They have to be used in a positive or negative way for example. Or they can only be used for conjecture and not facts. Make sure you know how to use these expressions. Don’t just memorize what goes before and what goes after.
5) Bulk up on Vocabulary and Kanji
The one thing that you can really bulk up on is vocabulary and kanji in your final stretch before the test. Even though you should really take the time to overlearn vocabulary and kanji, you can try to cram through a lot of them before the test if you are desperate.
This will help you to at least have a faint idea of their meanings and uses. And hopefully armed with this knowledge you can try to make some educated guesses from context as to the meaning of the kanji or vocabulary. Also, just simply being exposed to correct kanji can help out in the kanji sections of the test where you are often times presented with fake kanji. If you know it is fake (because you’ve never seen it before) you can easily dismiss it as the wrong answer and focus on the other answers.
This should be a no brainer, but it is worth restating the obvious. Be sure to get a good amount of sleep. Sleep gives your body time to process and file away what it has learned. Without good sleep, all that review time is for nothing because your brain won’t be able to file it away.
8 hours is usually considered the best amount of time, but 7 hours could do in a pinch if you need to. And in case you have time for it, oversleeping is not a good idea either. Too much of a good thing, is not good after all. It can leave you sluggish and feeling even sleeper. Be sure you are sleeping your personal optimal amount.
Another tip I can suggest is to make sure your bedroom is pitch black. I personally wear a cap to cover my eyes when I sleep. This has done absolute wonders in terms of the quality of sleep that I get. It is true that we are programmed to wake up when the sun does. You may not realize, but you might not be getting as deep a sleep as you could be if you don’t black out your room.
If you are like me, you may have never thought about doing anything with aromas, much less use it to study with. We often think of aromatherapy helping us to relax while we take a nap or sleep through the night, but it has a variety of other uses like helping you to feel more energetic, or improve concentration, which is obviously a big help for when you are studying for a big test.
If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense (no pun intended). When someone is knocked out cold, or when athletes are semi-conscious and need to get back into the game, medics will often use smelling salts to wake them up and get them to focus on what they are asking them to do. These sharp smelling salts trigger the brain to be more alert and conscious of what is going on around them. Think about the last time you opened the fridge to a putrid smell, you instantly focused on the fridge to look for what was stinking up the place right?
Now, you could grab a lot of smelling salts and crack one open at the beginning of each study session. Some athletes have actually been observed doing this before they have to get into a game or before a big moment like attempting a big lift. But, being that smelling salts are actually ammonia gas that could cause permanent damage, you might want to rethink that approach.
You can get a similar effect of mental sharpness from some other scents. For example, rosemary is considered one of the best scents to work with. But, other sharp smells like peppermint, basil, juniper berry, and sage can also bring you some more clarity. You can even mix these together to get something unique that perks you up the most.
8) Don’t Over-nest
Nobody likes to just sit down and study, and sometimes you just have to stare that truth in the face and sit down and start studying and hope that the motivation comes later. But, sometimes this reluctance to start studying manifests itself as over preparing for studying. You might think you need your perfect glass of tea, or have to go to your favorite cafe before starting, but the truth is you really don’t.
Do make sure you are prepared with the right materials you need to study for the whole time you set aside to do so (90 minutes or so) and just start. You’ll find that after the first couple of minutes you will sink into a rhythm of study and be able to dive into the material even if you don’t have that special drink with you.
9) Set a Veg Out Goal for Yourself.
Over the next week or so, you will have to remain really focused on your final goal of taking the test. There will be times that you will want to break down and watch your favorite TV show, or pick up the game controller to play just one short game, or check Facebook and see what your friends are doing. The temptation to stop studying and just relax will be pretty big.
So, give your mind a little gift by promising it that it can take a break and veg out as soon as the test is over. Set a veg out goal for yourself. This could range from a night out with your friends to re-watching the entire Star Wars series in preparation for the release of episode VII (in Dec 2015). Whatever it is, promise yourself that you will do it as soon as the test is over. This will help you keep pushing in this final stretch.
If put forth a great effort in these last couple of days before the test and do your best to review and reprocess all of the content you need for the test, you have done the best you can do to prepare for the test. Does that mean you will for sure pass the exam? Well, maybe not, and that is okay.
See, even if you are the correct level and you have put the time in, it is still possible to fail due to a variety of factors – test anxiety, unfamiliar topics for listening and reading, distracting test-takers, etc… Nothing is for certain.
The point is to do your best and see where you score. There is always next time if you fall a little flat this round. Good luck and let me know how you do!
Are you ready for the test?
Do you feel you are ready? How much cramming are you going to do? Let me know in the comments below.
This is just an excerpt from the JLPT Study Kit. Inside the kit, you’ll also find:
- How to create a test taking strategy so that you can get the maximum number of points
- How to play to your strengths when taking the test
- How to study the most efficient way
- a PDF checklist of what to do each month
- 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!