What to Focus on One Month Before the JLPT

A student sits at a desk in front of a laptop, biting a pencil between their teeth and looking stressed about an upcoming exam.

Image credit: jeshoots.com

Posted: 2nd June 2023

Hi there!

If you're preparing for the JLPT, the title of this post may or may not have struck fear into your heart.

That's right: the exam date is now precisely one month away, on Sunday 2nd July.

As I know the one-month mark is when preparations really kick off in earnest for many people, I wanted to provide a quick checklist for anyone wondering how best to proceed over the next month.

The following list is packed full of what I hope is useful advice based on the experience I've built up over the years as both a teacher and learner of Japanese. However, do remember it's okay to pick and choose from advice you find online (be it here or elsewhere), as there's never just one "correct" way to prepare for an exam like the JLPT. The most important thing is finding what works for you!

If you'd like to skip ahead to any particular part of this post, just click on any of the following links:

  1. Make Sure You Practise with Past Papers
  2. Identify Your Weak (and Strong!) Points
  3. Keep Exposing Yourself to Japanese Language in General
  4. Be Sure to Set Realistic Expectations
  5. Don't Forget the Practical Stuff

Note: none of the links in this post are affiliated, which means I don't make money when you click them.

1. Make Sure You Practise with Past Papers

The first item in this list is something I definitely neglected the first time I sat the JLPT (more on this later).

While it's essential to keep working through vocab, kanji, grammar points and more, don't forget that a huge part of preparing for the JLPT is simply familiarising yourself with the test format.

Getting used to doing past papers can not only help you to develop your ability to answer different types of questions - it can also save you time and energy on the exam day, as once you know what to expect in each section, you shouldn't need to spend precious minutes checking what questions are asking of you.

When advising my students on how to tackle past papers, I suggest the following:

  • Start out by trying an online test (e.g. on easyjapanese.net*)
  • Make sure you try at least one hard copy past paper prior to the exam

*This website requires you to make an account but is (in my experience) not a site that will spam your inbox. One word of warning: when checking your score on a test, double check the result the site gives you, as it sometimes only records the first response you give to a question. In other words, it may mark your answer as incorrect even though you got it right after changing your initial guess.

For hard copies, it is possible to buy these either separately or as part of a textbook such as the TRY! series (top tip: double check the contents before purchasing). However, if you have access to a printer, you can also print out one (or two) of the JLPT Official Practice Workbooks. While these are not perfect copies of past papers, they are extremely close to the real thing, and the same webpage also provides download links to audio files, answer sheets and scripts you can refer to afterwards.

Although it is perfectly possible to simply download PDF copies of the workbooks and use these instead of printed versions, I still strongly recommend printing all sections of the exam plus the answer sheet.

Why?

Because learning to scribble down notes and mark potential answers on the exam paper is an important part of your exam technique! The only place you need to mark your actual answers is on the answer sheet, so take advantage of this opportunity to get used to working out your answers on the question paper first before (carefully) filling in the answer sheet once you're happy with your answers.

Of course, how much you actually want to scribble on your exam paper will depend on you, but personally this is something I have always found invaluable across all parts of the exam - in particular the listening section.

Finally, while it may go without saying, don't forget to use past papers as an opportunity to test yourself under timed conditions. If you find yourself struggling, don't give up - just keep going and see how far over the allotted time you've gone. Your first attempt is bound to take the longest, so don't be too hard on yourself. There's no real secret to getting better other than to keep putting in practice.

If you find that you're consistently going over the allotted exam time, one technique you can try is skipping questions you're struggling with, as you can always come back to them later and make a guess if need be. It is a multiple-choice exam, after all!

2. Identify Your Weak (and Strong!) Points

Having had a go at a past paper, you should have an idea of which areas of the exam you find easier and harder to tackle. Note: even if you have done a past paper before, it's worth retesting yourself at this stage to check if this has changed.

While it is possible that you'll have a fairly even score across each section of the exam, most people have what is known as a "jagged profile", meaning their skills are not uniformly balanced across different areas. For example, many of my students who have lived in Japan or spend a lot of time consuming Japanese media tend to score more highly on listening than on any other section, with reading being a common area which many people identify as a weak point.

Once you know where your own personal strengths and weaknesses lie, this will help you to prioritise your studies in this final stretch before the exam.

3. Keep Exposing Yourself to Japanese Language in General

So far we've been talking a lot about JLPT-focused study, which probably isn't much of a surprise in a post about how to prepare for the JLPT.

However: one element of prepping for the JLPT that many people overlook is just how important it is to simply keep on exposing yourself to the Japanese language in general - no matter what form it comes in.

Looking back on when I was getting ready for the N2 and, later, the N1, I know that I spent a good deal of time working through textbooks and various practice exercises with my teachers at the time - not to mention endless reams of flashcards (both handmade and online). However, the real thing that stands out in my memory is just how much time I spent surrounding myself with Japanese in other ways, be it through media such as podcasts, J-dramas and music or by spending time with Japanese friends and other people learning Japanese.

While not everyone will have the same access to Japanese-speaking spaces as others, there is a great deal you can do to bring Japanese into your daily life.

My advice? Think of something you enjoy already and see if you can find a way of doing it in Japanese. For example:

  • If you're a music fan, seek out Japanese music you enjoy
  • If you're already in the habit of listening to podcasts, try adding a Japanese one to the list (click here for my recommendations at N2 level)
  • If you're into cooking, try looking up some Japanese recipes or YouTube channels where you can follow along

...and so on!

It's important to remember that while the JLPT isn't everything (including when it comes to measuring your ability to actually communicate in Japanese), that's not to say that it exists in a hermetically sealed bubble. In other words, improving your familiarity with Japanese in general should naturally feed into your ability to tackle the JLPT exam. Even if you don't feel like you're studying "properly" by doing things like consuming Japanese media, I promise it will be helping to raise your overall understanding of the language, even if in the tiniest of incremental steps!

4. Be Sure to Set Realistic Expectations

With the exam looming, it's normal to start feeling the pressure.

To my students who are worried about passing the JLPT, I have two bits of advice that I usually share:

  1. Don't forget that you only need 50% to pass - and less per section. While the JLPT has an overall pass mark of 50%, the sectional pass mark is in fact more like 32% (click here for full info). While getting below 50% in one section means you'll need to make up for it elsewhere, this is generally good news for those with jagged skills profiles (which, as mentioned above, is most people).
  2. It's super common to fail the first time - especially if you're entering the JLPT at a higher level, i.e. N3+. While this may sound less than comforting, take solace in the fact that just by deciding to sit the JLPT, you are committing to a significant challenge which it's very normal not to succeed at straight away. I can attest to this personally as someone who completely bombed the N2 my first time round. Although I was lucky to have a fairly low-stakes environment due to the fact I was sitting the exam in Japan (where it's cheaper) and not yet needing it to get a job using Japanese, I was nonetheless pretty disappointed at the time. However, by the time came to sit the exam once more six months later, having the experience of sitting it once already turned out to be exceedingly helpful.

While it's easy to dole out this kind of advice as someone who's already gone through this process, all I can say is that like everything else, the JLPT may well not turn out exactly how you hope. Although that may feel (or indeed be) pretty disastrous if you've had to travel far afield to sit the exam or are perhaps relying on the qualification for work/visa reasons, the failure in itself is quite common, and nothing to be ashamed of. As far as possible, try to remember that all you can do is to try your best. (Or, as I recently heard someone put it: "You can only do what you can only do!")

5. Don't Forget the Practical Stuff

Finally, as the exam day approaches, remember not to get so absorbed in studying that you forget all the practical stuff! There are plenty of things that need to be done: from preparing your test voucher (which you should receive via email from your test centre) to booking transport and making sure you have the right stationery to hand.

Click here to read my full post on Practical Tips for Before the JLPT.

You've reached the end of this post! I hope you enjoyed it.

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