When taking standardized tests, needless to say, mastery of the subject matter… in this case, Japanese language, is of utmost importance, however there are always some hints that are good to keep in mind when learning Japanese and studying for the exam that can help improve your overall results.
1. Understand the question types on your test
All of the JLPTs from level N1 to N5 have different question types. If provided only 1 hint for passing the test, this would be it. Some of the questions, especially at the intermediate and advanced levels require a certain type of studying and thinking. Being aware of what will be asked before taking the test can go a long way toward helping you direct your study in the final
weeks before the test.
Example: Some of the kanji questions on level 1 ask you to read an item containing a sentence with hiragana in place of kanji, then look at four answers. The answers also contain hiragana in place of kanji… all of which have the same reading as the kanji in the test item. This tests your knowledge of the usage and meaning of different kanji homophones.
2. Study out loud
One study method a lot of students neglect is to read aloud. This can be especially useful for practicing kanji. When reading Japanese silently, it can be easy to glide over kanji for which you know the meaning. Thanks to kanji, speed reading is not that hard to do in Japanese. However when taking a test such as the JLPT, the pronunciation, or how the kanji is read in a given usage or combination, can be just as important as the meaning. Therefore reading aloud prevents you from taking the easy way out, and if you are in a study group or working with a Japanese tutor, you can get the correction immediately and begin making a vocabulary list based on your frequent mistakes.
3. Use flash cards
Flash cards work for a lot of the things on the JLPT. If you are studying for some of the beginner levels, flash cards can be great ways to practice instant recognition of hiragana, katakana, or some simple kanji sight words. At higher levels, kanji combinations or exceptional readings of common kanji characters can be reviewed with flash cards. In addition to all this, the actual process of making the flash cards is a study session of itself. Hand writing the cards as neatly as possible can be a great way to remember things, especially for students who use a lot of technology to study.
4. Know the words used for graphs
Knowing the appropriate words used for graphs or other visual illustrations of data can be a great way to guarantee some points on the test. There will be a question or even series of questions making use of terms such as “increasing”, “growing”, “decreasing”, “shrinking”, and other terms that might refer to data trends. Each level has increasingly difficult and specific ways to talk about these things so familiarity with your age appropriate terminology is key.
5. Look ahead at the listening test drawings when possible
Some students out and out cheat by looking through the listening section before it is actually allowed. I personally don’t condone this, and there’s no sense in jeopardizing your entire test for a few seconds’ glance at the listening. However there will be opportunities to legally glance ahead and give your brain a chance to recall some of the pertinent vocabulary or keywords that might come up in a section. Many of the listening section items use drawings, and just a glance can be a great preparation for a particular section.
6. Prepare by studying for long periods of time
Normally, studying should be done when a student is mentally prepared, interested and alert, however the JLPT is an endurance test. Test-takers who have never sat at a desk and stared at kanji for hours, or who have never listened to Japanese for over 30 minutes straight may run into a bit of endurance trouble when taking the JLPT, especially at the higher levels. Reading this much Japanese in a quiet but high pressure, high stakes atmosphere can be tiring. It’s best to come prepared with the necessary stamina.
7. Sleep well before the test
Sleep has the ability to drastically change your testing performance. Testing conditions will vary greatly, even at different sites within Japan. Some will be in overly heated or under air conditioned lecture halls. It is easy to get sleepy in a warm room with nothing but pages and pages of hiragana, katakana, and kanji to keep you awake. Some of the long reading passages seem designed to be endurance tests against boredom instead of the fun, interesting essays found in practice textbooks.
8. Turn off your cell phone, or leave it home… also, check the alarm
Some cell phone alarms are designed to go off whether the phone is on or off. Many people have stories about being kicked out for using a cell phone. Because of cheating scandals involving smart phones on the university entrance exams and other standardized tests, please don’t be surprised if the proctors are asked to be especially strict.
9. Bring something to eat
Unless you are familiar with the test location and are sure that you will be able to get something to eat, I would recommend buying something to eat for lunch in the morning, or packing something from home. For test locations in Japan, even if there are convenience stores or food shops in the area, they may be crowded and stressfully filled with other test takers. It’s also important to bear in mind that the test schedule varies by level, so when you are finally getting your lunch break from the N2 test, the N4 test takers may have already bought all of the bentos in the shop.
10. Study until the last minute
The JLPT is the kind of test for which a last minute glance at a kanji or grammar form can put it into your mind for just long enough to be useful on the test. Some people do sample questions before the test, but I recommend just glancing through some textbooks or notes. Keep it light, the test is long enough without spending an extra half hour doing test questions before the test itself.
11. Be ready for standard Japanese
If you are learning in a place, or from a Japanese teacher who speaks with a regional accent or dialect, be prepared for the Japanese to be based in standard or Tokyo style dialect. Although I have heard of listening or short passage conversation questions using a bit of Kansai dialect, for the most part any slang or casual language will be Tokyo based. It should not really affect your ability to answer the questions correctly, but may be a distraction if some unfamiliar terminology is used.
12. Remind yourself of all the multiple choice question techniques you have learned
The JLPT is multiple choice. There are several techniques for approaching multiple choice questions. The important thing is to find the type of approach that suits you best. Needless to say the ideal situation is if you look at a question and the answer choices and instantly know the correct one. For the few questions that don’t fit that mold, however, multiple choice techniques such as cancelling out items that are obviously incorrect, trying to spot similar but slightly different answers, or focusing on the answers themselves, noting differences among them and working backward to the question can be a great help.
13. Do practice tests
The JLPT test makers use what works. As a result, they tend to use variants of questions from past tests. It can be an advantage to go over some of the tests from the past in the months before your own exam because you may see similar questions, or similar topics covered again. Many of the practice tests are harder than the tests themselves which can also go a great way toward making test-takers comfortable and confident during the ordeal. Also trying the sample questions can provide hints at what is to come.
14. Time yourself
As mentioned in the above example, doing JLPT practice tests can do a lot for your score. When doing practice tests at home or on your own, it’s easy to be loose with the timing of the test. It is important however to do timed tests when possible because the real test will be strictly timed, and pacing can be important. One important thing about pacing is knowing when you have time to work on harder questions and when you are running late and begin to start guessing and moving on. The best way to get experience with this timing is to know about where you should be at a given time during the exam.
It may surprise some people to hear this, but I believe timing the listening test is very important. The JLPT employs a type of question in the listening test that they refer to as “quick answer”. This basically means that the next question will begin very quickly leaving little time for test-takers to respond. It puts test-takers in a “know-it or guess-it and then move on” type of situation. In these cases it’s good to have had a little practice with the “quick answer” listening test problems.
15. Trade tips and suggestions about the JLPT and learning Japanese in general with fellow test-takers
There will be people at the JLPT tests from a wide variety of educational, linguistic, and philosophical backgrounds. Trading tips with people who have been around the test can be a great way to gain a few points and confidence. Some of the people may have failed the last test by just a few points and be ready with a full report on what to expect. Others may be able to offer up tips and hints from different teachers for new ideas. At worst, it can be a great place to make friends who share a common interest and spend hours each week to learn Japanese.
It is important for people trying to learn Japanese to remember that the JLPT is not the “end all be all” of Japanese language studies. It is a useful tool for gauging levels, determining proficiency, proving proficiency, and having something to show for all the time put into to learning this language. Sometimes studying to pass the test and studying for fluency can seem to be at odds, however the JLPT is a well-made test, and time spent working on it will not be wasted, especially for people who intend to study or work in Japan in the future. For those of you looking to take the exam this winter or summer, I hope that some of these hints will take some of the pressure off or make the test even more enjoyable.