You’ve made it this far in your JLPT studies. Now it’s the last month before your test, and you may be considering cramming. But what do you focus on? And should you even bother? Here’s what you need to know to effectively cram for the JLPT.
What is Cramming?
Cramming can be a controversial subject in the academic world. Unlike focused study, cramming involves attempting to mass-memorize (or cram) a ton of information into your brain in a short amount of time. Because of this, the tendency is to forget most of what you just learned in a short period of time. So while cramming is often advised against for long-term study, many students turn to it for short-term goals, such as passing a test.
Cram for the JLPT: Is It Worth It?
According to the University of Cambridge English Language Assessment, it takes 200 guided hours to advance in language ability level (a topic I touched on briefly in this article about studying Japanese at home). So while you shouldn’t expect to become fluent (or even conversational) from 21 days of cramming, if done effectively, you could see improvements in test results.
The Pros and Cons of Cramming
Before deciding if cramming is for you, it is important to be realistic about your expectations. You must understand the pros and cons of cramming.
When done effectively, cramming can help you:
- Memorize a lot of information in a short amount of time
- Review more content
- Increase your likelihood of passing a test
However, it is important to understand that cramming is also:
- Focused on short-term memory (you’ll probably forget most of it after your test)
- Difficult for real-world application
- Likely to cause confusion due to information overload, adversely affecting test results
- A fast road to burnout and overwhelm
Should You Cram for the JLPT?
Before deciding to cram, first decide if it is worth it. Unlike college exams (which are frequent, on campus, short in length, and free), the JLPT is the exact opposite. It is a specialized exam, only available in specific locations once or twice a year, and is NOT free. (This year, the entrance fee doubled from $50 to $100 USD!)
Because cramming will not always guarantee a passing grade, here are some things to consider before cramming for the JLPT.
If your goal is simply to pass the test, cramming might be for you. I recommend cramming if you:
- Already have a solid study foundation
- Have only one or two focus areas that need improvement
- Want to review everything you learned one more time
I do not recommend cramming for people who:
- Don’t/have not been studying regularly
- Have a lot of new material left to learn (especially at higher levels)
- Are prone to anxiety, stress, burnout, etc.
Some short-term study methods may market themselves as a way to pass the JLPT “in only one month!” But this is a very lofty goal for someone who is brand new to the JLPT. If you have never taken the JLPT before, and don’t already have a strong Japanese foundation, you probably won’t pass it in only a month (especially at higher levels). There is simply too much content to cover (not to mention hundreds of kanji) to reasonably fit it into such a short amount of time.
How to Cram for the JLPT
Set A Goal
One common cramming mistake is studying a multitude of topics sporadically, with no clear structure or goal. This is almost guaranteed to result in last-minute confusion! Just like long-term study, cramming is more effective when you have a plan.
First, break down exactly what you need to study. At this point in time, you should be focusing only on your weak points. All other topics should be reviews only.
Create to-do lists of points you need to study, divide them by category, then review them. Use your practice test results as a guide. (See my article from last week about using at-home practice tests as self-assessment!)
An example of a cramming goal is choosing to focus on grammar. If you scored lowest on the grammar section in your practice tests, write down all the grammar points from the questions you got wrong, including the incorrect choices.
Write Your Own Examples
The best way to keep new information in your memory longer is to practice actively producing that information, as opposed to passively reading it. Don’t just read examples – write them down with pen and paper! If you can make your own example sentences following the rules, even better! For vocabulary and kanji, handwritten flash cards work wonderfully, too.
However, in order to avoid overwhelm, remember to select a focus area. Now is not the time to be writing hundreds of new kanji on index cards. Pick the words/grammar points you know you need to review the most, and drill yourself on those. For all other reviews, passive review with apps such as Anki will serve just fine.
Anki Flashcards for Reviewing Kanji
You can also download my complete N1 Kanji study deck on Anki, with all 1017 kanji from the study guide, Nihongo Noryoku Shiken Jitsuryoku Up Target 1000. The list is rather large, so I divided it into two parts.
Of course, you won’t be able to cover 1017 new kanji in only a few weeks, but Anki flashcards are a great way to review what you already know, and at least expose yourself to some new ones.
When checking out example sentences, try reading them aloud, too! This also works great for reviewing the listening section. Play back difficult tracks and repeat the expressions that tripped you up. You may even want to try reading aloud from the reading section.
Study Similar Words
When you come across a word or kanji that you find yourself often mistaking for another, jot it down, then go look up the one you confused it for, and note the differences. (I do this often when reviewing kanji). You may also want to do the same with the similar vocabulary word questions from your practice test. Define all the words, find example sentences, and take note of nuances.
Don’t Skimp on Reading and Listening
If these are not your weak points, it can be easy to neglect them during the last week when you’re busy focusing on your weak points. Don’t!
Dedicate some time daily for reading, at least 10-30 minutes, and time yourself! Reading is a skill you must constantly work on in order to not get rusty, and you don’t want to find out you’ve slowed down on the day of the test.
So-Matome’s reading guide is a good choice since each lesson offers short passages to practice with. If you already completed this guide, go back and review them.
Some general guidelines for timing: Aim to be able to scan a page of content in your level in 3-5 minutes. (Levels N1 and N2 will likely take about 5 minutes, while N3 and lower may take less time). Half-pages should take no more than 2-3 minutes. Then aim to re-read it for understanding in about 5 minutes, this time underlining key words/phrases, and marking any words you don’t know. If you obtained all the necessary information in this time, answering the questions should take no longer than 2 minutes.
The best way to cram for listening is simply to go over the listening section from your JLPT study guides and practice tests. Read along with scripts and note the words you have trouble picking up. For levels N3 and above, focus on spoken keigo and grammar patterns. Check out Youglish.com to listen to more examples.
Take Breaks From Cramming
Also, try not to spend the entire day studying. Take breaks in between. I like to break up study sessions into 1-2 hour periods, just like a college course, then take a break and do something non-study related.
If you still lack confidence, don’t be tempted to learn too much over the course of a month. Your brain can only retain so much information at a time, and can easily succumb to burnout if you overwhelm yourself, which could lead to you forgetting EVERYTHING! Be realistic. Don’t aim for perfection, aim to pass with your best possible score.
Cram for the JLPT with these Books!
If you need some guidance to cram for the JLPT in your last month, there are several guides available that can help. Please note these are often very streamlined, don’t usually offer lessons, and should not be used as a replacement for regular study.
1 Month: Shin-Nihongo 500-mon
Although a little late for this year’s JLPT, if you have 1 month left, I recommend So-Matome’s 500 questions guide. It takes about 4 weeks to complete, and includes test examples with explanations of vocabulary, kanji, and grammar. It has translations of all vocabulary words, including the incorrect choices, and grammar rules for the grammar questions.
Of course, even if you don’t have a full month left, this is a great guide for cramming and reviewing, so I’d still recommend going through as many examples as you can in the time you have left. The book is available for all levels.
Note: it does not contain reading or listening examples.
20 Days: 日本語能力試験20日で合格
This book, like So-Matome, has a lesson per day, with a total of 20 lessons. Each day has 6 pages worth of practice questions, and includes everything except listening. I enjoy the amount of content in this book, although the answer key is unfortunately lacking in explanations.
This guide offers a great way to cram while practicing your speed. I recommend timing yourself when completing the lessons, especially for the reading section.
15 Days: JLPT短期集中！15日で総仕上げ
If you’re down to the last 2 weeks, you still have a chance! This book divides lessons into 15 days. Each lesson is only 2 pages long, so you can double up if you need to. The top of the page shows how long it should take you to complete so you can time yourself.
I love this book for its explanations, especially in the vocabulary context questions. It explains the nuances of each word, as well as the incorrect choices. I found myself taking a lot of notes from this section alone, and I recommend anyone else who struggles with nuanced questions do the same!
Lessons only include kanji, vocabulary, and grammar, and no reading or listening. The guide is available for all levels.
7 Days: JLPT Practice Test
In your last week, I recommend taking a final practice test. Refer to my last article all about JLPT practice tests, and grade yourself one last time. Spend time going over incorrect answers, and review them throughout the final week.
1 Day Before
As tempting as it may be, do NOT try to cram one day before the test! You need your focus and stamina in top shape, so don’t waste it cramming in vain. Instead, do some light review. Read flashcards one last time, play with some Japanese study app games. Keep your study as light and stress-free as possible. Make it more about reinforcement rather than learning. Then get proper sleep so you can wake up rested, refreshed, and ready to ace that test!
Other JLPT Resources
- Unseen Japan’s Recommended Study Guides
- Other Pieces in Our JLPT Series
- Official JLPT Website: http://www.jlpt.jp/e/
- JLPT Schedule: https://jlpt.jp/e/application/overseas_list.html
- JLPT Levels: https://jlpt.jp/e/about/levelsummary.html
- Official JLPT Study Guides: https://jlpt.jp/e/reference/books.html#book2012
- JLPT Self-Evaluation:https://jlpt.jp/e/about/candolist.html
- JLPT Practice Tests: http://www.jlpt.jp/e/samples/sample09.html