How to Study for the JLPT: Designing Your Game Plan

How to Study for the JLPT: Designing Your Game Plan

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JLPT kanji practice - study for the JLPT
With no official curriculum for the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Here's how you can design an effective game plan to study for the JLPT.

This is part 2 of Unseen Japan’s new guide to the JLPT – currently the most recognized Japanese proficiency test in the world. Part 1 can be found here.

So you’ve decided to take on the ultimate challenge – passing the Japanese Language Proficiency Test! Now… where do you even begin? This article will explain how you can prepare and study for the JLPT, no matter your level!

How to Study for the JLPT: Design A Game Plan

Any goal needs a game plan, and passing the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is no exception! But how do you know what to study if you’ve never taken the test before?

One thing to know before you begin is: there is no official curriculum for the JLPT. Luckily, the official JLPT website offers sample tests and questions so you can assess your current level. It’ll also prepare you for what the test is like, and what kind of questions you might see.

Your first assignment: try out a placement test, and see how you fare. You can do that HERE!

Study for the JLPT with Sample Tests

Placement Tests

Did you try one of the placement tests? How did you do? Don’t fret if you got some questions wrong on your first try. Taking a few different sample tests will help you improve. Also, don’t be afraid to try more than one level. 


I recommend taking three sample tests – one for the level that you believe yourself to be, and the level above and below it. If your target level is too difficult, you might find yourself more comfortable with the level below. However, if it feels too easy, you might want to challenge yourself with the level above.

Pick the level that you feel will challenge you without being too difficult!


Sample Tests

Once you know your level, make it a habit to take timed sample tests. And if you can, aim to do at least one complete mock test before the real deal. This means no interruptions, no phones, and timed sections for the entire three hours!

As part of your regular practice, though, it’s okay to break up the test into sections. Take the reading section one day, and the listening section the next. The important thing is to make sure you time them!

Assessing Your Score

Reassess your goals and progress every time you take a test. Aim for monthly, at least. Depending on your progress (or lack thereof), you may want to adjust your study focus for the week. You may even want to completely redesign your schedule!

Find a JLPT Tutor

I’ll give a lot of tips below on how to study on your own. But if you have the means, one of the best ways to study for the JLPT is the use the materials and methods below in conjunction with a tutor. Working with a certified Japanese tutor can go a long way towards upping your score!

Unseen Japan recommends using Preply to find a Japanese tutor that suits your needs. (Affiliate link; we earn a small commission at no cost to you if you purchase a lesson.) All lessons are virtual – you can find a tutor whose hours fit your time zone no matter where you live. A good tutor can help review challenging JLPT mock test questions you missed and explain the correct answer in detail. Give a single lesson a try and see what you think! (Be sure to search explicitly for tutors who specialize in JLPT prep.)

Use A Study Guide

There are many great JLPT study guides on the market (which we will cover more fully in a future article). Once you pick one (or several), give each a quick glance and devise your own curriculum. 

If a book has 20 lessons, aim to complete one lesson each week, focusing on a specific part each day. For guides without specific lessons, divide the number of pages by the time you have left. For example, you can divide a book with 100 pages into separate study sessions of 5 pages a day, and complete the book in 20 days.

If studying from lists (such as a vocabulary or kanji guide), divide them and aim for a certain number per day.

In my case, I am using this book for kanji study (JLPT 日本語能力試験ターゲット1000 N1漢字). It has a total of 1017 kanji, with 5 kanji on each page. I thoroughly review two pages per day (10 kanji), which would take about 102 days to complete. Given that I started studying about 170 days in advance, not only is it plenty of time to complete the book, it also leaves plenty of time to review!

Develop Study Habits

Now that you have an idea of what to focus on, you’ll have a better idea of how much time to allot to each skill. This may vary depending on how many days you have before the test, but a good rule of thumb is to dedicate at least an hour a day to focused JLPT study.

Plan a Schedule…

I recommend splitting up your study similarly to a school schedule. Just as you have periods of time dedicated to specific subjects on specific days, set aside “periods” dedicated to each focus area when you study for the JLPT.

But Leave Room For Flexibility!

One of the fastest way to LOSE motivation is to overwhelm yourself. Leave room for breaks, and regularly reassess your progress so you can change your routine if you need to. (I recommend 5 days a week of focused study, one day a week of review, and one day completely off.)

Here’s an example of how I schedule my study time. Note that I reassess my progress every weekend, and adjust as necessary.

How I Study for the JLPT: My JLPT N1 Study Schedule

Kanji and vocabulary are the only subjects that I focus on DAILY, due to the sheer volume necessary for the N1. The rest I split up during the week. I personally study 3 hours per day, but of course, you can adjust it to your time schedule.

What I Study Daily

Hour 1: Kanji
Hour 2: Vocab
Hour 3: Reading OR Grammar OR Listening

Hour 3 focuses on a different point each day:

Monday: Reading
Tuesday: Grammar
Wednesday: Listening
Thursday: Reading
Friday: Grammar

You’ll notice I only have listening practice once a week. That’s because I personally find it’s my stronger point. You may need to spend more time on it, which is okay, too!

I dedicate Saturdays to review, and Sundays are my “off” day. (I am never completely “off”, however. On off days, though I don’t do focused study, I’ll still watch TV shows, read for pleasure, or play one of my smartphone games in Japanese.

Focus on Vocabulary and Kanji

Due to the sheer amount of these you must know for each level, I recommend learning as many as possible, as fast a possible. Vocabulary and kanji are the backbone of the JLPT. Here, vocabulary and kanji guides can come in handy. 

Check which words you need to know for your level and focus on those. Then, study them DAILY! 

Note: these lists are not all-inclusive. While you should know all of these to pass your level, by no means does that exclude the possibility of other vocabulary appearing on the test.

Learn in Context

It’s not enough just to learn new vocabulary and grammar. You need to know how to use them properly, too. There are many synonyms and similar vocabulary word whose only difference is the situation in which you use them. Make it a point to read example sentences for new words. I personally like, which usually includes example sentences with definitions. 

Expose Yourself to A Variety of Material

Don’t stick to your textbook! Incorporate a variety of materials. With reading, this means not only short stories or passages, but essays, news articles, posters, fliers, websites, and emails. The reading section often includes several of these.

Write Anyway!

While there is no writing section, it can be advantageous to write new words and kanji. Writing out new kanji can also help you remember the radicals. Radicals are crucial for kanji, as you will often see very similar kanji who’s only difference is two or three strokes. Knowing which radical those strokes are can make a world of a difference. 

For some tips on how to memorize kanji, check out this article!

Enjoy Japanese Content in Your Free Time

Another thing I aim to do daily is engage with Japanese in a fun, non-study way. For example, playing a Japanese game, reading a book, or watching TV. (My current fix is watching Nep League and SKATTO Japan while eating dinner and cleaning the house!)

It’s important to consume Japanese content regularly outside your routine, too! Here are some other great examples:

  • Listen to Japanese news/podcasts (or read) during your commute (or while eating, cleaning, taking a walk, etc…)
  • Carry a notepad everywhere! Jot down new words you see/hear to look up later
  • Watch Japanese TV
  • Listen to Japanese music (and try to UNDERSTAND the lyrics!)
  • Read Japanese manga or children’s books

When to Study for the JLPT

Even if you’ve decided to take the test well in advance of the registration period, don’t wait! You can’t change your level once you register, so start as early as possible.

Ideally, if you are brand-new to the JLPT, aim for three to six months of focused study. Of course, it is possible to pass with less study time, but that should give you enough time to go through an entire study guide at a reasonable pace, while offering plenty of time to review.

You may find that certain levels require more or less time to prepare for. If you’re already somewhat familiar with Japanese, N5 should be easy to pass with under six months of study. But if you’re aiming high (for example, N1), and you haven’t been practicing kanji, you might find that you need an entire year!

Study for the JLPT By Level

For beginner levels (N5, N4), test content won’t stray very far from what you see in your textbooks. You will find it helpful to read and re-read class content along with JLPT study guides. If you’re comfortable reading and understanding those, you’re probably ready for the test!

For levels N3 and up, however, you will start to see a greater variety in content. For this, I recommend reading not only the study guides, but native Japanese content, such as newspapers, magazines, and short stories.

At N2 level, begin to distance yourself from “easy” Japanese. Read as much as possible without furigana, and learn to identify keep points in the materials. Get familiar with business Japanese and current events.

Finally, for N1, make it a point to read difficult pieces. Regularly consume essays, lectures, and news about business or politics (both written and spoken). Check out specialized content. And PRACTICE LOTS OF KANJI! (I highly recommend getting a kanji companion specifically for the N1).

(Look out for our Recommended JLPT Study Resources By Level, COMING SOON!)

Study to Pass, NOT to Become Fluent!

Remember, when you study for the JLPT, you’re studying to pass the test, not to become fluent. Even if you understand an entire passage in the reading section, if you can’t figure out what the questions are asking, you’re in trouble! 

One frustrating thing about the JLPT is their tendency to include questions in which every answer looks like it could be correct. As evil as this sounds, you can still prepare! 

Practice many sample tests to get used to the kinds of questions they ask. For the reading, vocabulary, grammar, and kanji sections, the key is speed and recognition. 

You can do this! 頑張れ!!

This is the second piece of Unseen Japan’s JLPT Series. For part 1, go here! Be sure to check back soon for the next part in the series!

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Krys Suzuki

Krys is a Japanese-fluent, English native speaker currently based in the US. A former Tokyo English teacher, Krys now works full time as a J-to-E translator, writer, and artist, with a focus on subjects related to Japanese language and culture. JLPT Level N1. Shares info about Japanese language, culture, and the JLPT on Twitter (SunDogGen).

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