JLPT Study Guides: Choosing the Right One for You

JLPT Study Guides: Choosing the Right One for You

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JLPT study guides to help you study for the JLPT
The structure of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is quite different from the classroom setting. Because of this, passing requires a different approach.

Want to pass the Japanese Language Proficiency Test? You’re gonna need a JLPT study guide! However, with so many study guides out there, how do you know which to choose?

Today we take a look at some of the most popular JLPT study guides on the market, and compare which ones are best for you depending on your study preference.

Do I Need A JLPT Study Guide?

Short answer: YES! 

The structure of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) is quite different from the classroom setting. Because of this, passing requires a different approach. While using your regular textbook for Japanese class will indeed prove helpful, in many cases, it might not be enough.

The only possible exception might be for the easiest level, N5. While I have never taken N5 myself, some students find that using the popular Genki textbook is enough to pass. However, do make sure to take timed practice tests!

Choosing a JLPT Study Guide

Selecting a study guide should be a very conscious process. In general, any guide is better than no guide. However, don’t just buy any book with the JLPT name on it and expect it to be enough! You need to understand the layout of the book, the lesson contents, and most importantly, what YOU need to study the most for your level

Table of Contents

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JLPT Study Guide Types

There are several types of JLPT study guide. The most common are the following:

  • Practice Test Compilations
  • Study Series (Multiple books per level)
  • Comprehensive Guides (One book per level)

Study guide series usually include about five books, with each book dedicated to one focus point (vocabulary, kanji, grammar, reading, and listening). Comprehensive guides cover all points in one book. And practice test compilations are simply collections of sample tests with answer keys.

Multi-book series are certainly the most thorough, as they contain more content for each subject. However, they can also be the most expensive since you’ll need to buy more than one book. I personally prefer and recommend them if they fit into your budget, but if you’re looking for a cheaper option, a comprehensive study guide will get the job done.

(However, if you’re aiming for an advanced level such as N1 or N2, I do recommend buying a kanji companion along with your study guide).

JLPT kanji practice - study for the JLPT
For higher levels (N1, N2), you should definitely consider buying a separate kanji companion! (Photo: Krys Suzuki)

Which JLPT Study Guide to Buy First

If you are at a lower level (N5 or N4), you won’t have a ton of kanji to worry about, and if you’re taking Japanese classes, the test vocabulary won’t stray very far from your textbook. In this case, I recommend starting with grammar, which is the foundation for everything you’ll learn in the future. By studying grammar, you will naturally learn vocabulary from the example grammar sentences.

At higher levels (N3 and up), start memorizing new vocabulary and kanji as early as possible. If you’re buying a study series, I recommend getting the kanji companion first, as kanji is an area you certainly don’t want to fall behind in! If possible, look for one that offers example vocabulary words for each kanji.

Practice test compilation books are great to have for any level, but you can purchase these at a later time, especially if studying on a budget. Prioritize books that focus on teaching rather than drilling. And remember, you can always find practice tests online!  

Popular JLPT Study Guides

JLPT Official Workbooks (N1~N5)

The JLPT foundation has its own official workbook series. However, you won’t learn much in terms of lessons. These guides are actually complete practice tests, with some info on the structure of the JLPT test itself. It doesn’t include lessons, and doesn’t explain focus points.  While it is useful to have as a companion to your study guide, don’t rely on this book alone!

official JLPT N1 workbook
The Official JLPT workbook includes an entire practice test! (Photo: Krys Suzuki)

Pros:

  • Good practice for the actual JLPT
  • Includes answer key with listening scripts
  • Includes info and FAQs about the JLPT itself
  • Only one book per level

Cons:

  • No explanations for answers
  • No lessons
  • You’ll still need a study guide

This guide is best for:

  • Students who prefer to study on their own
  • Taking practice tests
  • Students who already have (or plan to buy) a study guide
  • Learning about the JLPT

Shin-Kanzen Master Series (新完全マスター) (N1~N4)

This is one of the most popular JLPT study series. It includes five books per level, with one book for each subject. However, while it does include thorough breakdowns of each subject, it doesn’t include lessons.

This series is best for students who don’t need much guidance or prefer to study on their own, as well as more advanced students. The series only has a complete 5-book set for levels N1 through N4, and none for N5. Also, note that most explanations are written in Japanese.

Pros:

  • Super thorough explanations of each subject
  • Useful examples
  • Great for self-study
  • Great for higher levels

Cons:

  • More expensive, as it includes multiple books
  • No structured lessons
  • No N5 books

This guide is best for:

  • Students who prefer to study on their own
  • Higher level students (N1, N2)
  • Students who don’t mind spending a little more on multiple books

Nihongo Sou-Matome Series (日本語総まとめ) (N1~N5)

This other popular series is best for students who need a little more guidance, or who need to take a more structured approach. One good thing about this series is that you’ll never be left wondering what to study.

There are five books for each level, and each book breaks down the content into weekly lessons. Levels N1 and N2 take eight weeks to complete, while levels N3 to N5 take six weeks.

Pros:

  • Structured lessons so you always know what to study
  • Great for those on tight schedules
  • Dedicated books to each subject
  • Five books per level, for all levels N1-N5

Cons:

  • Not as thorough as Shin-Kanzen
  • Requires more weeks of study
  • More expensive, as it includes multiple books

This guide is best for:

  • Students who need more structure/have less time
  • Students who don’t mind spending a little more on multiple books

Pattern-Bestu Tettei Drill (パターン別徹底ドリル) (N1~N5)

This series includes sample tests, but unlike other simple test compilations, this one offers brief explanations along with the answers. However, note that the explanations are not as thorough as an actual study guide. While a good guide to have to learn from your mistakes during your practice tests, it still might not be enough for a complete study plan.

Pros:

  • Good practice for the actual JLPT
  • Includes answer key with explanations
  • Can learn from your mistakes

Cons:

  • Explanations are brief, so you will still need a study guide
  • No lessons

This guide is best for:

  • Students who prefer to study on their own
  • Taking practice tests
  • Students who already have (or plan to buy) a study guide

JLPT Nihongo Noryoku Shiken Target (JLPT 日本語能力試験ターゲット) (N1~N2)

This guide is, in my opinion, the best kanji companion. Not only does it offer everything you need to know such as kanji readings and meanings, it also shows stroke order, includes example vocabulary words, and even comes with a transparent red sheet that you can use to drill yourself by hiding the answers in red text.

The series includes only two books (kanji and vocabulary) for the two most advanced levels (N1 and N2). Content is in list format, therefore works best in conjunction with a more comprehensive study guide.

The red transparent sheet is a cool addition to this study guide! (JLPT 日本語能力試験ターゲット) (Photo: Krys Suzuki)

Pros:

  • Thorough breakdown of all kanji/vocabulary for levels N1 and N2
  • Includes kanji readings, meanings, stroke order, and example vocabulary 
  • Includes red sheet to help you quiz yourself

Cons:

  • Literally just kanji and vocabulary
  • List format – no lessons
  • You’ll still need a study guide for other subjects
  • No books for levels N3-N5 

This guide is best for:

  • Students who prefer to study on their own
  • Higher level students (N1, N2)
  • Students who already have (or plan to buy) a study guide
  • Thoroughly learning every kanji/vocabulary

実力アップ!The Preparatory Course for the JLPT (N1~N5)

This is my personal favorite series! I used it to pass the N2 back in 2012, and have been using it in preparation for the N1 later this year. Like other series, it includes one book per subject, so you will need multiple books. It doesn’t include lessons, but offers thorough explanations and actual test examples for each point. The reading guide is also great because not only does it include actual test examples, it highlights new and important key words.

実力アップ!The Preparatory Course for the JLPT N1 books
One of the most thorough self-study series, in my opinion! (Photo: Krys Suzuki)

Pros:

  • Thorough explanations and examples of each point
  • Actual test examples with answers and breakdowns
  • Actual reading excerpts with key vocabulary highlighted
  • One book for each grammar point

Cons:

  • More expensive, as it includes multiple books
  • No structured lessons

This guide is best for:

  • Students who prefer to study on their own
  • Learning about topics in more detail
  • Students who don’t mind spending a little more on multiple books

My JLPT Study Guides

This is my personal collection of JLPT study guides for the N1. (I also had the same books for the N2 when I studied back in 2012). I used them together with online practice tests, and the Anki flashcard app.

JLPT study guides to help you study for the JLPT
I prefer to use multiple books, but of course you can always select one good comprehensive guide to fit your budget and study style! (Photo: Krys Suzuki)

How to Use Your JLPT Study Guide

Now that you selected your study guide(s), make sure you go through the entire thing! If it’s a book with lessons, do all the lessons! If it’s a self-study guide, make sure you go through each key point! 

The easiest way to do this is to briefly look through each guide the moment you get them. Divide them up depending on the number of lessons/key points and days left until the test. (I go more into depth on designing a study schedule HERE). Then, GO THROUGH EVERY PAGE!

Highlight new words, kanji, and grammar points, and make sure to go back regularly and review them. Create hand-written flashcards, or use an app like Anki and build your own deck.

Finally, make sure to do practice tests. I can’t stress this enough. With the JLPT, it really isn’t enough just to know the content, especially if it’s your first time. Passing the test depends on not only WHAT you know, but HOW FAST you can recall it. Time yourself with mock tests, and practice, practice, PRACTICE!

Check Out Unseen Japan’s Complete JLPT Study Series!

This has been part three of our new JLPT Study Series, and completes the introduction to the JLPT! If you’re ready to purchase your study guide, GO HERE!

Starting next week, be on the lookout for Patreon-exclusive breakdowns of each subject. Each week, I’ll cover one specific subject, and show you how I personally study, including my favorite tips, methods, apps, and more.

For the first two introductory JLPT pieces, go here (part one) and here (part two)!

Official JLPT Resources:

Study guides for every level available for purchase HERE!

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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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