Three Tips for Breaking into JLPT N1

Photo of JLPT passing certification

“Passed!” by Toby Oxborrow // CC BY-SA 2.0

With the winter JLPT sign-up period coming up, I’ve been reflecting on my past experiences with taking the JLPT, especially the JLPT N1. In the US, my nearest city was about three hours away, so I never had the chance to take the JLPT before moving to Japan. I took the JLPT several times while in Japan and was stuck for a while at N2 level. Then, after some slow but steady studying over about three months, I finally broke through into JLPT N1. This post will be focusing on how I finally passed the JLPT N1.

JLPT N1 Strategies

These are the three main strategies I used to bump up into N1 territory. So these tips will be most useful to N2ers looking towards the N1 test.

I’d also like to mention that as I have been living in Japan, this will probably apply mostly to those already living in Japan. The main reason I mention this is that I don’t have a tip dedicated to listening. In my experience, the listening portion of the JLPT was much less difficult than the reading/kanji/vocab. If you live in Japan and have already gotten N2 or even N3, I would guess JLPT N1 listening will likely be very easy.

However, if you live outside of Japan, you will have to use a lot of resources to improve you listening.

On that note, I will present the strategies that worked for me to get up N1 level.

Good luck!

1. Use an SRS (Anki, etc.)

One of the best things you can do is use flashcards. However, creating physical flashcards by hand can be tedious. Carrying them around is also a bit of a hassle. The solution? Using an SRS.

Depending on who you ask, “SRS” stands for “spaced repetition system” or “spaced repetition software.” These are programs you can use on your computer, smartphone, or tablet to review just about anything, much like flashcards. Many also use nifty algorithms to take out cards you score well on so that you don’t waste time studying cards you already know.

My personal favorite is Anki. I like Anki because it has several versions: iPhone application, Android application and computer program. Best of all, Anki has a syncing system so you can use the program with the same decks across these multiple platforms. Other popular SRSs include Mnemosyne, Super Memo, and Memrise. Just download one of these puppies to your smartphone and use all those little spare minutes standing in the crowded Tokyo trains during rush hour to click your way to JLPT N1.

My own personal strategy revolved around patching up my weaknesses. On a previous N1 test, I saw that grammar was my weakest point. So I used the JLPT grammar lists at JGram, Tanos, and several other Japanese grammar databases to copy and paste my way to my own personalized Anki JLPT grammar deck.

Personally, I found it was useful to put the grammar point and its pronunciation on one side and a sentence with that grammar point missing on the other side. I was sure to use the “double sided deck” feature. If I had trouble remembering the meaning, I would add a description of what the grammar means (in Japanese!) on one of the sides. This sounds like a lot, but it worked for me.

When I passed the JLPT N1, my score on the grammar section was the best out of all the sections (bar listening). Thanks, Anki!

My JLPT N1 vocabulary score was fairly dismal, though — I guess that gives me something to aim for with my next use of Anki.

2. Read, read, read

While flashcards are great, you simply will not remember what you’re studying on the flashcards without actually using it in the wild. This is where reading comes in. You will have a ton of reading to do on the JLPT N1 anyway, so break out those Japanese books to get your practice in (while having fun!).

The books I found to best prepare me were “slice of life” novels, modern classics, opinion essays, how-to books, newspapers/general-interest magazines and mysteries.

If you live in Japan, reading you have to do in daily life (at the store, work, etc.) will also help you out.

On the other hand, fantasy novels, most manga, biographies, and history books didn’t do much to help me prepare for the JLPT N1. These types of books had too many made-up words, obscure words, very specific words, or lots of slang.

In the end, try to find something that interests you.

You’ll find the words, kanji, or grammar structures you studied with the SRS popping up at you all the time.

3. Get thee a language partner

A language partner will be invaluable for improving your language skills. Having a language partner will probably help your speaking and listening skills more than anything.

Admittedly, the JLPT does not test for speaking and, if you live in Japan, the listening skills section will likely not be as challenging.

However, if you find a good language partner, you’ll have someone you can ask about JLPT N1 grammar, etc.

(Do note, though, that even for native Japanese speakers, some JLPT N1 grammar is a little fuzzy.)

Sadly, all the sites I used in the past to find language partners no longer exist. If you search a little on Google, though, you’ll find plenty of language partner sites and tips.

If you aren’t able to find a language partner, I’d highly recommend using a site such as lang-8 to ask native speakers questions or forking out a few yen to a Skype language teacher.

Self-study is of course essential, but there are some parts of the language that will be unduly difficult to try to learn on your own.

So don’t be afraid to look for help!

I hope these three tips help at least one person toward their JLPT N1 goal. Feel free to leave a comment if you have any questions or tips of your own.

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