Are you planning to take the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) but don’t know which level you should take? The JLPT test offers five levels, ranging from the N5 level (easiest) to the N1 (most difficult).
You have four months before the next JLPT test. You feel that you are at an N3 level, but if you can study for four months, you might be able to take the N2. What should you do?
Or you might feel that you’re already above the N3 level, but not yet good enough to pass the N2…what should you do?
These are common questions that I get asked a LOT.
Since taking the test costs money, you may feel that you need to take the highest level possible for it to be worth it.
However, taking the highest level might not always be worth it. Let’s find out why.
What Level of The JLPT Should I Take?
Let’s make this simple. In my opinion, if you’re struggling to decide which level of the JLPT to take, you should almost always take the LOWER level test.
For example, if you feel that you are at an N4 level, but might be able to pass the higher N3 test, don’t do it. Go for the N4 level.
Of course, if you are confident that you can pass a certain level with minimal studying, then that’s a good sign that you might be ready for it.
It’s only when you can’t decide which level to take. If you’re confused about which level is the best for you, go with the lower level test.
Why Should I Take A Lower Level Test?
There are 3 reasons why I feel taking the lower level test is the best choice for most people.
1. Your Goal Should be Mastering Japanese
The most important reason is that your goal should be learning and MASTERING Japanese. You shouldn’t be studying Japanese just to take a test. That kind of studying will make you forget everything you learned within a few weeks to months.
There are tons of people (maybe the majority) that have passed the JLPT N2 or even N1 and their Japanese sucks!
Sure, they can read a lot of kanji and they know a lot of words. But they can’t put it all together. They struggle to speak with native speakers, and can even have trouble reading simple documents or stories.
Why is this?
Of course, if you don’t have any opportunities to speak with native speakers, it will be more difficult to become fluent in speaking. But a huge part of this is also because they don’t MASTER the material they studied.
When you study only to pass a test, it is completely different than studying for MASTERY.
When studying for a test, most people remember vocabulary, kanji, and grammar on a very shallow level. They can recognize what they studied, but they can’t USE it in real life. If you showed them a flashcard with a word they studied on it, they could easily tell you what it means.
However, they probably have no idea how to use it.
They didn’t take the time to learn the nuance and usage of the word. They only remember the definition of the word.
Let’s take a look at an example.
The word形成 (keisei), means “formation, molding, or giving form to.”
You could easily remember this word and its definition in seconds. You could then review it over time and have it become a part of your permanent knowledge.
If I asked you to use it in a sentence, could you do it? You know that “keisei” means “formation,” but what does that mean?
You don’t know because you haven’t mastered this word. You can’t just have a superficial understanding of the material. You need to dig deeper and learn exactly what it means.
If you do a little research (which would only take a minute or two with a dictionary app or online search), you can find example sentences as well as real-life examples. Studying real-life examples (newspaper articles, blogs, etc.) helps your brain understand the nuance and usage of the word. Combine this with creating your own sentences, writing them down, and using them to study will put you on the path of mastering Japanese.
2. Passing is Great, Failing Sucks
By taking a lower test, your increase your chances of passing. And if you do pass, you’ll feel awesome. Even with a lower level test, you’ll feel on top of the world if you pass.
What if need to pass a certain level to work at a Japanese company?
If you plan on working in Japan (especially in a Japanese company), a lot of employers will require foreign workers to pass either the N2 or N1 level of the JLPT.
However, it is getting a lot more common in Japan for employers to hire people who CAN speak, read, and write at a high level of Japanese instead of passing a test. They are starting to realize that anyone can pass a test, but when it comes to having real Japanese skills, many people are sadly lacking. That’s why it’s important to focus on mastering Japanese for use in the real world.
I’ll leave you with this.
Would you rather pass a lower test easily, because you mastered the material, or would you rather fail a higher level because you weren’t prepared for it?
To me, that choice is easy.
3. It’s Just a Test
If you do pass the test, you are provided with a certificate of your achievement. As mentioned above, this might be useful if you pass the N2 or N1 level to qualify for a job.
But….and it’s a big but…
It’s still only a test.
Let’s get honest here.
What will passing the test give you other than a pat on the back?
I think most people take the JLPT for fun. Very few people have to pass it to qualify for something.
Even people who want to have a job using Japanese (translators, interpreters, etc.) usually take the test just to see what level they are at. Most of them don’t need it to get a job. And they definitely don’t need to pass a test to improve their Japanese skills. Anyone can become amazing at Japanese with or without taking the JLPT.
If you don’t need to pass the JLPT to qualify for something, then you are in essence, taking it for fun.
And if this is you, why would you want to spend your hard earned money on a higher level test (unless you are prepared and are very confident you can pass) and then possibly fail.
Japanese is a journey, not a race. Don’t rush the process. Take your time and go through the levels gradually. Instead of studying Japanese for one year and trying to pass the N2, why not use that same amount of time to pass the N5 and N4 first?
Learning Japanese gradually, at your pace not only makes you learn more efficiently, but you’ll also enjoy it a lot more.
Only take a certain level of the JLPT when you have put in the time to prepare and are confident you can pass.
2 Reasons Why You Should Try A Higher Level Test
I believe that for most people, taking a lower level test is best. However, there are 2 reasons why you may want to, or need to challenge yourself by taking a higher level.
1. You Have No Choice
There are times where you may need to pass a certain level of the JLPT by a specific date. Probably the most common reason why people need to pass the JLPT within a certain amount of time is for work. They either got hired for a job that requires them to pass the test, or they want to apply to a job that requires passing the test (usually the N2 or N1 level).
Another common reason is because of scholarships or admission to school. Some schools or scholarships in Japan may require their students to pass a certain level of the JLPT.
If for any reason you MUST pass the JLPT by a certain date, then you have no choice but to challenge yourself and go for it.
If this is you, don’t worry. As long as you have time and the right resources, it is possible to pass a higher level in a short amount of time. If you’re already at an N3 level, it usually would take one to two years of dedicated study to pass the N2 comfortably. However, it is possible to pass the test with only a few months of studying. This is assuming that you have the time (at least 4-6 months, depending on your level) and the right materials to study.
Check out our guide on how to pass the JLPT N2 (or any level) on your first try.
Just remember though. Studying this way might make you pass the test, but you probably won’t master the majority of the material.
But you have to do what you have to do, so go for it! Ganbare!
2. You Have no Desire to Communicate in Japanese…At All
The other reason where you might consider taking a higher level is when you don’t care to, or want to use Japanese. You don’t want to speak it, nor do you have plans of going to Japan or using Japanese in the future. You just love learning the language on your own and especially enjoy reading it.
I know some people just want to learn Japanese to read manga or watch anime, but don’t have any desire to speak Japanese or go to Japan. It’s rare, but some people like the language but don’t want to use it or experience it firsthand.
If this is you, taking a higher level test is fine. If you enjoy the process of learning Japanese, and just want to take the JLPT for fun whether you pass or not, then the level you choose doesn’t matter.
I would still recommend taking a lower level test for this situation too, but don’t let me stop you from enjoying any level that you want. 🙂
How Do I Know What Level I’m At Now?
A quick way to check which level you should take is by checking these resources:
JLPT Level Summary – Descriptions of what you should know at each level.
How Many Hours Do I Need to Study for Each Level?
Take a look at the data (2010 – 2015) from The Japan Language Education Center:
Students with Prior Knowledge of Kanji (e.g., speakers of Chinese, etc.)
- N1 1700–2600 hours
- N2 1150–1800 hours
- N3 700–1100 hours
- N4 400–700 hours
- N5 250–450 hours
Students With No Prior Kanji Knowledge
- N1 3000–4800 hours
- N2 1600–2800 hours
- N3 950–1700 hours
- N4 575–1000 hours
- N5 325–600 hours
All of these explanations and data is a good starting point, but none of them can tell you exactly what level you’re at. If you want to know which level of the JLPT you are at, the best way to do this is to take a practice test.
There are many practice tests you can buy, but I suggest using the Japanese-Language Proficiency Test Official
While they are not exactly like the real JLPT tests, they are close. They contain almost the same amount of questions as a real test. The great thing about these books is that some test items are taken from actual past tests.
When you take these practice tests, be sure to time yourself, just like the real test. What makes the JLPT so hard is that it’s a race against the clock.
The amount and type of questions on the test will take up a LOT of time to go through. You have no room for daydreaming when you take the test. Many people struggle to finish the test in time, especially at the higher levels (N3 – N1) because of the reading sections.
Also note that if you are close to passing the test, but missed it by a few points, you are probably ready to take that level. I find that most practice tests are more difficult than the actual test.
Taking the JLPT can be pretty exciting. It is a popular test taken around the world, so if you can pass, you’ll have a nice feather in your cap.
No matter what level you decided to take, I wish you the best of luck!
Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below!