Japanese Study Techniques: How I Passed the JLPT N3 Exam


Take one

Last year I wrote a fairly… optimistic, shall we say, blog post about how I planned to study for the summer JLPT N3 exam in London. Having the N5 and N4 certificates already under my belt (if you’re just starting out, you can read how I self-studied for those exams here), by early 2018 I was ramping up my study schedule ahead of a five-week stint in Japan. I spent 45 solid hours of my trip immersed in intermediate-level Japanese classes in Tokyo without a word of English spoken. I chose to stay with a Japanese host family who couldn’t speak English, just to push myself a little further out of my comfort zone. And every day I spent hours traversing the city, meeting baristas, making friends, and striking up conversation to cram as much practice in as possible.

That trip felt like a watershed moment for me—I’d never taken proper Japanese classes at all before, nevermind entirely in Japanese. Just the previous year, during the filming of 「世界!ニッポン行きたい人応援団」, I mostly relied on a translator to communicate with the team and people I met along the way. This time, I met up with my director and his assistant for dinner again, but this time without our translator. Much to my delight, not only could I understand them, I could actually hold a conversation.

After I returned home in April, I thought that my newfound confidence would give me the strength I needed to keep pushing toward the July exam, but due to various personal and work issues I fell off the study bandwagon and let things slide for way too long. It’s safe to say I didn’t formally study at all between February and July for the N3 as I’d hoped, but I decided to take it anyway just to check my progress. It didn’t matter if I failed—my original goal was to pass the N3 before the end of 2018, so I knew I still had a second chance to pass in December. Long story short, I didn’t pass the summer exam, but I also didn’t completely bomb it, which was promising considering my lack of study. December exam? Game on.

Take two

I quickly learned as time went on, though, that the study methods I described in my original blog post just weren’t working for me. I was getting plenty of practice writing from having long and regular conversations with close Japanese friends, but I knew from my July results that my biggest weak point was reading. It wasn’t grammar that I was hung up on—there was simply way too much vocabulary I didn’t know. Of course, I couldn’t improve my reading without increasing my vocabulary first, so I decided to place my main focus on that.

In my original post, I recommended five books. These are all available via worldwide shipping from OMG Japan (which I highly recommend, especially as they are often cheaper than Amazon):

To save a little cash, you can also purchase them as a full set:

The whole series is brilliant, but this time, instead of trying to juggle all five books at once, I prioritised. Instead of building my own Anki deck using the Vocabulary book which wasted precious time, I simply decided to stick with a pre-made Memrise N3 vocabulary course. (For the record, Memrise are planning to move these community-made courses to a secondary site, so this URL may not work for much longer. I really wish they wouldn’t.) Alongside these daily vocabulary drills, I worked my way through the Grammar book until I felt comfortable with the material. 

Once I got 80% of the way through the book and the vocabulary course, I switched my focus to the remaining three books, Reading Comprehension, Listening, and a little bit of Kanji. 

At this point, I was getting the majority of the Reading Comprehension questions right, which was a huge confidence boost. I’ll admit I didn’t actually spend that much time studying the Kanji book as I tend to pick up new kanji from learning vocabulary in a more natural way. 

Finally, I worked my way through the Listening book, finished on a couple of mock exams, and popped down to London in December for the big day.

Frustratingly, despite my intense study between exams, I found parts of the December test slightly harder than the July exam—particularly the listening section.

A huge warning: the mock N3 exams available online are much easier than the real exam, so even if you can easily pass the mock exam, don’t assume you can pass the real one.

Maybe they’ve been making the real exam harder? Who knows. I was feeling slightly unsure when I left the exam room, but in the end, I passed with a respectable score and completed my goal of passing the exam in 2018.

Pushing forward 

Once again, it’s full steam ahead. I’m going to give the N2 exam a shot in December 2019, which is probably an even loftier goal considering how difficult it is for people who have never lived in Japan to pass that level through self-study alone. Hopefully I’ll write a blog post about how I’m tacking that one soon! 

Do you have any further tips that you use to study? Drop me a message on Twitter or leave a comment! 頑張りましょう!