How I Prepared and Passed JLPT N4

Overwhelmed and underprepared for the JLPT N4 exam? I know I was when I first registered for it in 2018. When I began learning Japanese, the idea of taking, let alone passing any JLPT test seemed like a pipe dream. And while N4 is the second-lowest level in the test, it has only been a few weeks since I memorized the hiragana and katakana characters, so I was overwhelmed and underprepared. In any case, I took it as a challenge and invested my time and energy during those critical five months to pass the test.

Long story short, I passed my N4 exam — and I’m glad I took it. It helped me learn a lot about my learning style and motivated me to study further. From understanding the exam format to studying effectively, I’ll explain in detail how I passed JLPT N4, the resources I used and how I stayed motivated. 

This blog isn’t a definitive guide to passing a JLPT. If you want a more detailed rundown, check out our guide to passing JLPT N4

Why I Took JLPT N4

Unfortunately, JLPT N4 doesn’t have any professional benefits, and its real-life use is pretty much non-existent. JLPT N1 and N2 certifications earn you “points” and preferential treatment in Japanese immigration. Even an N3 certificate looks good on a resume when you are applying for a part-time job. JLPT N4  serves as a great measuring stick for your language competency and determines where you are in learning — but that’s it.  

Still, I saw taking JLPT N4 as an opportunity to gauge my Japanese language skill and solidify my commitment to my studies. I thought I would be able to discover my strengths and weaknesses in the language. Besides that, taking a lower-level JLPT will help me get familiar with the actual test environment. I knew at some point that the experience would help me prepare for the more difficult stuff covered at higher JLPT levels. 

How I Studied for the JLPT N4

Here, I’ll discuss the textbooks I used, what my study routine looked like and what I found worked for me. It’s also worth mentioning that at this time, I was taking beginner-level Japanese classes. In the morning, I would study in class, I would catch up with JLPT N4 study materials by myself. As you can see, this isn’t the most ideal study routine, and I never wanted to cram two different levels at the same time again. Still, I was already committed to it. 

I had dedicated most of my time to studying vocabulary and grammar. I didn’t have a set schedule, but I made sure I dedicated once a week to doing mock tests. 

1. Grammar

For grammar, I used two textbooks: Try! Japanese Language Proficiency Test N4 Grammar and the Minna no Nihongo. Both books have their strengths and weaknesses, but in all honesty, I bought Minna no Nihongo because it’s one of our required textbooks in my classroom. The downside of Minna no Nihongo is that it didn’t have direct English translations, so while it’s good when you’re studying with a Japanese teacher, you would have to make an extra step looking at translations and in-depth explanations. 

Aside from that, I felt like I had more practice with Try! JLPT N4, and it had a better way of explaining each grammar point.

2. Vocabulary and Kanji

For me, I dedicated more time to learning vocabulary than kanji. In fact, I would say I dedicated most of my time to learning vocabulary than other test elements. I had the advantage of learning kanji beforehand,  so I was already familiar with the characters and only needed a bit of review. 

A common slippery slope I tend to see from people is dedicating too much time to kanji — especially for lower JLPT levels. It’s understandable that kanji might be one of the hardest elements in the Japanese language, but surprisingly, there wasn’t a lot of kanji coverage in the test itself. In any case, if you’re studying for JLPT N4 or N5,  I would discourage you from spending all of your time trying to go above and beyond what’s recommended for these levels. 

For vocabulary, I can’t recommend the N4 Tango 1500 (1500 Essential Vocabulary for the JLPT N4)  enough. It’s a small book, but it’s packed with all the vocabulary you will need for the test — not just the vocabulary test section, but everything in general. There are several reasons why I love this book.

  • Vocabulary words are categorized based on themes and functions (i.e. family, nature, household, emotions) which not only makes memorizing vocabulary easier, but your study plans more organized too.
  • It comes with a special red sheet! The book is set out like a table layout, with the Japanese kanji and hiragana colored in red, and the English translation in black. When you put the red sheet over the page, the Japanese character blends together, which reinforces you to memorize the words during the review process. 
  • Multi-lingual translations. Depending on the version you bought, you can get English, Vietnamese, Chinese or Korean translations, 
  • It’s travel-sized. Most Japanese N4 textbooks aren’t travel-friendly. They’re heavy and gigantic, and they don’t really pack the essential materials. My N4 Tango 1500 fits in my purse, and because it contains vocabulary (and nothing else), I can easily whip it out during my train commute to the city. 

3. Reading and Listening

You really can’t learn the reading and listening section of the JLPT. I view these two sections as an accumulation of everything you’ve learned in the other section: grammar, vocabulary and kanji. With that said, there are some textbooks with an attached CD for their listening section and books dedicated to JLPT reading problems. However, 

Although there is no speaking component to the JLPT exams at any level, it’s an essential part of learning practical Japanese and it will help you build your listening skill at the same time.

I find using free mock tests on the internet the best way to practice the JLPT reading and listening section. For example, I tune into Japanichiwa’s JLPT N4 listening videos. For the reading section, I go through all the exercises I could find on the internet, like this one. Just a simple Google search of “JLPT N4 reading sample” should do the trick.

I also recommend regularly tuning in to NHK News Easy or other Yasashii Nihongo news sites, which provide simpler Japanese versions of daily news stories. 

how i passed jlpt n4

Other Resources I Use to Study for JLPT N4

Besides a Japanese dictionary app and Google Translate, I actually didn’t download any Japanese learning apps — for a simple reason, too. I’m the kind of person who retains more information by writing out what I’ve learned. My Tango 1500, Minna no Nihongo and Try! JLPT N4 is full of scribbles. With that said, I assumed I was a visual learner, but regardless if apps are more effective or not, I find traditional note-taking more enjoyable. 

For vocabulary and kanji, in particular, I would use flashcards. I would write words and characters that I have trouble with on basic flashcards I bought from the 100-yen store. If you’re a big fan of using flashcards and want more control of the content, I recommend trying out Anki. It’s a spaced-repetition flashcard app that’s probably the most customizable out of all Japanese learning apps, so you can tailor them (adding audio, pictures, removing cards you don’t want, etc.) according to your preference. 

How I Did During the Exam Day

JLPT N5 and N4 have three sections: vocabulary (which includes kanji), grammar and reading, and listening comprehension. Each section is timed differently. The vocabulary test lasts for 25 minutes, grammar and reading for 55 minutes, and listening for 35 minutes. 

For me, I passed through the vocabulary test section relatively fast. Most JLPT questions (at least in the vocabulary and kanji) section are fairly straightforward, so it’s less an analytical skill than it is a recollection of the words and kanji you memorized. 

One of the topics of debate is what is the correct sequence once you reach the next section: grammar and reading. Some people suggested going through the reading section first and using the time left to finish the grammar section, which would take less time to answer.  

My advice is to go through the easier section first: the grammar section. Answers many questions as possible and use whatever time you have left for the Reading section. Unless you are an advanced student, you will not have enough time to analyze every aspect of the story. The time crunch forces you to skim the passages. It’s also a waste of time, too: the story takes up an entire page, only for you to get rewarded with two questions  

The reading section is basically a skimming test. I would recommend skimming through the questions first. This way, you know what kind of information you need to get from the story, and you have less risk of running out of time and scrambling through the passages in sheer panic. 

The listening section, or choukai, was less frantic, but it was still a very tricky part of the JLPT. The proctors were very strict about any noise from my classmates, and they made sure the volume of the recording was loud. One very important thing to know is that the audio will be played only once. In certain sections, the question will be played before and after the conversation. Because of this, the listening section was the part where I paid attention the most. 

Thankfully, because it was still JLPT N4, it was a slow-spoken conversation about daily life situations. I ended up writing notes on the question paper (there might be illustrations in the question paper) to help me summarize the key points of the conversation. I would also advise writing the spoken question from the start. This way, you know which information matters the most. 

My JLPT N4 Results

You can check the results of your JLPT a few months after the test. To pass the test, you need to earn 38 points in the Language Knowledge section and 19 points in the listening section. However, the overall pass mark is 90 points.

The JLPT works off a weighted score system, and no one really knows how it’s calculated in full detail. We do know that some questions are valued higher than others. This makes it really hard to accurately guess your test score until you actually receive it.

how i passed jlpt n4

My listening score came out lower than my language knowledge section, which made sense because I was rushing through the recordings. However, in all sections, I scored an A in the reference information section. This reference information section helps you get an idea of what percentage of questions you got right (since the point section is based on their own calculation).

  • A: The number of correct responses is 67% or higher.
  • B: The number of correct responses is between 34% and 66%.
  • C: The number of correct responses is less than 34%.

Advice I Would Give to Myself (And Everyone) to Pass the JLPT N4

One of the most important parts of the JLPT, or any standardized test, is being familiar with the test format. Here are some of the things I regret I did (or didn’t do). 

  • Do: Take more mock exams with an actual pencil and paper. The JLPT uses a multiple-choice computer-scored answer sheet, and you will have to shade the correct letter. You’re not going to experience this when taking mock exams and sample questions on the internet. Shading your answer actually takes a bit of time, and if you’re not used to this method, it might draw out more unnecessary time.
  • Do: Time your mock exams. There’s less urgency when you know you are doing a sample test — you tend to take more time analyzing the question and answering them. Because of this, you lost a sense of the “real” test. I recommend recording your score and time for each section of the test. Try to finish the test even if you go over the allotted time. The goal here is to get you used to rush through the tests — especially the reading test.
  • Don’t: Cram your studies the night before. Out of sheer panic, I managed to convince myself I needed to study even more vocabulary and kanji the night before the big test day. I stayed up until 3 am, woke up in the morning (the test site is around one and a half hours away from my house) and felt miserable. What’s worse was that all the things I tried memorizing were gone. Study doesn’t have to be traditional, but you need to continue using the information you’ve learned to retain it in your mind. Consistency is more important than doing an overnight sprint. 

More Practical Tips When Preparing and Taking the JLPT N4

For a more detailed list, check out our list of 10 JLPT tips for the actual test day.

1. Do a lot of mock tests.

This goes without saying, but mock tests help you evaluate your skill and re-identify your point of weakness. JLPT has its “Official JLPT Question Booklets” (日本語能力試験 公式問題集), which you can buy or try for free. 

2. Don’t ignore adverbs and onomatopoeias.

The vocabulary section often includes katakana and onomatopoeia, which a lot of people tend to not review.

3. Use question papers for note-taking

I mentioned this before, but JLPT listening audios are only played once, so if you missed anything, you would have to make do with what you have. Information and questions are laid in less than a minute before you’re left to answer them. Try to scribble down the keywords as the recording goes on so you can have a better point of reference. Side note: you can write notes on all of the question papers, which might also be helpful in the reading section.

4. Use any learning tools and books as long as they suites your style of learning.

Great resources will go as far as how you effectively use them. For me, I don’t like to use apps, but some of you might prefer to have a digital tool. Some people might want to incorporate podcasts or more textbooks. However, avoid thinking just because someone passes the JLPT N4 with that book, it’ll automatically guarantee a pass. 

5. The best way to improve your listening is to go to Japan, live in Japan, or be in Japan and have Japanese go into your ears.

If you have the time and resources, I recommend joining JLPT prep courses or a general Japanese class like Coto Academy. It’s always nice to have a teacher give you direct feedback and get the right lesson plan that supports your goal. Besides that, Japanese teachers are experienced in helping people who want to take the JLPT, so they can probably design a better lesson plan.

Conclusion

 JLPT N4 can be a challenge, but it’s important to note that at the end of the day, it is just a test and will not provide any benefits for doing business in Japan or challenge those who already have basic knowledge of the language. Remember that your speaking ability — something that’s not gauged in the test — might be valued more by employers. Some people may retake N1 and N2 to improve their scores and increase their chances for immigration, but N4 is simply a stepping stone to a higher level.

In any case, I hope this has been an insightful guide. Two big takeaways I learned are to know the test’s format (and adapt yourself to it) and practice consistency. The best part of passing the JLPT is that you no longer have to worry about passing the JLPT as the certificate has no expiry date. Even if you do not pass the test, use it as a learning tool to evaluate where you need to improve. Good luck to anyone taking the test!

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