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The Structure of the Japanese Proficiency Exam, the Main Hurdle to Passing

August 20, 2009

The Japanese Proficiency Exam, like any other exam, tests your ability to take the test. Of course people that are fluent in Japanese also can take the exam and pass without prior knowledge of how it works, but for the rest of us who are non-native speakers learning the structure of the Japanese Proficiency Exam is key to passing. Learning the structure and taking practice tests beforehand also calms the nerves, so on test day you will be much less intimidated while undergoing your 5 hour exam.

The best way to pass the Japanese Proficiency Exam is first learning which section is the easiest to pass. The good news is on the Japanese Proficiency Exam, the easiest and lowest counting sections come first. It starts with vocabulary, and although some students might state the second section, listening, is the easiest, I would argue vocabulary is. The listening sections, especially on the higher levels such as 2-kyu and 1-kyu, really demand the listeners to take notes, and focus. You also get one chance to hear the question, if you miss it, you’ll fail the question, unless you can meander up a guess. The third and most difficult section (and consequently the highest counting) is the reading and grammar section.

So wait, let’s clearly write out the point count and explain how much each question is worth per section. The Japanese Proficiency Exam, in order, is:

1 – Vocabulary – 45 minutes, worth 100 points

2 – Listening – 45 minutes, worth 100 points

3 – Reading and Grammar – 90 minutes, worth 200 points

Looking at this, it seems as if the vocab and listening sections are worth just as much as the reading section? So at first glance on the structure of the Japanese Proficiency Exam, all sections are equal, and therefore students should focus equally on all sections? Wrong. There are less problems in reading, in fact 20, in a section that’s worth twice as much. Each problem in reading is worth 5 points, compared to the listening and vocab sections, which at most are worth 3 (most of the time 2). So not only is the reading section worth more (you use a fraction to multiple by 2 because it’s a 200 point section) but also point count wise, each reading question is worth 5 points.

Let’s put it in simpler terms, not to get pessimistic but let’s talk about which sections you can fail and still pass the Japanese Proficiency Exam. “Failing” means getting below 60% of the questions wrong on the exam, FYI the Japanese Proficiency Exam is not an SAT. You do not get penalized for guessing, a wrong answer hurts you as much as a blank one. Even if you fail the listening section and the vocab section, if you do really well on the reading section you’ll pass the exam, guaranteed. Usually students can get a 40 or 50 on the Japanese Proficiency Exam sections, so that equals out to about 90 to 100 points for the first section. The second section, reading and grammar, if you were to pass with flying colors and get 200 points that would make the total score 300 points out of 400, or a 75%. Since a 60% is needed to pass (all levels except 1-kyu needs a 70%), you’ve already done really well, with 15% of the questions you can still get wrong.

One more point about the Japanese Proficiency Exam, and that is time. Your day will be structured like this: the first 45 minute vocab section will be your first section, at about 10am. It’s quite nerve racking, test takers get to the exam on time only to find they have to wait almost an hour at their desk for the exam to start. The 45 minute section takes you to 1045, when you have around a 10 minute break. Then the listening section commences, which brings students to 1145. Then students get an hour lunch break, where they can roam free outside and discuss with friends how “easy” the first two sections were. Then the final section (reading and grammar) begins at 1pm and goes till 230pm. Believe me, you’ll need the time on the last section.

Now that you’ve learned the structure of the Japanese Proficiency Exam hopefully you’ll feel more confident about passing. Please feel free to comment or ask questions, and don’t forget to study!

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